Not surprisingly, the popular Irish pub up the street from the brewery Damian McConn helms is a place where everybody knows his name. They also know how proud he is of his work. When the manager at the Liffey learned that McConn was on his way in for lunch, he quickly changed the coasters under our pints of Saga IPA from another beermaker’s logo to Summit’s. “Or I’d never hear the end of it,” he groaned.
Arriving with a smile as broad as the Liffey’s wraparound bar, McConn let out an uproarious laugh when the staff told him why the pub was so packed that day: The lunch crowd came from a dental convention at the nearby St. Paul RiverCentre. “That’s pretty ironic business for an Irish pub,” cracked Summit’s longtime head brewer, a native of Ireland with his own playfully imperfect teeth.
McConn, 39, was on the Guinness Brewery’s employee dental plan before he “lost all sense of reason” and moved to Minnesota in January 1999, back when beer not made by Budweiser, Miller or Coors was still scarce in the United States. He came to work at a too-ahead-of-its-time brewpub in Minnetonka called Sherlock’s Home, and in 2003 he wound up at the brewery that had been fighting the good-beer fight for Twin Citians since 1983. While he didn’t necessarily fall in love with Minnesota, McConn did become enamored of a Minnesotan named Jennifer, with whom he settled in Roseville to raise three kids.
“I’m sure as hell glad he married a Yankee so I don’t have to pay an immigration attorney to keep him here now,” joked Summit Brewing president and founder Mark Stutrud, who quickly realized how “extremely capable and knowledgeable” McConn was. That know-how has been quite an asset in recent years, as new breweries or taprooms seem to pop up in every corner of the Twin Cities — especially since Summit helped chief rival Surly push through legislation in 2011 allowing breweries to serve their beer on-site.
McConn has a four-year degree in brewing from the Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, a program steeped in microbiology and biochemical classes. To this day, Summit’s master brewer gets downright nerdy talking about beer. Where many brewers in the Twin Cities came to the craft as a free-spirited creative pursuit that allowed them to quit their day jobs, McConn sees it as more of an exact science that needs to be strictly managed. Not that he has any hesitations about enjoying the fruits of his labor.
“Put a pint and a tape recorder in front of an Irishman, and you’re really asking for it,” he warned, as he tilted back his first of three pints during a two-hour conversation.
You have a lot of people’s dream job, but surely there must be nightmarish days once in a while. What’s a particularly bad day for you?
The worst day in the brewing industry is better than most people’s best day at work, I will admit that. A nightmarish day for anyone in brewing is somebody getting hurt. We work with some pretty high-tech equipment — people driving forklifts, high-speed packaging equipment, people hauling heavy bags of grain.
Beyond that, a bad day is usually process-related. I can think of one instance about six or seven years ago when I was the morning brewer, so I’m in there mashing at 2 a.m. by myself. That’s not a very glamorous job! A huge thunderstorm came in, and the power went out across the brewery while I was running three separate brews. I went around trying to de-energize everything, then 10 minutes later the power comes back on, so I start everything back up. Then 15 minutes later the power went out again. We lost power five times in an hour and a half.
We’ve had a lot of other crazy, random things happen, too. We’ve had people wander down to the brewery from West 7th Street on St. Patty’s Day at 2 or 3 in the morning banging on the door hoping to get a beer — wonderful people, but sorry, we can’t help you.
How much beer do you drink on a typical day?
My physician would say far too much, but my old mentor at Guinness would say far too little. I try to hit it somewhere in the middle.
The role of the head brewer nowadays involves a lot more than being the guy in there behind-the-scenes in Wellington boots, although I’ll be in there again next week doing exactly that. But I also now do a lot of promotional events, and I work with the bars, restaurants and distributors planning and educating with them. I always say to people, “If you’re ever in a bar with a brewer who’s not drinking his own beer, there’s a problem.” So when I go out, yeah, I’m drinking our beer, making sure it’s in good shape and being properly served.
In terms of my personal health, you have to find the balance in that. I weigh the same I did as a rugby player in college, 180 pounds. I just have to run a lot more now to keep that weight.
I know musicians in town who will play super-complex, arty, innovative music at their show and then go home and listen to ZZ Top. Do you go home and chug a Bud or PBR?
Rarely. What I might do is go home and have a glass of some nice cognac, whiskey or Bordeaux along with a nice Summit saison or something like that. Whatever I drink, whether it’s beer, wine, tea, coffee, whatever, I’m looking for flavors in it and something that might challenge my taste buds a little.
Is there a beer you also get when you go out sometimes that’s like Mom’s cooking to you?
Guinness will always have that place in my heart because that’s where I started brewing a long time ago. It’s been 18 years since I worked there, but I still feel a connection, and I have a lot of friends and mentors there. Besides just being a good Irishman, I have that kind of fondness for Guinness.
