Summit’s Belgian Style Golden Ale and an Unchained Series Survey

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

As a beer, there is very little that can be said about Summit’s Belgian Style Golden Ale that hasn’t already been said by Michael Agnew over on A Perfect Pint. There are few things a writer likes to admit less than being beaten to the punch by someone thorough, but there you have it — Agnew knows his beer, and he went into great detail about Golden Ale, the fourth in a line of “Unchained” beers by Summit.

Sweet malt that extends through to the finish, check. Palpable alcohol warming, check. Lots of fruit, right, check. Paradoxically high in alcohol (8.6%) yet refreshing, check. I drank it, I thought it, I discovered that he wrote it, and with a considerably higher level of specificity than I could muster.

In a nutshell, then, this is an exciting summer beer with a lot of punch and passion, and well worth drinking. What then, to add?

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

How about this: A quick survey of the Summit Unchained Series, now that we’re four beers in. What the hell have we learned? What are they up to with this series? What’s it doing for Summit, and what’s it doing for us, the Upper Midwest’s audience of serious beer lovers?

Five thoughts on the Unchained Series, as it stands.

1. It’s Re-Establishing Summit as a Local Craft Brewery

Despite their respectably large size, nobody who knows anything could credibly claim that Summit’s anything but a local craft brewery. That said: After years of EPA appearing as the default local craft option on taps throughout the area, a bit of boredom had set in, as contrasted with the massive, publicity-churning success of Surly and the toadstools-after-a-rainstorm emergence of numerous mini-craft brewers from South Minneapolis to Stillwater.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Thus: With the Unchained Series, Summit gets out there and puts its name on beer we haven’t necessarily tried before, made by brewers to entertain people who dig (and often homebrew) serious beer. Financially, who knows — could be a wash. But in terms of reminding folks that serious and exciting brewing happens everyday at Summit, a fine move.

2. It Develops the Brewers as Characters

Each Summit Unchained beer is attached to a particular brewer. Golden Ale was created by Eric Harper. Now his photo is popping up on A Perfect Pint; he turned up in the Star Tribune, the City Pages blog, and, earlier in the series, on Flak Radio chatting about Kölsch (another of his creations which was actually created by brewer Mike Miziorko, who himself popped up at numerous events).

Similarly, Eric Blomquist was attached to the esoteric but delicious 90/-, the second in the series; brewer Mike Lundell was linked to the India Style Rye Ale, the third Unchained.

Consumers get used to the idea of brewers as artists and artisans. Brewers get to emerge from the brew cave and bask in the sunlight of public acclamation, and — probably more importantly — flex their muscles to create something personalized and wonderful that they get to share with the world at large. Good PR, good brand building, good employee recognition and retention. Smart.

3. It Weds Classic World Beer Styles with Local Provenance

There’s a reverence for classic forms that runs through the Unchained series — it’s less about making up bold new American originals than riffing off of and referencing — and sometimes even closely approximating — great if somewhat lesser known styles from overseas. Thus, the Kölsch, Scottish-style ale, and the Belgian golden ale — understandable from a taste perspective, but not yet tamed, Americanized and done to death. (The IRA’s kind of its own animal, but, similarly, isn’t a singular beast, but rather a riff on an established beer style.)

That such foreign tastes can be replicated and played with locally isn’t all that surprising, but it’s still fun to see a smart riff on a lesser-known style pop out of your friendly local brewer in St. Paul.

4. The Name is a Double-Edged Sword

At first, Unchained sounds pretty cool — it represents liberation! Creativity! Freedom! And then, you think — wait a second, if this is the “unchained” stuff, does that make everything else done by Summit the equivalent of slave labor? Is everyone not involved in Unchained just dragging their feet from the moment they arrive at work, miserable, eyes on the clock? I’ve been to Summit a number of times, and that’s certainly not the vibe — but “Unchained,” by celebrating and embracing creativity, does simultaneously play into and reinforce grumblers who think the rest of the brewery’s output has been too stable and / or conservative.

5. It Highlights the Fact that “Minnesota Beer” is an Increasingly Serious Thing

In terms of sheer numbers of breweries, Minnesota may not yet be the equal of Colorado, or Oregon, or Wisconsin. But these days, there’s happily no lack of stuff to talk about, between Surly’s consistently interesting output, the numerous upstarts (Lift Bridge, et al.), and Summit’s Unchained Series. It’s a good time to be a local beer drinker, and there’s every sign that it’s just going to get better from here on in.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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10 Comments

  1. Eric 07/26/2010

    Yes, yes, and yes. It’s great to be able to feel enthusiastic about Summit. Between the Horizon Red and all of the Unchained beers, they are showing what a large brewing operation can do when they put their mind to making really interesting beer.

  2. Jason Walker 07/26/2010

    Norton nailed it. Undeserved, yes, but boredom had set in, and Summit needed to step up and bolster its rep. I would agree with Eric, too, on Horizon Red. Love that one.

  3. Curtis 07/27/2010

    Summit needs to make all the Unchained beers (I haven’t tried Golden Ale yet….) either permanent additions to their lineup, or at least seasonal additions. Especially the IRA.

  4. EPA boring? Really? How about reliable, solid, consistent, and tasty.

    Frankly, aside from Surly, most of the new local breweries (if you can call contract brewed in Wisconsin local) are not very good. They might be different, but they’re far from stellar.

    Maybe Summit did need to shake things up a bit, but when I buy any of their products I can be assured the beer will be good.

    Not everything needs to be barrel-aged or ultra hoppy, have some wacky ingrediant just to be different, or clock in at 10%. There’s something to be said for a good solid session beer.

  5. I think that all four have be stellar beers, and have been interesting and innovative without simply being extreme. Really great stuff, right up there with the Unplugged series from Wisconsin’s New Glarus, which is my favorite brewery in the US for similar reasons. The Horizon Red Ale is also a great addition to their lineup.

  6. BrianJ 07/27/2010

    This most recent one wasn’t my favorite but I really appreciate what they’re doing. I wish they would take a cue from Schell’s Snowstorms and keep the good ones around. More to the point I wish they would sell Kolsch year round (if that means dropping Pilsener, which I like, I can live with that).

    I mostly agree with point #1 here. I love Summit and I think they are the most consistent and reliable MN brewery but boredom does set in with so many options available. It’s good for them to remind us that they can be more than the best beer at bars with bad selection.