First Taste: Summit Horizon Red Ale

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“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.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.”

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

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19 Comments

  1. It will hardly be “ahead of it’s time” It sounds a lot like Surly Furious. Looking out for it, though. It would be nice to come back to Summit, after being drawn so dangerously to Surly.

  2. It does seem like it’s about time for Summit to get back in the business of thrilling us with innovative tastes. i’m excited to try the newest, excellent the article.

    -Lee

  3. Dedicated Reader04/09/2009Reply

    Lucky you, getting an early taste.

  4. Not having had it, this sounds like the kind of beer that Summit needs in their portfolio to reach out to the craft beer drinkers who have developed a strong affinity for hoppier beers (like the beautiful Furious). Horizon, Amarillo, and Cascade are the varieties of hops that many of these drinkers (including myself) like. Summit has given us well-made, delicious beers for over 20 years, and they deserve a slice of that pie. ‘Cheers’ to them.

  5. ForbiddenDonut04/09/2009Reply

    Like everyone else, I’m really excited for this beer. This will probably be a beer that will re-energize the brand, and hopefully get them more tap handles around town.

  6. Hop Scotch04/10/2009Reply

    Really? This is a shameless rip off of a great beer known as Surly Furious. I am disheartened by Summit’s lack of originality– I am sure that Summit will follow up with a Russian Imperial Stout called “Blackness”. We’ll look forward to that.

  7. ForbiddenDonut04/10/2009Reply

    Hoppy beers have been selling well in this market for a long time. In fact, as the article mentions, Summit’s EPA was the local hop bomb 23 years ago when it debuted. It’s a pointless exercise to try and attribute the current craft beer industry’s success to any group of individuals or breweries. Likewise, you can’t reliably accuse many brewers of stealing a recipe or outright copying each other.

    I don’t think you can reasonably call Horizon a Furious rip-off. The specs are fairly different, they don’t taste alike, and Summit’s intention wasn’t to clone Furious. If you want to get an idea of the Furious recipe, pick up the clone kit from Midwest. Most brewers will give you the grist bill, hopping schedule, and yeast variety for their beer without any worry that you’re going to rip them off. It’s almost impossible to completely recreate someone else’s beer for too many reasons to list here.

    You can’t even claim that Summit is jumping on Surly’s hoppy bandwagon since those styles were selling long before Surly existed. I guess you can call out Summit for delivering a new seasonal that’s a departure from their normal line-up and panders to local tastes. However, if the beer is good and showcases the talents of their brewers, then who cares? More good local beer for the rest of us.

  8. Surly furious 99 IBU’s
    Summit Red Ale 65 IBU’s
    Hardly seems like they are trying to copy Surly? I bet this will be another great beer with a unique favor profile from Summit. I have not had the chance to enjoy it, I doubt that the critics above have either, so until you try it lets not call them copy cats. I am looking forward to a pint of it.

  9. Linetamer04/12/2009Reply

    For over 20 years Summit has been known as a brewer of well rounde, true to style beers. I have tried the new red ale and I can say this is another wonderful product from the Twin Cities premier brewer.Anyone who beleives that Summit is somehow jumping on the back of another local brewer really does not have a clue. The fact is that just about every small brewery in the metro has one or two x Summit employees brewing for them. Why you may ask? Because Summit’s brewing staff is some of the best trained most knowledgable brewers in the business! You don’t make it 20 plus years in the brewing biz without doing lots of things right.Taste this beer before you babble on about some other brand.

  10. Just had it on tap today and this is a great brew. It may be on the same lines as Furious but it is no Furious. On its own much better IPA than most around and for the price will always be in my fridge.

  11. Like BIML, who points out that 99 IBUs and 65 are quite different, I’d say that this doesn’t sound much like Furious. But I would also add that it sounds broadly speaking like some very nice beers that other craft brewers around the country have been brewing in recent years — which is a good thing. I enjoyed a Double Mountain India Red Ale (= IRA) that I had in Portland, Oregon last year. If you search the web for “India Red” you’ll find a number of creations along these lines. I’d also point out Founder’s Red’s Rye as a very nice red-colored hoppy ale, admittedly made with rye, which the others, including Summit’s, aren’t. I’m looking forward to seeing how well Summit has joined this club.

  12. Had it last night, awesome beer. Well balanced, super complex, nicely bittered. They do a really nice job giving you the feeling of an IPA without bombarding you with hops. This is going to be a huge seller!

  13. Alpenkatze04/21/2009Reply

    To say they are trying to copy Surly is just silly… With that said, This sounds to me like it is going to be an awsome ale. I have a sixpack of Horizon Red in the car I bought for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it (if I can wait that long), I also have Surly in the car so I will be able to compare (I’ve had all of Surly’s and Summits already, just not this Red), but I believe they will be totally different, BOTH GOOD!!

  14. Over the years I’ve carefully considered the many online-comments made with reference to Summit and their beers and been left with the following impression: although respected as a brewer, Summit’s beers simply do not go far enough to meet the demands of the fanatical hobbyists.

    Of course, now that they’ve made an effort to meet the hopheads half-way their efforts have been dismissed as ‘Surly-rip-off’ — ridiculous!

    Horizon offers something for everyone: mildly-assertive hops, a nicely dry after-palate, and just enough kick. A Furious clone it is not.

  15. Mad Irishman06/11/2009Reply

    I tried this yesterday. VERY tasty. It is similar to Surley, but definatly not an exact copy. The hop flavor is not as citrusy as furious and goes down a little smoother. I will be drinking plenty of both this summer! Once again, well done Summit!

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