First Taste: Summit Horizon Red Ale
“People’s tastebuds are changing,” says Mark Stutrud, founder and president of Summit Brewing. “They want beers that have character. In 1986 when we introduced our EPA, that was really an aggressive, hoppy beer for most people’s palates. But since then, people’s tastebuds have evolved.”
Stutrud is putting his money on the idea that the brewery’s latest offering — Horizon Red Ale, which pops officially on April 20 — is positioned at precisely the right level for the forward-thinking beer-drinking masses. A sophisticated dark red beer made with Horizon, Amarillo, and Cascade hops, the beer boasts 65-70 bittering units (compared to 40-45 for Summit’s EPA) and 5.7 percent alcohol by volume. “We’re looking for a certain amount of balance and complexity in a flavor profile,” he says. “As any homebrewer will tell you, the easiest thing to do is overhop, but we’re shooting for balance.”
Stutrud’s enthusiasm for his new brew is palpable: A tasting spilled into a two-hour tour filled with insight into the myriad processes required to turn a handful of raw ingredients and water into a widely distributed Minnesota-made beer. “We do a lot of fantasizing here at the brewery, because there are so many styles we’d like to do,” says Stutrud, pulling a draught of Horizon Red from one of the brewery’s in-house taps. “We have kind of a selfish brewing philosophy here — we brew stuff that we like, and then we hope like hell other people will like it as well.”
That process, tempered by a fair bit of strategic consideration, resulted in the somewhat hop-heavy but ultimately balanced Horizon Red Ale. A slight departure from Summit’s generally British-inflected line of beers, Horizon Red straddles three different styles according to Stutrud. That ambiguity makes for interesting drinking. It’s not quite a classic red, nor an amber, nor an IPA — there are elements of each present, making Horizon Red a more compelling drink than its big-time and well-established “red” counterparts from other breweries. Stutrud (a gentleman who prefers to avoid shit-talking even macro-brewing competitors) needs a gentle nudge before he admits that his Red will be markedly different from other beers that share its name.
“That was a concern that we had in terms of calling it a red ale, even though there’s an existing association with Leinie’s Red or Killian’s,” says Stutrud. “[Drinkers] will be in for a surprise.”
The beer itself is refreshing without being one-dimensional. Although the taste of hops predominates, a complicated (almost floral) nose and a finish that conjures up apricots and pine needles means that Horizon Red is neither simple nor dull; Summit is attempting to win the Great Hops War with stealth and intelligence rather than the IBU equivalent of an atom bomb.
And although the beer represents a creative risk for the company, Stutrud points to his brewery’s (relatively) moderate size as an asset in case it’s a drink that’s ahead of its time. “The beauty of being small is that if it turns out to be a bad idea, we can pull our stakes out pretty quickly and move on,” he says. “We can introduce a new style much more easily than a larger brewer. If we screw up, we can admit it, and say: ‘Gosh, people just didn’t like that.’”
He points back to 1989, when a lower alcohol Summit sparkling ale caught criticism for being too mainstream, a public judgement that eventually manifested itself in terms of stagnant sales. “We thought ‘what the hell,’” says Stutrud, “and replaced it with a Hefeweizen.”
Other than a delicate walleye sandwich, Horizon Red should pair with almost anything, according to Stutrud: “The beauty of beer is that it’s much more universal than wine, and there really are no set rules.”