Getting a four-year degree in brewing sounds like a good major for a slacker, but I’m guessing it’s not.
It’s pretty intense. At its foundation, it’s a lot of engineering, biology and chemistry. We work with barley, so we need to know about cereal chemistry. And hops, so organic chemistry. Yeast, so microbiology. And then we deal in pumps, heat exchanges, valves and all types of mechanical stuff. There’s so much technology involved in it today. My professor used to say, “We’re not taking it from an art to a science, we’re taking it from a craft to a technology.”
How has the craft brewing explosion in America and especially Minnesota changed your job in recent years?
When I came to Minnesota 18 years ago, there were less than a dozen breweries in the state, and now there are over 100. The brewing landscape has changed immensely. My response to it has been to be even more aggressive about looking after our beer quality, and really reinforcing and being passionate about our relationships with our partners.
How close are we to a tipping point of there being too many breweries here in Minnesota? Or have we even passed that point?
It all depends on the consumer, and to a lesser degree on retailers and distributors. Are they all going to keep supporting these new brewers that arrive on the scene pretty frequently now? And are the new brewers going to provide the quality and consistency that will keep these consumers?
One point I do believe we’ve reached: Right now, distributors and retailers are starting to max out on the number of brands they’re willing to carry. They only have so much space, and it’s getting very crowded. Retailers are starting to conclude that they don’t need every one of these beers to drive their business forward, and not all of these beers are all that great. All of those factors are going to influence whether or not we have a shakeout in the next couple years.
Can you describe one particularly bad experience you’ve had going into a brewery or taproom over the past year that has you raising the quality-control question?
If I go into a taproom to try a new beer and find that beer to be technically flawed, it might be just too many notes of butterscotch. It might be so oxidized it’s hard to drink. It might have too much butyric acid, which is technically vomit. I’ve found all these things. Those beers should not be served to someone who just put down six hard-earned bucks to get it, it’s as simple as that.
Um, back up: Did you say we might actually find “vomit” in a bad beer?
I’m sure there’s been a lot of unwanted vomit in beers over the years, especially on St. Patrick’s Day [laughs]. But yes, butyric acid is the main acid you find in human vomit. It’s what gives you that gagging acidic note at the back of your throat. Beer can be contaminated with micro-organisms that will replicate that type of acid. It’s what happens if a brewer doesn’t run a tight sanitation program. You can get the smell of baby’s diapers and sulfur in beer, too, if you don’t keep it clean.
Summit unquestionably pioneered the modern era of craft brewing in the Twin Cities, but the flip side of that now is some people look at you as a fuddy-duddy old brewery among the many trendier breweries. How much have you guys worked to counter that perception?
Anytime you’re the leader of the pack in any field, there’s going to be people coming up behind you with that view. We’ve been fairly philosophical about our approach to that. I’ll never apologize for taking a rigorously scientific approach to making beer, nor to cultivating long, deeply rooted relationships with distributors and consumers.
People here might imagine, since you’re Irish, you started drinking beer when you were 6 years old. Any truth in that?
Some truth [laughs]. There’s certainly a different role of beer and liquor in society over there. It’s not the repressed Lutheran approach there is here. The expectations for kids are higher over there. If you’re 18 and you go to a pub to have some pints with your friends, you’d better keep it together. If you have a problem with that, people will have a chat with you — not just your parents, but everybody. There’s an approach that demystifies and respects alcohol more over there. Kids need to be educated about alcohol more over here, because they’re going to be exposed to it for the next 70 years of their lives.
What were the hardest things to adjust to coming to Minnesota?
People in London, Scotland and Ireland are a lot more black-and-white. They will say exactly what they mean, and they won’t take offense if you do the same. You can call a spade a spade. Minnesota Nice does really exist; people really are generally very nice here. But at times they can communicate in a passive-aggressive fashion and try to get things across in a much less obvious fashion. People here sometimes took offense to things I said, when I really didn’t mean to be rude, I was just saying what I meant. That’s still a hard thing for me to get used to. The other thing was the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit. My first day in Minnesota, I got off the plane in the middle of January and it was 17 below outside — Fahrenheit, not Celsius. So I figured out the difference on that one pretty quickly. It was like I’d been dropped on the Russian Front. But the place does grow on you.
What was that first winter like for you?
I lived in Hopkins at the time, and I would walk down Mainstreet there in my thick coat because I wasn’t used to being cooped up inside. People would pull over in their cars and ask, “Sir, are you OK? Can I help you?” And when I told them I’m fine, I was just going for a walk, they heard my accent and would say to me, “Oh, you’re Irish? Well, there’s an Irish pub just down the street here!” God love ’em.