Summit at 26 years: 'We're very true to ourselves'
Founder Mark Stutrud talks about Summit's beermaking philosophy as he prepares for its anniversary bash tomorrow
See also: Summit Backyard Bash is Saturday
Minnesota has seen a recent boom in local brewers, with startups ranging from Fulton to Harriet to the upcoming openings of Pour Decisions and HammerHeart Brewery. As the local scene gets ever more crowded, City Pages is taking the time to hear what local brewers think about the current state of the industry. As the Land of 10,000 Beers exhibit at the State Fair just showed, a number of tasty, varied products are hitting local taps and liquor store shelves, and we wanted to hear the brewers themselves speak about their craft.
Starting off the series is Summit founder Mark Stutrud. Summit will be celebrating 26 years on the scene this Saturday with an eclectic backyard concert. Musicians such as Doomtree, Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps, and Halloween, Alaska will perform, and cask beers will be unveiled hourly for what started as a little University Avenue brewery in 1986 and has persevered to become one of the top 30 brewers in the country.
The past 26 years have seen a multitude of industry changes, but in that time Stutrud has maintained one primary goal: producing a consistent, quality product with a local focus. Though Summit has technically outgrown the microbrewery label, the company still sees nearly 90 percent of its total sales in Minnesota. Following the passage of the Taproom Bill (better known as the "Surly Bill"), which Stutrud and Schells' president Ted Marti had a hand in developing, Summit is preparing to open its own taproom to consumers, setting a tentative start date of September 21. Stutrud discussed his experiences over a pilsener, including the misperception that, as veterans of the local craft beer scene, the company is "a bunch of old farts." "People act as if we've been around 100 years," he laughs. "We're still very new, and we continue to innovate, and we were pretty responsible for setting some high standards locally."
In the past year, the brewery has introduced Unchained 10: Belgian Style Abbey Ale, Sága India Pale Ale, and a new Summer Ale.
Hot Dish: New start-ups face a lot of legal issues. What are some of the items Summit faced when getting going?
Mark Stutrud: Back in 1987 brewpubs were not even legal. In 1987 we had a couple of legislators that authored a bill to allow brewers to have a retail operation ... just to be able to sell our beer. At that time we probably had 65 customers that were draft beer accounts and, before that bill even went to committee, about 30 percent of our customers called us up and said, "If you open a brewpub on your premise you can come and take all your kegs and tap handles back." So there was a strong reaction. There's less of a reaction today, obviously. The reaction was so strong that we decided to make a living out of selling direct to retailers and distributors.
Lately I'm more concerned about taxes. Six to seven percent of our cost is tax. That's a significant amount. Labor for us is 9 percent, and when excise tax is almost the same as labor expense that's a pretty wacky system. We're contributing some serious money to the state and federal treasury.
HD: You just wrapped up the State Fair Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild exhibit. If somebody had suggested such a thing in 1986, or even a dozen years ago, would you have believed it?
Stutrud: It's all about progress. I think it's just really cool that beer is elevated to the point where people are really seeking it out. More and more people are out there looking for flavors in beer.
The positive thing about competition, if you've got a group of good brewers who are really serious about what they're doing, is that it really elevates overall awareness and it elevates the whole experience for the beer drinker. What's going on today and how things have unfolded, finally, in this area, it's something that I imagined, but my timetable is different. Years back I was hoping it was going to happen sooner, but I'm not in control of that. We're just in control of our own business. That's the evolution in this area. We've been a little bit behind the curve. I think a part of it has to do with we're in a pretty sparsely populated area.
HD: Has the increased competition affected your approach or identity?
Stutrud: We're very true to ourselves. We've got a pretty good presence in the metro area. We've been here 26 years; if we only had 100 accounts in town, that would be a problem.
We know that for some of these guys part of their business plan is to maybe take business away from us. The piece that these people are missing however is that, if this segment is going to grow, it doesn't come about over fighting over 5 to 6 percent of the market share. Our growth is really dependent on earning business away from the big boys.
