For this week's Microbrewery of the Week, we visited Summit Brewing in St. Paul, the pioneers of all things Minnesota microbrews. We spoke to Damian McConn, a brewer from Ireland who's been at Summit for almost a decade, and marketing coordinator Carey Matthews.
How did your brewery come to be?
Damian: This brewery was founded in 1986. The brewery first started selling beer in the fall of '86. The planning for the business started quite a few years before that. Mark Stutrud, who's the founder and president, was very impressed with the quality of the beer he had on his travels in Europe, the southern hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand. Back then, there wasn't a whole lot of options if you wanted beer with a little bit more flavor - there were some imports available, but the market back then was heavily dominated by mass produced American lagers. So I think Mark really wanted to change that. He did a little bit of home brewing, decided to go back to school to kind of re-tool himself. Then, with the help of two retired professional brewmasters, he set up the original Summit brewery up on University Avenue.
By 1998, they had pretty much maxed out the fermentation capacity of that brewery which was about 30-32,000 barrels [annually]. They made the decision to start up with a brand new facility. This brewery surpassed 100,000 barrels in production last year and we'll be maxing out our current capacity probably by next year. So we've made the decision to expand again. Starting in the spring of next year, we're going to add fermentation capacity back in the fermentation cellar. We're going to build on to that fermentation cellar and that'll help us cope with demand.
How did you name your brewery?
Damian: Mark has always said he didn't want anyone to try to pronounce "Stutrud Brewing Company" [laughs]. It'd be too much of a bloody mouthful, especially after a pint or two. He just went with Summit because of Summit Avenue, the great boulevard in St. Paul. He wanted to create a link to the town in which the brewery was located and he thought that Summit Brewing Company named after Summit Avenue would be kind of a natural link.
Mark is very appreciative of the support of the local community when it comes to how they really support us through thick and thin. I think that started right away with the naming of the company. Summit sells the vast majority of its beer in the state of Minnesota and the vast majority of that is sold here in the metro. We are a community-based brewery. We're very, very proud of the fact that we strongly interact on a number of different levels with the local community. I think that started at the very beginning when Mark decided to call the brewery after that boulevard.
Carey: I'm definitely one who got into based on drinking with food or the time of year or time of day. For me, it's all about the experience so it's hard to isolate a particular beer. I think we all drink the Extra Pale Ale the most. Obviously, out in the market it's what's most widely available. When you drink it in the middle of the day, it's got a nice balance, it's not too boozy and has a lot of flavor. Oktoberfest! I loved Oktoberfest but I can't drink it at work in the middle of the day. Anytime we have something new, that's what you're most excited about, too.
What's your favorite beer you make?
Damian: Personally, I am very fond and proud of the Oatmeal Stout. It's a draft-only beer. Being a good Irish lad, I grew up drinking stouts in the old country. This is kind of a different twist on it; it's a Scottish-style stout, it's got a fuller body than, say, a dry stout would back in Ireland. It's not pasteurized unlike a lot of the import stouts that we have here. Because it's so limited, it makes me want to try and search it out a wee bit more when I'm out. It's a beer that I think we do a really nice job on.
What's your favorite beer someone else makes?
Damian: I've always been a fan of the beers down at August Schell. That brewery has been around almost 150 years. Some of the challenges that those blokes have faced have been pretty incredible. But they still make some high quality German-style traditional beers because of their heritage. I think they make a very good wheat beer and they make a very nice pilsner. If I'm not drinking Summit locally, I'll probably try to find something from Schell's. Other than that, I have a great amount of respect for Sierra Nevada Brewing out of California.
What are your plans for the brewery's future?
Damian: Right now, we're kind of limited by the amount of fermentation space we have. The expansion capacity is absed around fermentation, what's known as the cold side of the brewery. The brewhouse we have - the hot side of the brewery - is probably good for up to 200,000 barrels with some very minor modifications. But fermentation is where the bottleneck occurs. The new expansion will be heavily based on obtaining fermentation tanks and expanding that fermentation capacity. Right now, one to five years out, I think we're in a pretty good spot in terms of manageable growth.
Carey: We're shooting for 2013 or 2014 for that expansion, a $6 million investment to double our current capacity with the expansion of the fermentation, packaging and warehouses as well. Even offices; I have a desk underneath the stairs that I share with someone because we've run out of space to put people as we grow.
What is the best piece of advice someone you can give homebrewers?
Damian: The number one priority, whether you're a professional brewer or an amateur homebrewer, is your approach to sanitation. If you don't like cleaning, don't get into the brewing industry. I'd say about 65-70 percent is cleaning or sanitation-based. Whether you're an expert on malt or hops or you're a huge fan of yeast, if your sanitation isn't tight, you've always got a chance at producing good beer if your approach to cleaning and sanitizing is top-notch. It might not turn out as you wish, but you'll still be in pretty good shape. If you don't get that priority straight, you could be in a bad spot. That's my one single piece of advice; put the extra effort in when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing.
Describe the local craft beer scene in 11 words or less.
Damian: Vibrant, passionate, in a state of transition, filled with challenges.
Carey: Huge growth spurt, exciting, hopeful that the trend will continue.
If you're not drinking beer, what are you drinking?
Damian: I suppose it would depend on the time of the day. I'm more of a tea drinker than a coffee drinker so I start out the day with a cup of tea. In the evening, if I wasn't drinking beer, I'd probably have a single malt Scotch. [Whiskey] is my second love after craft beer. I'm a trained distiller as well as a brewer. Whiskey was my first love. For some reason, I couldn't wait long enough for the stuff to mature. I just said, I'll go make beer for a few years and come back to see if it's ready. [laughs]
Summit Brewing is located near the Mississippi River in St. Paul. Brewery tours are available Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but reservations are required. More information, including gift shop hours, is available on Summit's website.
Summit is also on Facebook and Twitter.
Previous Microbreweries of the Week:
Boom Island Brewing Commpany
Steel Toe Brewing
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