Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A visit to Summit Brewing

I’ve covered Summit Brewing extensively since I started this blog up. From their classic Extra Pale Ale to their more limited releases, it has been a constant staple on this website for quite a while. I mean, they are one of the biggest and oldest craft breweries in Minnesota after all. And yet, I’ve never really covered the brewery itself. Like where it all comes from and the story behind it. Sure I’ve touched upon few tidbits in the various Summit reviews but never anything that I would consider to be in-depth.

Since I had a few days off after Christmas, I came to the conclusion that it was time to change that. I decided to make myself useful and take a deeper look into this seasoned brewery. I mean, after all, you can’t go into any bar or liquor store in Minnesota swinging a stick without hitting at least a bottle, can or tap handle that doesn’t brandish the “Summit” name on it. (Note: Please don’t actually try this.)

Summit Brewing is located off of West 7th Street, just a couple blocks east of Interstate 35-E in St. Paul in an office park. When they first opened their doors in 1986, they were located off of University Ave, which is on the other side of St. Paul. It wasn’t until 1995 that they moved from their old location to their current one, which was once home to a Texaco Oil Refinery and they got the land at a fairly good price since St. Paul was looking to expand its business appeal. Since then, it has continuously grown into the behemoth-sized building that it has become today.

The Ratskeller of Summit is one that I have visited a few times since it first opened a couple years ago and it has undergone some fairly changes. Gone are the wooden benches and tables, which I actually didn’t mind since they actually looked like the tables you’d see in an authentic German bierhall. In place of that are some rather fancy chairs and tables, which fit the overall feel of the Ratskeller. The other thing that is gon-…er……changed is that now there’s a jumbo screen over the entrance displaying pretty much the entire history of Summit. Also, the pictures on walls do an awesome job of improving the atmosphere. Oh and that beautiful oak bar that was tucked away is now front-and-center. Because, let’s be real here, no one puts baby in the corner.

Now I learned quite a bit about the history of Summit during my tour, so I’ll do my best to tell you, the reader, what I found out. So let’s begin with the name. Originally the founder, Mark Stutrud wanted to name the brewery Stutrud Brewing, but it slowly became apparent that, from a naming perspective, the word “Stutrud” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue (At least, according to our brave tour guide, Phil). So they decided on the name Summit Brewing for a couple different reasons. The first being that it represents the pinnacle, the apex, the…..you get the idea. The other reason being that Summit Avenue is a prominent street in St. Paul.

The other thing you’ll notice too are the copper kettles that flank the right side of the Ratskeller as well as a sign above it that says “Hürnerbräu Ansbach.” This is because those kettles were purchased from the Hürnerbräu Brewery in Bavaria, Germany. Copper Kettles are somewhat or a rarity now as a lot of new brewing equipment is now stainless steel. The copper kettles that I’ve seen in my travels are used for display purposes but not Summit’s. They still utilize them for brewing purposes in all of their batches.

Earlier, I mentioned that the building itself is absolutely ginormous. It looks big on the outside but seeing all of the equipment from the inside makes you feel even smaller in comparison. The pictures themselves do not do this view justice, which is why I strongly suggest seeing this in person. Up until the tour, the biggest fermentation tanks I had seen were at the Yuengling Brewery in Tampa, FL; The views in here give them a run for their money.

The scale of how big Summit is isn’t just limited to their fermentation tanks, the bottling and canning line is also a sight to behold; Which makes sense seeing as how it once belonged to Sierra Nevada. Hearing the story as to how it was shipped halfway across the country (in pieces, mind you) and how it was assembled is a story in and of itself.

Then there’s the storage room, where all the beer is kept before being sent out this includes kegs, bottles and cans. At one point, I saw there was a few cases of the Warpigs Foggy Geezer standing out amongst the crowd. Curious, I asked brave leader Phil what that was doing amongst all the Summit. He pointed out that since Warpigs doesn’t have a physical brewery, they use Summit’s brewing equipment as one of their facilities. In fact, if you look on any Warpigs can (at least in Minnesota) you’ll see in tiny letters on the back that it was indeed brewed at the Summit Facility. After all these delightful sights, we went back to the taproom for some beers.

Brave Leader Phil showing us one of the tools used by professional brewers

One of the key highlights for myself personally was the topic of distribution. Right now they are currently in five states and at one point they were in seventeen before having to pull back, and that was something I knew of prior to coming on this tour. The reason for this? Growth. It turns out that since the country has been undergoing a craft brewing growth these past few years, the demand for more local beer has increased ten-fold. Many breweries have felt this and Summit is no exception to that rule. Basically the demand for Summit in their former areas was either not sufficient or the demand for more local beer became too great to keep up with.

Still, with all that in mind, Summit still plays a pivotal role in providing the Midwest with their offerings and libations. Being on this tour makes one (or at least myself) appreciate all they have done for craft brewing in Minnesota and the role they will continue to play going forward. Whether you’re there for a tour or just to chill out in their Ratskeller, you really get the sense that you’re standing in a place of great significance. If you’re a seasoned Summit drinker, it goes without saying that you owe it to yourself to check this place out.