Still, almost eight out of 10 people are drinking light, domestic beer.
When we started there were no other micros around. There were some imported brands, but when we started we were competing head-to-head with the big boys from day one, and here we are, after 26 years, and we still have the same game plan where we have to capture some of these other beer drinkers. I guess maybe that's a bit harder to do than going after another craft brand. When Samuel Adams came to town, all of our draft lines were targeted, and there was a time where Samuel Adams outsold Summit two to one. We'd been chugging along trying to carve a business for about four years, and they came in and basically tried to take us out, and we were determined that wouldn't happen. Now our sales are about two-and-a-half times better in the state. It's like sticking to your knitting. You pay attention to what you need to do, and you're not looking in the rearview mirror to see who might be taking shots at you. I do get pretty pissed off, and, frankly, I get pretty tired of people taking potshots and saying, "They just make crap." That's not even honest.
Summit's brewing kettles
HD: Do you think it's possible to convert beer drinkers from the big boys?
Stutrud: Bit by bit. I'm a firm believer in the return to regionalism. More and more people, if they're into food--making sausage, cooking--people are really interested in knowing where things come from. It's getting more specific, and that gives us a distinct advantage. If someone is really interested in the local food and beverage movement, there's a perfect ally, so to speak. One advantage, for example, that we have over Annheuser-Busch and Miller-Coors is that they're so global that they also seem pretty distant. We still have this opportunity to make the direct connection with the beer drinker. We're bricks and mortar. We're right here and not like a phantom brewery. That makes a huge difference. You think of business cycles and everything. There was a time that these out-of-state breweries, namely Miller and Budweiser, they didn't have the market share in this state. The market share was really commanded by local and regional brewers for several decades.
I'm a firm believer in a return to regionalism when it comes to a preference for food and beverages. That's what Lenny Russo's whole deal is at Heartland Restaurant, and there are a lot of other chefs that follow this whole plan. I think it's really gutsy and also really marvelous.
HD: Sága is one of your newest beers. How did that come about?
Stutrud: Sága is the newest year round. Sága we were working on for well over six months before it released. It has a respectable hop load, but it's also very drinkable. One of the selfish philosophies that we have in practice is we really love to create beers that project a degree of balance. I love hops as much as the next guy, but I also like to remind these West Coast brewers that are a little hop crazy that we're from grain country, and if we don't have a certain level of balance or a background of malt in the flavor profile of our beer, I feel like we forsake our soul. Sága has a nice luscious, fruity aroma to it, but still in the background you've got some malt going on. Some beers can be unidimensional, and that's what a lot of people criticize Miller High Life and Bud about is that it's too unidimensional. I think it kind of goes two ways.
HD: Let's talk about the event this weekend. You celebrated 25 last year, and now you're throwing another party. Is this going to be an annual thing?
Stutrud: We did the Big Brew on Harriet Island [in 2006], and that party really cost us. We decided that we're probably better at making beer than we are at coordinating music festivals. Although people wanted us to do that every year on Harriet Island, we just didn't have the resources. We saved up for the 25th. The Minnesota Music Coalition is a new organization that needs some solid support, so we teamed up with them. Fifty percent of the ticket sales are dedicated to the Minnesota Music Coalition. There's a direct tie-in to Minnesota indie groups and the coalition.
HD: Which continues the local theme.
Stutrud: It's all about exploring and projecting the quality of life that we have. It's not only celebrating the fact that we've been in business for 26 years. It's a direct tie-in to celebrate the music community that we have. It's pretty damn vibrant. When you think about the parallels between beer and music it's huge. So we're celebrating in more than one way. It's not just a birthday party for us it's celebrating the success of Minnesota musicians.
Summit Backyard Bash: 26th Anniversary Celebration When: Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Where: Summit Brewery, 910 Montreal Circle, St. Paul Admission: $14 in advance, $20 day-of, 21+ Entertainment: Live music from Doomtree; Now Now; Halloween, Alaska; Heartbeats; Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps
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