It might sound obvious, but 31 years is a bigger milestone than 30, so why isn’t Summit Brewing Company throwing an even bigger party in 2017 than they did last year?
The answer, of course, is that you can’t party all the time (contrary a common misperception of brewery owners).
Summit was founded in St. Paul in 1986, when the country was still sorting out what a microbrewery was, and styles like Extra Pale Ale and Porter were still curiosities to most Midwestern beer consumers. Their popular EPA launched the brand and still wins awards today — including a 2016 gold at GABF — but they celebrated their 30th anniversary with several new beers to honor their longevity.
As the beer scene booms today, Paste sat down with Summit’s founder, Mark Stutrud, for a meandering talk over a couple of pints to talk about how his brewery celebrates birthdays, and how they pick a 30th anniversary beer as compared to the new releases in year 31.
Mark Stutrud has a pint of his own brew.
Paste: Do you approach the business differently in year 31 than 30, other than throwing fewer parties?
Mark Stutrud: In so many ways, it’s business as usual. We’ll be celebrating birthdays in five year increments.
Throwing a big party takes a lot of planning and staff energy. The marketing team is supposed to be focused on packaging design and all of a sudden you have “30th anniversary” on cans, coasters, bottles, and boxes. That piece of the business is amplified. People end up working — not harder than normal — but they have more on their plate. Celebrating birthdays (in a big way) every five years seems to make more sense than saying we should celebrate every year.
Our biggest party was when we turned 20, when we had 10,000-11,000 people at Harriet Island. We lost our ass, financially. That’s why we brought it back home again and stayed focused on having a party at the brewery.
Turning 31, we don’t take any year for granted. The way the competitive environment is you can’t sit back and not think of new ways to reconnect with drinkers.
I think that 25 to 30-year threshold also means you’ve crossed at least one generation. You’re looking at preparing to cross a second generation relatively soon. That’s the stuff we kick around and want to be prepared for.
Paste: Do you approach the beers in a different way for a big anniversary like your 30th?
MS: We take a very traditional approach to the marketplace. I don’t want to blur any styles because there are so many beer drinkers who don’t know the parameters yet. Granted, it’s important to look for a new experience but, for a number of people, having traditional styles of beer is still something for them to experience.
A case in point: True Brit IPA. When everybody was expecting us to make a West Coast style, the True Brit was the first one we came out with in ’95. A traditional focus and philosophy. We still actively place all of our beer with that in mind. It’s not confining to be traditionally oriented.
Paste: There are still hundreds of styles.
MS: Absolutely. To celebrate our 30th anniversary we came out with a double IPA, a Keller Pils, the very traditional West London style ale, and a barley wine with the formula based on the EPA. If you look at those four different styles of beer, they’re terribly unique between themselves but, at the same time, extremely traditional, historical and not confining.
Whenever somebody uses the word tradition, it’s not like you’re wearing your grandpa’s long johns.
Paste: Was there an approach to picking those that made you say, this is a #30 beer? Is this more of a celebration beer and not just a new seasonal?
MS: Head brewer Damian McConn is the driving force behind where to go with the styles. A lot of what goes into the selection process is what style do we enjoy ourselves. It’s our birthday, after all. I don’t want to sound too selfish, but we’ll pick a style and then hope like hell that someone enjoys it with us. We please ourselves first.
All of this stuff was premeditated two years out. All the beer had been decided many months ago.
Paste: When do you start thinking about the next milestone?
MS: It will be next year when we start planning for 35 in a big way.
The biggest decision is whether we should have it onsite or off sight. We also think about how we can embellish our celebrations. We’ll do the Backyard Bash every September. That will stay constant.
Paste: Do you take time to look back when you hit these milestones?
MS: We’ve got a campus now. We call it that and snicker, but it’s true. We’ve got a complex and two buildings and a lot of stuff going on. But every time I walk around the brewery with somebody, somebody will say, “Do you ever think about kicking back and taking time to think about what’s been accomplished?
I go, “Not really, no.”
Then they say, “You probably should take a look. Because it is pretty phenomenal.”