Celebrating 30 Years, Summit Has Changed St. Paul Beer.

For 30 years, Summit Brewing has measured success by the pint.
Mark Stutrud, founder of Saint Paul’s now iconic Summit Brewing, recalls that the beer landscape of 30 years ago was “pretty homogeneous, with domestic light beers.” In 1986, “even the imported beers were primarily Canadian brands that were close to U.S. styles,” he says. When Stutrud decided to launch a microbrewery—a term since replaced by “craft brewery”—the concept was foreign. The reception area of the lobby notably features a 1983 framed letter from William O’Shea, executive secretary of the Brewers Association of America, advising not to open. Extra pale ale (EPA), the brewery’s introductory beer, has since won awards and become a Minnesota top seller, but in 1986, most beer drinkers didn’t know what EPA stood for.

In 2015, Summit ranked as the 36th largest brewery in the United States. More than 80 percent of its sales are in Minnesota, concentrated in the metro area, says Stutrud. The scale of operations is nothing he could have imagined as he drew the original five-year plan, presented his idea to investors, and introduced himself to O’Shea.

“The first five or six years, there were just ten of us making beer, packaging it and selling it. Then I would go home and try to do accounting at night,” Stutrud says. Today he has 100 employees and he’s the company planner and spokesman. “A main part of my job description is to find good people to do the work and then getting the hell out of their way,” he says of his changed role over three decades.

“I’ve always had the philosophy that if we can’t make it [a success] at home, we should do something else for a living,” Stutrud says bluntly. Others preach the same message, but Summit is unique in just how much business happens in the local market. “New Glarus, where 100 percent of their beer is sold in Wisconsin,” says Stutrud, “is the only other brewery in the country that would exceed the concentration we have locally. That’s been by design.” EPA is in nearly 50 percent of local bars. Its presence tells visitors they’re in Saint Paul and it reminds locals of home.

Summit isn’t just a key U.S. craft brewery but an inspiration to the new wave of breweries opening across the country today. Summit was the city’s first craft brewery and, after a brief sparkle and fade of startups in the 1990s, Summit was the only Saint Paul brewery left in 2002. By the end of 2016, there may be more than 40 in the city. Each of those developed their thirst over many Summit beers.

“Every brewer that I know of will consistently say, ‘EPA was my introduction to craft beer,’ ” Stutrud says about his conversations with the next generation of brewers. Even if referenced in contrast to his company, he says, laughing, “I’m still an influence. If I wasn’t the point of reference, they would have nothing to talk about.”

But EPA hasn’t just conquered the lexicon. It has won awards at the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival, and the Cascade hops that give the now-familiar bitter citrus finish are common industry-wide. “We’ve become such a strong point of reference that when somebody is trying to sell their beer, it’s hard not to have Summit Brewing Co. pop up in the conversation,” Stutrud says matter-of-factly. “It sounds self-serving, but it’s the truth.”

Deb Loch is a former intern at Summit, and now co-owner and head brewer at Urban Growler Brewing Co. in St. Anthony Park. “I met with Mark Stutrud and I told him I wanted to be a professional brewer, sometime in the mid-2000s,” she says. He advised her to go to brewing school and gain professional experience, and she later ended up as a brewing intern, doing quality testing and brewing in the lab at Summit.

“Summit brews more traditional beers,” she says, compared to her own philosophy of “If it tastes good and is fermentable, then it can go in a beer.” “At the time you probably wouldn’t have seen an imperial candy corn cream ale (made by Urban Growler). Mark would probably have a heart attack,” she jokes. Nonetheless, Summit’s influence on process and daily operations is paramount within Urban Growler. “Everything is the same, it’s just on a smaller scale here,” she says, mentioning quality and consistency time and again. “I don’t think I would have gotten the right start without him. Mark directed me towards schooling and experience.”

Bang Brewing is next door to Urban Growler, a microbrewery operated by the husband-and-wife team of Jay and Sandy Boss Febbo. “The most direct influence is the fact that Stutrud did what he did,” Sandy says. “His risk was far greater than what any of us in recent years are facing.” Summit showed the Boss Febbos that beer can be both flavorful and local. Bang’s goal is to forge a connection with its immediate community, a micro-replication of how Summit has embraced Saint Paul. “They’re not a quiet regional brewery tucked in our backyard, they’re completely involved,” Sandy explains. “There’s no question that they’re Saint Paul through and through. How much they participate and contribute and how they open their beer hall to the community is genuine.”

Like Urban Growler, Bang has found Stutrud and Summit completely approachable, both personally and professionally. In 2014 and again this year, Bang collaborated with Summit on a special beer for the Red Stag “In Cahoots” block party. In 2014, a newly opened Bang asked Summit to team up. “They said yes, which was mind-blowing, and it felt like a gentle endorsement that meant the world. It’s like having your parent [say], ‘Good job,’ ” Sandy recalls. This year, Summit came to Bang to return the favor. “Are you kidding? We’re not going to say no to that,” she says.

With so many new breweries, Stutrud isn’t afraid of a talent drain or copycat beers. “If somebody were to leave here and start a new brewery in the Twin Cities, the last thing they want to make is Summit extra pale ale,” he says. New breweries generally seek new concepts, and he’s happy to share his experience on how a successful brewery operates. There’s no concern that an employee will leak proprietary secrets, but he does want Summit’s rigorous attention to quality to influence the larger Minnesota brew scene.

“It’s not appropriate for your customer to pay for your learning curve,” he says, referencing the tendency for cash-strapped start-ups to sell an imperfect beer instead of absorbing the loss. “When it comes down to it, there’s nothing worse than bad competition. Competition is very healthy. It’s even healthier when you’ve got good competition that you’re faced with.”

Summit started as a boutique brewery amid national household names such as Miller and Budweiser. When regional breweries closed in the late 1990s, Summit was temporarily alone in the market, before the industry changed again in conjunction with the taproom bill. Stutrud has witnessed consolidation, closings and economic downturns. “Being around for 30 years incorporates a level of humility,” he reflects. While in the early days he did everything associated with the brand, Stutrud’s role today is to nurture the company and ensure stability.

From EPA’s place as a ubiquitous Saint Paul beer to the quickly rising Sága IPA or variety of the Unchained series, over 30 years, Summit hasn’t just poured pints for Saint Paulites, they’ve affected the entire Minnesota beer industry.