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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reaching for the Summit

Travel and Leisure Dept.: Early in 1990 I made plans to spend a week in Minneapolis to perform in a show that got canceled right before my departure. I went anyway and stayed with friends who provided an excellent welcome to a fascinating area. Among our activities was a visit to Summit Brewing Company, and I managed to get a story out of it, which ran in the Schenectady Gazette.


MARK STUTRUD ENJOYS THE IRONY of his career transition in a wry, quiet way. The former substance abuse counselor is now the president – and head brewer – of the Summit Brewing Company, a small-volume manufacturer of quality ale and porter.

Mark Stutrud
His average output of 6,000 barrels per year accounts for 4/100ths of one percent of the amount of beer consumed in Minnesota. So he’s not looking to grab any appreciable amount of the market share any too soon. “I tell my salespeople that even a volume increase of a hundred percent is still only one or two drops in the big beer bucket,” he says.

As founder of the boutique brewery, Stutrud has a hand in all operations. He likes it that way, even when it requires him to operate his office out of packing boxes as was true last week. “We’re moving things around,” he says in the tone of someone who’s been moving things around a lot lately. “We’re putting in a tap room and a small meeting area.”

His office outfit includes sweater and jeans. Short, shaggy hair and clear-rimmed glasses give him the look of a European college student on a cycling vacation. But being his own boss is a long-wished-for ambition, something he pursued with ambition he describes as characteristic of his Norwegian forebears.

“I’m tenacious,” he says, “if you want to use the term they apply to entrepreneurs. But I think the more accurate word is ‘stubborn.’ This is one of the toughest beer markets in the country, as well as being very price sensitive.”

The leaders include mega-breweries like Miller, Schmidt’s, Stroh’s and the ubiquitous Budweiser. “But you can also get a six-pack of Bass Ale in the area for $4.25,” he explains. “I keep the price of my six-packs down to $5.25. Any more than that and nobody would buy it.”

His brewery is housed inside a small brick building with walls of block glass facing an industrial boulevard in St. Paul. Inside you’re immediately hit in the face by the thick, nutty aroma of a fermenting batch, intoxicating just to inhale.

Twenty-six barrels’ worth are also being brewed in a giant copper pot that was built in Bavaria in 1938. The room is handsomely clean to match the golden glisten of the equipment. Stutrud finds some mugs in a cabinet and leads the way to the back, where fermentation and bottling take place.

The rear wall turns out to be the side of a hefty walk-in box. One the side are three taps. He draws generous draughts of a just-brewed Winter Ale.

As it hits the side of the mug a thin topping of foam erupts (Stutrud has angled the mug to discourage too much of a head, but a good inch of it will give us the classic white mustaches of thirsty drinkers).

Below the foam is a deep, clear caramel color, sign of a successful bottom fermentation that also imparts much of the dry, bitter, refreshing flavor. This is connoisseur’s beer, served at the temperature of a chilly room. Does he brew for room-temperature consumption, as purists require, or has he acceded to popular taste?

Stutrud grins, warming to a subject he has passions about. “We encourage the consumer to let it warm up in the glass,” he says. “When I get a bar or restaurant account, I know I’m not going to convince them to turn off the cooler. We’re doing such a small-volume business in a volume-driven industry that I don’t get too pushy on the temperature issue. But I don’t compromise on the formulation.”

Sound familiar? This was the dilemma faced by Albany’s Bill Newman when he started brewing his own local ale, eventually changing the formula to accommodate those who prefer it cold. Stutrud was working with Newman in 1983 as part of his apprenticeship, and brings to St. Paul his own interpretation of the other’s craftsmanship.

Stutrud’s beer career began after nine years of working as a staff supervisor for an adolescent chemical dependency program sponsored by the state. “The license plates say Minnesota is the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes,’” he says, “but it sometimes looks like the land of ten thousand treatment centers. I’d had enough of that work, and decided to pursue this fantasy of making beer.

“I’ve always been a beer drinker, and something of a home brewer, so in the early ‘80s I started to learn the business.” He’s going on three and a half years with Summit, concentrating on making a quality product that isn’t likely to be the substance of abuse.

Like bread, beer is a substance of simple ingredients put through a complicated process. Half of the art is finding the best ingredients; the rest is a delicate mixture of talent and craft. Water, two-row barley malt, roasted malt and hops go into the brewhouse. Specially-selected yeast then ferments the “wort” in tanks in the adjacent room. Carbonation is achieved by an old-fashioned German process called “spuenden.”

Stutrud is quiet and modest, occasionally dropping a wisecrack like an afterthought. But his promotional material shows no such reserve: “Our goal is not to establish a brewing empire that blankets the countryside with indistinguishable bland beers. ... We are dedicated to brewing beers that are fresh. ... with unique taste characteristics that can only be found in beers brewed this passionately.”

Are you listening, Bud?

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 22 February 1990

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