Summit’s Unchained 21: Us and Them is the brainchild of brewer Gabe Smoley. Gabe is a passionate craft brewer and wants the Unchained 21 to be able to tell a story of two types of beer drinkers; us and them. I was set to sit down with Gabe at Summit to chat over a pint about this very tale and then “the crud” intervened. Not wanting to get Gabe and anyone else I crossed paths with sick, I opted for an email interview. Below is the transcript of our conversation. Our paths did cross at Winterfest and we chatted in-person there about the beer. I am charged with that task of helping you all understand the really important story this beer has to tell. The concept is interesting and should make you think.
1) What do you like about the Summit Unchained Series as a brewer?
The Unchained Series is a great opportunity for each of the brewers at Summit to explore their own personal ideas, beer preferences, and brewing concepts. We all have a different approach to how we design our Unchained projects, which is one of the reasons there is such a wide variety and diversity in each entry into the series.
2) Where did you find your inspiration for Unchained #21?
This is my second Unchained beer and I’ve taken the methodology of trying to come up with something new and original to offer our Summit fans, which in this era of craft beer is not always easy to do. I don’t simply want to make a beer, I also want to have an honest project that we can present to people as truly being something unique. Honesty in presentation is important to me. So, in an attempt to achieve all those objects and, of course, make a really good beer, I thought of presenting people with a parti-gyle (the practice of making 2 beers from the same mash) beer so that a very old, historically practical brewing practice could be introduced to the current craft beer crowd. I also wanted the two different beers produced from this project to have a connection with something that Summit beer drinkers are familiar with, to sort of have a “point of reference” for comparison and enjoyment. That’s why I decided to deconstruct the Saga recipe into two extreme versions of that familiar beer. Then the final piece, to make the project truly unique, I needed to figure out the logistics of putting these two beers into the same six pack!
I think craft beer drinkers are constantly comparing new beers with their favorites, beers they’ve had before, or with flavors they like. Because this Unchained project tries to incorporate all those concepts, I felt like the best way to have a real, new craft beer drinking “experience” was to offer these two beers in one package. I wanted to make that easy for our Summit fans and I think introducing these beers in one package accomplishes that.
4) Where do you see the IPA style going in the future? Are the consumers’ palates still hungry for as hoppy as possible, or do you think that Session IPAs are becoming more widely available because that is what the consumer wants?
I think we sometimes forget how small the craft beer drinking community is compared to beer consumers as a whole. There are still so many people that have never even tried a craft beer, let alone explored the diversity of all the different beer styles they have access to now. So I think hoppy beers are here to stay. Craft beer drinkers like their beers to have flavor and that’s what big, hoppy beers provide. There might be a shift, however, with us “aging” craft beer drinkers who no longer solely seek out the most exclusive, highest alcohol, smallest pour sized beer they can get. Many of us have busy careers and lots of children at home so we want to continue to enjoy the flavors craft beers have to offer without the negative side effects of “over indulgence.” I’m one of those craft beer casualties. Session IPAs offer all those great flavors of a conventional IPA without the ABV side effects. I think the Session IPA crowd will continue to grow.
5) Tell me about your journey as a brewer. How did you initially get interested in craft beer? How long have you been at Summit? Have you brewed elsewhere?
I started by making terrible beer in my basement back in college. I think I would have gone down a different path if my first few batches were good. Instead, I was so driven (angry?) about how my beers were turning out that I became dead set on figuring out the technical processes of beer and learning the science. After several years of self-study, I got an assistant job at a brewpub in Spokane, Washington. I was attending Gonzaga University for my Master’s degree. Not in brewing, of course, because this was 2008 and going to school to be a brewer was still really a crazy pipe dream. “Be a brewer for a living? Nobody does that!” The assistant job eventually led to the head brewer position, which I did for nearly three years. Great place to earn my chops. My wife and I started a family and decided to move back to Minnesota. I took a position on Summit’s bottling line because I really just wanted to work at Summit and there weren’t a lot of brewery options in Minnesota at that time. I got the opportunity to move into a brewing position at Summit when a vacancy arose in 2010. And that’s how I became a Minnesota Brewing Legend (or so my mom says).
6) When comparing the MN craft beer landscape to the rest of the nation, where do we fit in and where can we go in regards to being a craft beer destination?
I think Minnesota still has a long way to go. There are some exceptional beers, breweries, and brewers here and we need to continue to recognize those. I think there is a bit of a misconception with craft beer that craft + local = good. That’s not always the case. It is our responsibility to support those breweries that are really dedicated to brewing excellence. That’s why I like working at Summit so much. Our hallmarks are, and always WILL be, quality and consistency. Just like this most recent unchained series release and all the rest, some people will like the beers and some people won’t. Personal preferences are very subjective. But it won’t be because our beers are “wrong” or “bad.” Our beers will never be labelled as being of poor quality or lacking in consistency. This should be the gold standard and focus for every beer and brewery. Our consumers are not our guinea pigs.
7) How exciting is the 30th anniversary for you and which month is your team beer coming out?
This is going to be an awesome year not only for Summit beer drinkers but for us at the brewery too. Not only will we have four special, limited release beers to celebrate our 30 years, but we are doing small batch brews on our pilot system for each month. These beers will be available at our Beer Hall. The brewers are pairing up with other employees at the brewery to get everybody involved. My team will be concocting something in July. I can’t spill the beans on that beer yet, though.
8) When you aren’t drinking Summit, what other beers do you gravitate towards?
My beer preferences are as finicky and fickle as my eldest son’s preference in macaroni noodle shapes (currently it’s Star Wars, by the way, but I think we are about to switch to Ninja Turtles). I am not interested in exploring a new beer, style, or brewery if I’m not confident in all three. A while ago, I was really into drinking sours. I’ve had a few that made the muscles in my cheeks go into shock. Real palate crushers. Now, I’m drinking a lot of well made, accessible IPAs. I suppose that’s only convenient since I just made two of them! Ask me again in a week, though. It will probably be different.
In meeting Gabe at Winterfest, I saw first-hand how much he believes that as craft beer drinkers evolve, so will their style preferences. While Gabe enjoys the discussions centered around what each person likes, he wants to see the end of the beer snobbery and idea that there is always one beer that is right while all the others are wrong. In Us and Them, he has provided a conversation starter as well as two great options to make everyone happy. As craft beer drinkers, we have an imperative to respect the subjective nature beer preferences as well as welcome new craft drinkers to the conversation. What there is no room for is one-upmanship and an attitude that people need to prove they are worthy to drink craft beer. Unchained 21 is proof that there is room for all types of drinkers. Prost!