Summit Beer: The Sonic Youth Of Craft Brews

March 14, 2011

You have every right to be jealous of Carey Matthews.

As the marketing coordinator at St. Paul’s Summit Brewing Company, Matthews is responsible for positioning Minnesota’s best-selling craft brews alongside clumsy, faceless giants like Budweiser and Coors. No, Summit isn’t on track to become the country’s most popular beer. That’s not in the plans, either. For Matthews and Co., it’s about staying true to self and leaning on a 25-year tradition even as competitors bubble up in the marketplace.

In that way, Summit is like the Sonic Youth of craft brews – established, respected, and damn good, but they have no interest in Top 40 radio. Similar to indie rock bands, craft brews must maintain the tricky balance of earning a following large enough to pay the bills without compromising style or flavor in the process. That’s where Matthews comes in, helping Summit make noise on the craft-brew scene without selling out.

This interview sprung from a simple idea – craft breweries and independent musicians share a similar plight. As the marketing coordinator at Summit Brewing Company, do you feel any pressure to maintain a best-kept-secret aura while trying to grow the business?
It is a tough balance, maintaining the small, independent cred, but still being a business that wants to grow. I think we do it by just being true to ourselves and our mission, to make great beers and never compromise. We distribute in 14 states now, but about 90 percent of our sales are in Minnesota. As for the other states, our biggest sales are right in this Midwest region, so we’re still staying pretty local. We have no interest in taking over the world or selling out to the highest bidder. We just want to make our beer our way, and hopefully people like it – whether that is someone who has been into craft beer for 10 years or 10 days.

Let’s face it – craft-brew fans are an enthusiastic bunch. What have you done to mobilize your biggest fans?
Social media has been a great tool to really open up communication with our fans. We try everyday to be on Twitter and Facebook, listening to what people are saying and sharing what is going on at the brewery. We are launching a new website in the next few weeks with the goal to really focus on that communication. We have a whole page dedicated to social media, including our summitbeerblog.com. We also wanted to share more about us, who we are as a motley bunch of beer lovers making brews in St. Paul. We think that by showing who is behind the beer, our fans will feel even more engaged with the brewery.

Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors own the American beer market. Beer happens to be a product where most consumers show fierce brand loyalty. How does Summit encourage consumers to experiment with something new?
It’s funny. People often think of Summit as being really big, but in reality, the vast majority of Minnesota beer drinkers still drink light lagers from the large breweries. We only have about 2.2 percent of the beer market in Minnesota, and we’re one of the biggest craft beers sold in this state. That means there are a ton of folks out there that have probably never even tried craft beer. We often get so insulated, surrounding ourselves with folks just like us who love the same things we do, including full flavored beers. We forget that so many people haven’t discovered the full spectrum of greatness that craft beer can bring. We make no secret of the fact that for us, and craft beer in general to grow, we need to convert those folks! This points back to your original question, about “best kept secret aura”. We can’t grow if we position ourselves as an elite product that only cool people can drink. That’s ridiculous.

The great thing about beer is there really is something for everyone. Think back to your first experience of discovering the potential of beer. For me it was a German hefeweizen – I never knew that beer could taste like that! From there I slowly discovered all the different styles that were out there. I think we can’t forget how great it feels to discover new things, but also that sometimes it takes awhile for people to open up their palates. We’re really excited about our Pilsener for that reason. We brew a traditional Bohemian style Pilsener, a crisp balanced beer that could really appeal to people just dipping their toes into non-light lager beers. Some people convert to craft beer after drinking a 90 IBU beer, but I suspect most people have a more gradual conversion process.

Summit’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Craft breweries are bubbling up across the country to meet growing interest. As an established company, do you rest on your laurels or continue to experiment?
We don’t think that sticking to tradition is resting on our laurels, but at the same time we recognize the growing and changing tastes of our consumers. No company wants to be stagnate, but we also don’t want to change due to the whim of fashion or trend. I think we strike a good balance between the two. We still sell a boat load of our classic EPA, the first beer we ever made back in 1986, but we continue to introduce new products to our line-up. Our limited release Unchained Series is a great example of trying something new, but doing it Summit-style. We let our individual brewers – not our sales team, not our Brewmaster, not our CFO – decide the beers in this series. That means one brewer might produce a new American-style hybrid beer with crazy ingredients, but another might look to traditional European ales for inspiration. It truly is about making the beers we want to make.

Can you name any instances in which Summit benefited from the use of social media?
A few months back we started to hear a chorus of complaints on Twitter about how tight our twist-off caps had become. This was not new news to us, but suddenly it was becoming much more public due to social media. We were able to respond instantly on Twitter that we were working on the problem and posted a piece on our blog the next day from our Packaging Manager that change was indeed coming in the form of pry-off caps. It was great to be able to answer those complaints in a quick, public way and really harness the power of our different social media outlets. Now that the pry-off conversion is actually happening, we continue to use social media to share the info with our fans. It was a classic example of using social media to listen to our consumer.

You probably have one of the most coveted jobs in marketing. What do you most enjoy about working for Summit?
I certainly feel very lucky to have my job, that is for sure! I think it is really great to work at a company where everyone is really passionate about what we do. Talk to any Summit employee and they will have an honest enthusiasm for our beer. I don’t think you could say that for a lot of companies. And it’s not just because we make beer, which logically seems like an easy product to get behind. It’s because we all love our beer and are proud to be part of this company. And, well, sure, having a free bar at work ain’t bad either.