St. Mary's Hospital clinical social worker Mark Stutrud found himself at a career crossroads in the early 1980s. His professional life had stagnated, and the idea of continuing down the current path left him feeling unfulfilled. The thirty-one-year-old decided he needed a change, either furthering his education or living out his dream of opening a small brewery. Stutrud chose the latter.
In 1984, after a series of conversations with noted industry insiders throughout the early 1980s, Stutrud began working full-time to get the brewery running. He researched what it would take to get started and spent his vacation learning the craft. Stutrud and his wife Margaret committed their life savings to the venture, and Stutrud enrolled in Chicago's Siebel Institute of Technology in May 1984 to learn the brewing trade. He completed market research, business development and got the financing to open a 6,000 barrel-per-year brewery during this period. Stutrud incorporated the Summit Brewing Company (Summit) in 1984.
Commercial production began in September 1986 out of a 7500-square-foot, former auto parts store at 2264 W. University Avenue in Saint Paul. The company's day-one focus was to sell underrepresented beer styles. Its first product line was an English-style pale ale called Extra Pale Ale, and a porter named Great Northern Porter.
On September 25, the brewery sold its first keg to Johnny's Bar, located across the street. Initially, Summit struggled to find wholesalers to represent them. The company turned to restaurants and clubs that sold boutique wines, hoping they'd consider boutique beers as well. The strategy worked, and within the first six months of business, Summit was self-distributing to fifty accounts.
Authenticity was a vital part of the company's early success. Summit remained committed to its regional roots, despite entering the market when large breweries dominated the national landscape. In its first three years, production increased nearly threefold, from 1500 barrels to 3700 a year. The product line also expanded, offering a series of seasonal brews alongside its two flagship beers. Eventually, the company's growth necessitated expansion. In July 1993, Summit leased a building across the alley at 731 Hampden Avenue and converted it into a bottling house. The addition expanded yearly brewing capacity from 15.000 to 25,000 barrels.
By 1995 Summit had grown to be the fifth-largest microbrewery in the United States. It had outgrown its current space and had begun considering other locations. Company executives felt existing Twin Cities structures were ill-suited for a brewery, and they looked for land to build a new brewery from the ground up.
On May 25, 1996, the Saint Paul Port Authority announced it was considering selling 4.24 acres of undeveloped land at the Crosby Lake Business Park to Summit for one dollar. In exchange, the company committed to building a new million-dollar brewing facility that would allow them to increase yearly production capacity from twenty-seven thousand barrels to seventy-thousand. Summit also agreed to hire at least ten additional employees.
The project, which took over three years to complete, more than doubled the company's brewing capacity. It began operation in October 1998. The new facility was the first new brewery built from the ground up in the state since before Prohibition.
In June 2013, the company expanded again, adding 7,632 square feet of cellar space with twelve 600-barrel fermentation vessels. This expansion increased their yearly production capacity to 240,000 barrels. They also opened a canning facility. The company, known as a bottle-only beer for years, soon made the foray into canning their beer.
Despite its size, Summit remained committed to great-tasting craft beer. It boasted multiple award-winning styles, won on local, national, and international stages. Gone were the days of only the EPA and Great Northern Porter. Though they remained the company's flagship beers, they were joined by a continually growing line-up to entice beer drinkers with ever-discerning and ever-changing palates.
The industry also changed. Gone are the days Summit was one of a few local beers in a world of national brands. The 2011 Surly Bill opened the doors to local craft beer market competition Summit hadn't before seen. In 1986 there were nine craft brewers nationwide. Today, according to recent numbers, there are hundreds in Minnesota alone.
An influx of new breweries - and taprooms - negatively impacted Summit's bottom line, but the company continued to grow. It even got into the taproom game, re-opening its expanded Ratskeller, once a place for community organizations and non-profit groups, to the public in July 2018. Summit beer has resonated with Minnesotans, and in 2020, while overall growth had slowed, it was named the largest brewery in the state by barrels produced.
From the new kid on the block to Minnesota best-seller, Summit has seen incredible growth in over thirty years. The company is now an "establishment" brewery recognized as the pinnacle of achievement by other local and hyper-local brewers. Stutrud, who has bristled at the idea of being labeled an "insider" encourages the competition - with a caveat. Ever customer-centric, he believes that as long as a hyper-focus on quality control remains top-of-mind, more local players brewing quality, sustainable beer can only benefit the consumer.
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