For tours, you can either book a tour online, like yours truly. Or you can buy a ticket in the gift shop.

However, if you just want to sit back in the Ratskeller and have a few beers, that’s alright too. Either way, they can be found at:

910 Montreal Circle
St. Paul, MN 55102

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Rise & Fall of Lake Superior Brewing

Last week, it was revealed that Lake Superior Brewing had closed its doors. What makes this news so different is that it not only one of Duluth's first microbreweries but it was also one of Minnesota's first breweries that was established after prohibition had ended. The closing of Lake Superior Brewing has certainly grabbed the attention of the craft brewing scene in Minnesota since it is the most high-profile closure to date. The reactions have, understandably, been that of shock and sadness.

However, it's an entirely different feeling for myself.

Sure, whenever a brewery closes its doors, I feel sorry to see it go and that's the case here with Lake Superior Brewing but I can't say that I'm surprised. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say that I'm shocked at the fact that it didn't happen sooner and....well I'm going explain why this is. Bear in mind too that a lot of what I’m going to say is speculation but keep in mind that I'm taking into account information, statistics and my own personal experience with the brewery.

To start out, it's worth noting that Lake Superior Brewing, which opened in 1994, has always been on the smaller side, with distribution being limited just to Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. To put that in perspective, peak production for Lake Superior occurred in 2014 around 2000 barrels before dwindling to 736 barrels in 2018. Bent Paddle, which opened in 2013 in the same neighborhood, produces just under 20,000 barrels a year and they distribute all over Minnesota, North Dakota and Northern & Western Wisconsin.

Now I want to make it very clear that Lake Superior Brewing was not a bad brewery, far from it. They were one of the first breweries that I tried out when I first got into craft brewing and I can safely say that their offerings have been consistent throughout the years. When it came to quality, they were certainly no slouch in that department. In fact, I consider their Old Man Winter to be one of the best MN-Based barleywines that I've ever had and is standard for what English-style barleywines should be like.

However, my criticism lays in the fact that innovation was never really their strong suit. Prior to 2018, with the release of their Riptide IPA, they had not released a new beer since 2013, with their Deep Water Black IPA.

This strategy might’ve worked 15-20 years ago but we’re living in an age of craft brewing that it’s not only expected that there’s a new beer on a regular basis but it’s pretty much an unspoken requirement if you want to survive. Many breweries, both new and seasoned, have followed suit with this rule but Lake Superior seemed to be an exception to that rule and yet they pushed on.

The other factor lies in branding. It’s no secret that for the longest time, the branding of Lake Superior Brewing was, for lack of a better term, outdated. It was by no means aesthetically offensive, but it wasn’t what I’d call eye-catching. Rather it was just…..boring. It had been around for the long time and at no point did they change their label and branding up 2017 (More on that in a bit.)

Now in terms of quality, they had no issues in that department. As I mentioned before, they were always consistent with their products and there was nothing wrong with their offerings but with the exception of their Old Man Winter Warmer, there was never anything that I would necessarily go out of my way to try unless I was at a friend’s house or if it was offered to me. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that when it came to their lineup, there wasn’t necessarily anything exciting about it and the lack of new offerings really hurt them in the grand scheme of things.

Now I mentioned before that their branding was, for the longest time, on the dull side. In fact, prior to 2017, myself and many of my peers saw Lake Superior’s branding as somewhat outdated in terms of look and design and it we just accepted it as it was. I bring this up because this changed in 2017.

What happened? New ownership!

At the time of hearing this news, I was excited for Lake Superior because I read about the plans the new owners had in mind. This included revamped branding, growth and even new offerings from them. At the time, I was excited for them and happy to see what changes would come. The rebranding of Lake Superior hit the shelves and I, for one, was pleased with it. It was an updated design while also staying true to its roots.

Another change that was made was the overhaul of the website. For example, here’s the website as it is right now:

Looks great right? I think so to! Everything is sleek and thoroughly designed. Thing is, it wasn’t always that way. Here it is from 2016:

And here it is from 2014:

Now I’m going to reserve judgment since I’m aware that my own website design hasn’t changed since 2014, which I’m working on, but I will say that the current design definitely is the strongest of the three.

All of the pieces were there to help raise Lake Superior’s status once again but I can’t help but feel that these changes came too little & too late. I mentioned before that their first new release in five years occurred in 2018 with their Riptide IPA…..but nothing else further materialized from that and I took notice. Steps in the right direction were most certainly taken but I keep thinking that these long overdue changes were too little & too late. I am by no means disregarding any of the changes made by the new ownership but I feel these changes would’ve been much more impactful had they occurred four or five years earlier.

However, the story might not be over just yet. The current owners of LSB (Lake Superior Brewing) are looking to sell the brewery and is, at the time of writing, up for sale. In any case, all of this is just my personal view on how things are and anything that happens at this point. Who knows? Maybe something else will start up in its place?

