Summit Brewing Started Its Climb 30 Years Ago
In the early 1980s, Mark Stutrud was a supervisor at an adolescent chemical dependency program in Minnesota, a role he once described as “classic middle management with a lot of responsibility but no authority.” Frustrated and looking for a way out that wasn’t medical or graduate school, Stutrud began to dream the impossible dream of starting a small brewery.
The North Dakota native was already a homebrewer, and had read up on the handful of brewing pioneers who had trod the path he wanted to take. There was no precedent in St. Paul or Minneapolis—or in Minnesota, for that matter—for what Stutrud was considering, though there was some context in the larger Midwest. Michigan’s Real Ale Co., the Midwest’s first smaller-scale, traditional commercial brewery since Prohibition, had started in late 1982.
Otherwise, the nation’s vast upper-central veldt was wide open small-brewery-wise 30 years ago, when Stutrud decided to make the leap from dream to reality.
One of the first steps he took was to apply for membership to the Brewers’ Association of America. A response from that trade group’s executive secretary dated Oct. 3, 1983 thanked Stutrud for his request and included an application. It also included a frank warning for the 31-year-old intent on opening a brewery: “Please know that I am not encouraging you to do so, because it is a long and hard road you are planning to go down.”
Indeed. Many of the pioneers Stutrud had read about had either gone out of business or come awfully close to it, including the Real Ale Co., which would go under in 1986. The whole thing seemed rather faddish, more romance than realpolitik. Still, Stutrud pressed on.
In early 1984, he turned basically full-time toward building what he called the Summit Brewing Co., named after a main drag through St. Paul. He raised $600,000, half of that from a Small Business Administration loan and another $50,000 from a low-interest loan from the City of St. Paul. The rest came from Stutrud’s own savings and from selling shares in the company to 20 investors, including a local advertising startup that helped with promotion.
As for space and equipment for Summit, Stutrud set up shop in an old truck-parts warehouse on St. Paul’s University Avenue and acquired a Bavarian brewhouse with a capacity for 4,500 barrels annually. He incorporated with the state in July 1984, and the first kegs of Summit rolled out to bars in the Twin Cities in September 1986.
Those first offerings were an extra pale ale and a porter. Summit, the oldest smaller-scale brewery in Minnesota using traditional ingredients and methods, now has 14 year-round, limited-release and seasonal offerings.
As for the Brewers’ Association of America that understandably tried to dissuade Stutrud from pursuing his dream, it’s no longer around. The Brewers Association subsumed it in 2005—though not before Mark Stutrud served on its board of directors for six years.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book is a history of American fine wine called American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.