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  • Writer's picturePaige Latham Didora

20 years of premeditated quality. Helles Yeah.

International Bazaar. Land of 10,000 Beers. Ballpark Cafe. West End Market. We are less than a week away from what could be considered a 12-day beer festival in its own right.

While today the State Fair is a guaranteed hit for craft beer lovers, this is a very recent development. From prohibition to the year 2000, very little beer was allowed on the State Fair grounds at all, and not even during the fair. And it wasn’t until 2007 that full-strength beer could be served at The Great Minnesota Get Together. Two-thousand-seven!

Credit: Legislative Analyst Patrick McCormack

Summit Brewing Founder Mark Stutrud distinctly remembers the years prior to the reversal of the law that allowed beers higher than 3.2% alcohol by weight to be served at the Fair. This fall will mark the 20th year that Summit has served beer to thirsty fairgoers, regardless of the alcohol content. Far from the celebrated beverages of today, the majority of beer was simply something to wash pronto pups down with.

But reducing alcohol content is not as simple as it sounds, Stutrud explains. Summit EPA, which appeared at the fair 20 years ago, when Ramsey County tightly oversaw the alcohol permitting, essentially had to be diluted from its 5.2% ABV down to acceptable levels.

Guinness Maturation Tank, Open Gate facility, Baltimore

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, when craft beer was still napping, many national breweries were using dilution. The idea was to brew a batch of high-gravity beer all the way through fermentation and sneak it down to proof, akin to a spirit, prior to packaging. The point was to avoid the expense of upsizing tanks while still being able to meet the growing volume demand. Guinness, for example, used large wooden fermentation tanks for decades at their original St. James brewery. Space wouldn’t allow much in terms of expansion, so they simply brewed the beer at greater strength, only to dilute it. Guinness now has part of a historic extra-strong-beer tank on display at their new Open Gate facility in Baltimore to make a point about the dilution period in brewing history.

Here’s the thing. Summit didn’t do it that way. Dilution is tough. It requires, as you can imagine, de-aerated water. It’s not good to add oxygen to complete, fermented beer. A dilution brewing practice required expensive technology that was neither accessible nor desirable to Stutrud. Furthermore, adding de-aerated water to beer dilutes more than alcohol, it dilutes flavor, particularly hop flavor. At the time, flavor was the factor that differentiated craft beer from more generic brands of the day.

Summit, going their own way, very intentionally re-wrote the recipe for EPA at a lower level of alcohol but with the same balance of flavor. Something interesting happened — people thought the new brewery was cheating. Both drinkers and enforcers alike asked Stutrud to come clean, but he had nothing to hide. In a way, State-Fair-Strength-EPA was the original session pale ale.

This wasn’t the first time the brewery had produced a low-gravity EPA, though. Fans of the St. Paul Saints had been enjoying the tame version for five years prior to fair attendees. So Summit knew they could please the crowd and the law at the same time.

In more recent years, Summit has become known for their Fair-exclusive beers, a bright spot among the annual New Foods list, pursued by many locals like a greasy scavenger hunt. In contrast to the headline-grabbing Lift Bridge Mini Donut Beer or Flat Earth S’mores Beer, Summit takes what Head Brewer Damian McConn calls a “classical approach.” For the past 6 years, Summit has offered a Fair beer at a dedicated booth within Shanghaied Henri’s — an important partnership due to their emphasis on clean draft lines and quality service.

The first was State Fair IPA in 2013. Since then, other offerings have included The Villain, a personal favorite of mine, which was a Schwarzbier made using Kolsch yeast. Last year’s Lazy Sipper was also popular enough to earn it canned status.

This year will be no different, except that perhaps the beer landscape outside of the Fair is, in some ways, already more gimmicky than ever before. With the national rise in pastry stouts and milkshake IPAs in a setting full of funnel cakes and actual milkshakes, it should come as no surprise that this year’s fair will see approximately 26 new beverages, most of them beer, many of them wacky.

In the Willy Wonka era of beer, it’s hard to imagine how breweries will take things to eleven for the sake of the Fair. On one hand, it’s the perfect time to dabble in the unusual, but it’s also refreshing to know that I can follow that Dill Pickle beer with a beer that tastes like beer.

This year’s Summit Fair brew is just that — it represents the steady undercurrent of a return to normalcy gaining steam at the moment, and normalcy has always been Summit’s strong suit. Normal isn’t boring or mundane. It doesn’t mean a brewery isn’t improving. “Don’t confuse experimentation with innovation,” says Stutrud.

The Helles Ya, You Betcha is a dry-hopped Helles-style lager created using a new West Coast hop making its US debut and dry hopped with Mandarina Bavaria. The beer also incorporates a touch of blood orange but it simply blends in. The guaranteed heat that naturally falls during the 12 Days of Fun is begging for a beer like this. The name was the result of a naming contest during which over 400 names were submitted.

Now is a challenging time to be a regional brewery. Breweries like Summit, who serve somewhere between a handful and 20 or so states, are feeling in the squeeze. With national, macro brands on one side and hyper-local on another, competition for tap lines and SKUs only gets steeper. “We’re fortunate in that we have weathered many changes in the industry.” Stutrud says this with a serious tone of voice but then a half-cheers and a wink.

To Stutrud, beer has and always will be about quality. As the region’s first modern packaging brewery of the new craft beer wave, the only way to survive was to brew impeccable beer. In some ways, this is no longer the case. Contrary to the noodles-on-the-wall-see-what-sticks method of some of Stutrud’s peers, he firmly believes “quality is premeditated.” That’s not at the expense of creativity; Summit has always explored their pilot system for more adventurous beers such as the Unchained series.

Regardless of your must-sips come Thursday, 20 years of Fair brewing warrants some serious respect. Venture to Shanghaied Henri’s at the International Baazaar to taste Helles Ya. Raise a glass to “strong beer” free of any kind of dilution.

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