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources used:





Minnesota Department of Revenue

Saturday, January 4, 2020

A Visit to Cannon River Winery

Cannon River Winery holds a special place in my heart…or at least…..my past. Back when I was a Senior in college, I interned for a wine education company and during my tenure there, I got a visit a few Minnesota-based wineries and one of those wineries was Cannon River Winery, located in Cannon Falls, MN. I still remember that nice spring day seven years ago when I arrived there with the trees in bloom and the usually warm temperatures we had that day.. When me and my boss went inside to check the place out, I was amazed and how busy and vibrant it was there. I knew that the fanfare about local wine was sizable but it didn’t strike me as to just how big it was until I stepped foot in there. Remember, I did this internship a few months after I dove head-first into the craft brewing scene.

During my time there, I served as a “guinea pig” of sorts for the wine tasting since my boss was pregnant and wanted to avoid any sort of complications. It was a task that I was all too happy to fulfill. My favorite wine during our visit there was their Apple Wine, but only because it wasn’t a tannin-overload and my palate wasn’t fully refined by that point. Fast forward to today where I’m starting to dabble heavily into wine and the idea struck me that maybe it’s time to revisit this winery that piqued my curiosity years ago. So I decided to make the journey back to Cannon Falls.

Cannon Falls is one of those towns that looks like it belongs in Christmas Card Artwork, with its old brick storefront and buildings along with Christmas lights stretching across an intersection in the heart of downtown & it reminds me almost of my parents’ hometown. And of course, the Cannon River runs through it, which the winery takes its name from.

Fun Fact: Cannon Falls is home to Pachyderm Studios. This is where Nirvana’s In Utero album was recorded, which is one of my all-time favorite albums. Other bands to record there include: Live, Mudvayne, Soul Asylum, Motion City Soundtrack & Trampled by Turtles: Just to name a few. It isn’t the first place you’d expect a recording studio to be, yet here we are.

Anywho, the interior of the winery has changed in terms of layout but not necessarily in atmosphere. The wooden interior mixed with barrels and fermentation tanks and rustic lighting gives the winery a very unique feel. Plus the winery itself is housed in what I assume to be an older brick building. You have the option to either sit by the windows or in the back more but no matter where you sit, you’ll get to soak in the atmosphere either way.

Now let’s talk about the wine. I was able to sample a good variety of wine styles and get a better idea as to the offerings of Cannon River Winery. Without further ado, let’s take a look!

Name: Gunflint Gris
Style: Gris
ABV: 12.1%
Grapes used: Frontenac Gris

Taking its name from the Gunflint Trail in Northeast Minnesota. This wine has a bright pear & white grape flavor to it that has an almost citra-like quality to it with a fairly dry aftertaste with just a touch of tannins. It’s a simple yet solid wine that you won’t see me getting sick of anytime soon.

Gunflint Gris – 8.5/10

Name: Feisty Bitch Rose
Style: Rose
Grapes used: N/A

An interesting choice in terms of naming, but who am I to argue with the creative process? This wine has a nice raspberry & blackberry flavor with just enough tannin bitterness on the front end of the palate to help balance it out. The aftertaste is a short-lived but sweet raspberry-like fruitiness. All and all, another great wine that I could see myself sipping on a lazy afternoon.

Feisty Bitch Rose – 8.5/10

Name: Minnesota Marquette
Style: Marquette/Red Wine
Grapes used: Marquette

A wine made with grapes that were developed by the University of Minnesota for the purpose of growing grapes in the harsh cold Minnesota climates. This wine has a nice blackberry uprfront with a dark currant & oak flavor in the middle and back. There’s also an encompassing earthiness and light tannin flavor throughout the palate. The aftertaste is rather dry, save for a light oak flavor. It’s an eloquently put together wine that has enough overall layers in the flavor to keep things interesting.

Minnesota Marquette – 9/10

Name: Sparkling Edelweiss
Style: Sparkling/White Wine
Grapes used: Edelweiss

For my last wine, I decided that I was in the mood for something with a bit of a bubbly kick, and this was perfect. Light pear & vibrant apple flavors are on the front of the palate while the back end opens up to some white grape and tannin notes. The aftertaste is also quite dry, almost like a good Champagne or Brut. All and all, a great wine to close out my visit and amongst my favorites that I had there.

Sparkling Edelweiss – 9/10

There’s the old saying that the more things change, that the more they stay the same & that certainly applies to Cannon River Winery. As I said before ,there has been changes made to the overall layout of the tasting room, along with changes in ownership that occurred during these past seven years. However, what hasn’t changed is the overall feel and atmosphere of the place. After making the drive from my home located about 40 minutes away, walking into Cannon River Winery made me forget just how monotonous and cold it was outside that day and it made my trip all the worthwhile.

Interested in checking them out? They can be found in beautiful downtown Cannon Falls, which is located about 35 miles south of St. Paul, MN. Their address is:

421 Mill St W
Cannon Falls, MN 55009

I hope this article inspires you to check out any local wineries in your area. Or if you’re in the Twin Cities vicinity, check this place out. I think you’ll be surprised!