Summit's Brew Master

After three decades at Summit, founder Mark Stutrud reflects on his pioneering role in the craft-beer boom

Mark Stutrud, Summit, Brewing
Summit Brewing Company founder Mark Stutrud

Photos by David J. Turner

In 1983, then-therapist and social worker Mark Stutrud wrote a letter to the Brewers Association of America asking for their thoughts on his opening a small brewery in the Twin Cities. Their advice to the Wahpeton, ND, native: It’s too hard, and we don’t recommend it. Stutrud forged ahead anyway to create Summit Brewing Company, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with new beers, concerts, and festivities at its facility—a pioneer of the small independent competitors who arrived after the state’s 2011 taproom legislation.

“My biggest influence in terms of moving into brewing was my father, who was a vocational educator. He started his career as a printer, and he had a small county-seat newspaper for a handful of years, then started teaching at a trade school in Wahpeton. I grew up with the value that you make something for a living. So things do come full circle—although my father thought I was really absolutely insane when I talked about starting a brewery.”

“I had been a home brewer for a lot of years, making styles of beer that weren’t available commercially. Then in the late ’70s and early ’80s I started reading about some of those brave souls who started small breweries. I started doing some research, which led to a feasibility study, which led to the reality of spending all my vacation time at small breweries apprenticing and understanding the lifestyle and all the challenges and the amount of work it would take.”

“The analogy I use is that I was more like a sodbuster than a homesteader—they weren’t the ones living the groovy lifestyle, they were living in sod houses with things lean and mean. If they had a string of years with productive crops and the prices were right, they just might survive. And once you’ve planted the seeds and had a few harvests, then you’re not considered to be so far out there.”

“One of the realities that we were faced with in 1986 was that there were no regional points of reference for a small brewery, other than Cold Spring Brewing, Schell’s, and Leinenkugel’s.”

“The taproom legislation laid the foundation to allow small-brewers to have on-premises taproom retail sales. The taprooms provided that opportunity for a whole slew of smaller guys to have access to the market to execute that dream.”

“Being treated as part of the establishment is pretty damned weird.”

“I’m not quite sure how many of these [new brewers] really appreciate what’s been created for them in terms of accessibility. And one of my biggest soapboxes is a significant concern about quality. …In the majority of the cases none of them have gone to brewing school and prepared themselves technically. People are throwing a lot of money at new breweries, but for the most part they don’t have a testing laboratory in their budget. But they’re arrogant enough to say their beer is so damned good it should have a presence on the shelf.”

“I’m part of the establishment now. We take that responsibility to heart. Having a big target on our back is a huge compliment as well. I find this experience very interesting, being a non-conformist all my life—being treated as part of the establishment is pretty damned weird.”

“I still have a lot of responsibilities, but it’s cool to come to work and see all the folks who are part of the organization, a lot of young folks who start their careers in the brewery and end up staying longer than they anticipated. It’s true that my wife always tried to get me to relax and kick back a little bit more, but I don’t feel like I really need to go away to Antarctica at this point.”

Watch Stutrud make an explosion at the photo shoot:

Mark Stutrud, Summit, Brewing

Mark Stutrud, Summit, Brewing

Mark Stutrud, Summit, Brewing

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.