Summit reaches top of the brewing heap

Mark and pot.
In some respects, Mark Stutrud is an unlikely person to own a brewery. He was a substance abuse counselor when he moved to St. Paul from North Dakota in 1981.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Summit brewing's warehouse on the Mississippi River banks holds a bottling line, fermentation room, and a brew house; that's the "kitchen" where hops, grain and water start off as a soupy broth. "After the boil, the cooking is done, so to speak. And then we run this hot wort through a heat exchanger as we transfer it to a fermentation tank where the yeast is added. And then of course, that's when this wort becomes beer over several days," says president and founder Mark Stutrud, who stands in the brew house at the mouth of one of four huge copper kettles with steam stacks reaching to the roof.

In some respects, he's an unlikely person to own a brewery. He was a substance abuse counselor when he moved to St. Paul from North Dakota in 1981.

Fill line.
Summit has just installed a newer, bigger "fill line" at the brewery.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

"It's funny. It's ironic. It's paradoxical. It's a number of things," he acknowledges. "Every time I bring it up, someone kind of gets a smirk on their face. But believe me, when I was looking for investors in 1984 and 1985 to start a brewery, and with my particular background, and even the fact I didn't grow up in St. Paul, I definitely had what you would describe as a credibility gap."

When Summit's first brew--Extra Pale Ale--rolled off the bottling line in 1986, Stutrud remembers one food writer calling the company "esoteric."

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"It was complimentary. But it also put us in that area of being 'deviant,'" he says.

In 1986, Summit brewed 1,500 barrels. This year, it will produce 75,000. Over the past two decades, the company has brewed some unusual flavors. It produces 10 different beers, including porter and oatmeal stout, which are both roasted-malt brews with coffee and dark chocolate flavors. Other beers can have a bitterness or flowery character. Summit's Hefeweizen has a spicey, clovey and banana taste. In other words, it's not Budweiser.

The beer is fermented in these huge stainless steel tanks.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Stutrud and others say the early mixed reaction to his products 20 years ago was probably due to American taste buds flattening after decades of drinking mass-produced beer.

"A lot of people in the business call those kind of light beers 'lawnmower beers.' And there's a place for them; you're out with your lawnmower in the hot sun, and you come inside and you just want to have a cold beer. That's a lawnmower beer," he says.

Local food writer Dara Moskowitz says Summit's success has been part of a cultural shift and opening to what beer can taste like.

"One thing that some chefs have done in town is do Summit dinners, where they pair various courses, everything from smoked foods, to chocolate, to just anything you can think of... salads... with various types of Summit beer," according to Moskowitz.

The more adventurous consumer has pushed Summit to the top of the craft brew niche. For every 100 glasses of beer sold in Minnesota, two of them are filled with Summit. It might not sound like much, but last year's revenue reached $13 million. And after yearly increases close to double digits, the company expects to see 14.5 percent growth this year.

Employees can sample product in the brewery's Ratskeller, which is a huge drinking room with dozens of picnic tables.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Though craft breweries make up only a tiny fraction of the market, the craft brewing industry overall is seeing 11-percent revenue increases for the first half of this year. By contrast, beer behemoths like Anheuser Busch, Miller and Coors are seeing a maximum of about two-percent growth.

National Beer Institute President Jeff Becker says the top beer companies are paying attention.

"You're seeing some of the larger brewers who've gotten into some of the different types of porters, or stouts or ales or things like that. So I think the craft brewers are having some impact with the larger brewers," Becker says.

Despite its success, Summit has not set its sights too far beyond Minnesota and the Midwest. But Stutrud says customer interest is fueling a move to sell Summit beer in Montana and Colorado. Stutrud says attracting new customers hinges on adventure and flavor.

Bottle line.
Bottle line.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

"We have an attitude here, where, to be perfectly honest, if we don't offend someone from time to time with our flavors, we don't feel like we're doing our job. Because we expect to offend almost as many people as we attract with the intensity of beer flavor,".

Perhaps because of this attitude, industry watchers call Summit a pioneer in American craft brewing. The people attending the 20th anniversary party on Harriet Island may not know or care about that. Maybe they're just looking for a decent glass of beer.