On Sept. 24, 1986, Summit Brewing Co. rolled out its first kegs of Extra Pale Ale to Johnny's Bar, which was just across the street from its brewery on St. Paul's University Avenue. Now, 35 years later, Johnny's is gone, and the brewery has moved. But Summit is still making Extra Pale Ale, selling it — and several other beers — to bars and retailers across five states.
"I've been joking with people lately that my dad never thought I would have a job this long," said founder and president Mark Stutrud. "It wasn't a joke. In the mid-'80s, when I told him I was thinking about starting a brewery, he just shook his head. The last thing he said to me before I left the room was, 'Don't ask me for any money.' "
The numbers weren't in his favor. According to the Small Business Administration, about a third of new businesses with employees fail in the first two years; only half make it past five. Toss in the uncertainties of starting a small craft brewery in the 1980s — when most Americans knew nothing of full-flavored beer and few retailers would sell it — it's a major accomplishment for Summit to have reached this milestone.
The difficulty of starting a brewery at the time was summed up in a letter Stutrud received from the Brewers Association of America in response to his request for membership. "I note that you are working on a feasibility study on establishing a microbrewery in the Twin Cities area," it read. "Please know that I am not encouraging you to do so, because it is a long and hard road that you are planning to go down."
Though ubiquitous now, Extra Pale Ale wasn't an easy sell at first. It was aggressively bitter for the time, testing consumer palates. And small brewers were up against the million-dollar marketing machines of the big brewers. "Back in the day, we were competing head-on with all of the basic, national domestic lager producers and strong importers," Stutrud said. "During the first year, there wasn't a distributor that would touch us with a 10-foot pole."
Stutrud appealed directly to independent restaurateurs and liquor store owners, and his persistence paid off. "When we acquired a Miller [tap] line at Leaning Tower of Pizza in Minneapolis, I thought we might make it," he said.
A lot has changed in the beer market since then. By the early 1980s, the industry had consolidated to a small number of large corporations. In 1983, 44 brewing concerns were operating a total of 83 breweries in the entire United States. Today there are roughly 180 breweries in Minnesota alone, and nearly 9,000 across the country.
There is energy and excitement behind craft beer that wasn't there when Summit began brewing. Consumers are seeking out fuller flavor and looking to have their palates pushed. Bitter, sour, exotic hops and nontraditional ingredients are no longer shocking.
But Stutrud sees tastes beginning to moderate. He's noticed some consumer fatigue on alcohol levels and highly hopped beers, which has led to a rediscovery of Extra Pale Ale. "Maybe a generation skipped us," he said. "And now they're finding out that here's a beautifully balanced beer that's got some complexity on its own, and yet it's quite moderate in alcohol so they can have more than a couple."
There have been many changes at the brewery over the years, too. It's grown from an annual production of 5,000 barrels in the 1980s to well over 100,000 barrels, making it the state's largest brewery. Summit's brewing facility, which they've had since 1998, has seen multiple expansions. And another $4.6 million project is currently in the works to facilitate new product development. Stutrud is tight-lipped about those plans, only divulging that they include a new summer ale, which he characterized as "refreshing and tart." This would join a lineup of beers that has expanded from the original EPA and Great Northern Porter to include more than 20 year-round and seasonal beers, ranging from Oatmeal Stout to Hazy IPA.
An on-site beer hall opened in 2015, a move Summit resisted for years out of deference to its many loyal retail clients. A 2017 renovation created a more welcoming space for guests.
But 2017 also saw a downsizing at the company, which included layoffs and a contraction of distribution from 15 states to just five. That led to speculation that Summit was facing financial distress in dealing with dramatically increased competition in the beer industry.
The point of downsizing though, Stutrud said, was to streamline operations and concentrate on its home market. With the smaller distribution footprint, Minnesota accounts for 93% of Summit's sales, 87% of that in the Twin Cities metro. "We sell beer in Wisconsin just to tease them," Stutrud quipped.
The streamlining of management put Summit in a good position to weather the loss of sales due to the pandemic. The brewery made it through the mandated shutdowns without laying off any full-time employees.
Leadership changes have also allowed Stutrud's role at the brewery to evolve. "I've gotten to a point where I don't need to be here on a day-to-day basis anymore," he said. "I've got a great crew that runs this place. To be perfectly honest, it's this leadership team that is the future of this company."
Not that Stutrud is leaving anytime soon. "I'm going to be around for quite a few years into the future. I don't have a retirement date picked or anything like that," he said. "I love this work. I love the people. I'm really blessed with everyone that's in this organization. It's a pretty cool situation to be a boss here."
Stutrud now spends most of his time with the sales team visiting accounts. "I'm a talking head. The face of the brewery. It's like, 'Oh, here's Mr. Summit.' It's almost as if I don't have a last name anymore."
And he remains reflective about the brewery's 35th anniversary. "It's gone by a lot quicker than I imagined. There were times of white-knuckle survival. I've gone through some pretty dark times of betrayal and other things and just the challenges of this industry. It truly is amazing we survived our first six months," he said. "But at the same time there's been a lot of work, a lot of changes, a lot of focus on making solid, consistent, high-quality beer and putting together the best team ever. People congratulate me on this accomplishment, and I think, well, I've gotten most of the things done that I wanted, but certainly not all of them."
Here's to 35 more.
Summit Brewing Co.
Location: 910 Montreal Circle, St. Paul, 651-265-7800, summitbrewing.com.
Hours: 3 to 8 p.m., Thu.-Sat.
What you'll find: The beer hall features more than 20 brews, and there's also a pet-friendly patio. Summit is also a surcharge- and tip-free establishment. There's no kitchen, but food trucks are frequent, and delivery and takeout are encouraged.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.