Brewer Profile: Summit’s Damian McConn

Damian McConn 1page

Summit Brewing head brewer Damian McConn // Photo courtesy of Summit Brewing Company

Lass, lad, bugger, bloody.

The words pepper Damian McConn’s sentences as frequently as “for sure” and “ya know” flow from the mouths of native Midwesterners. It’s not surprising: Damian grew up in Ireland and lived there until moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, when he was 17. After Scotland came London, and, a few years later, Minnesota.

The head brewer of Summit Brewing Company says he didn’t know much about the state before moving here. “I knew it was somewhere west of Chicago and bloody cold in wintertime,” he says, chuckling. “That much I knew.”

Just being aware of the infamous winters didn’t quite prepare him for his first encounter with it, though. “I got off the plane in January and it was eight below and there was a foot-and-a-half of snow,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘It’s like the Russian front out here! It’s brutal!’”

He jokes that he briefly considered getting back on the plane and going back to London. Instead, Damian took his backpack and brewing knowledge to Sherlock’s Home in Minnetonka—the reason he’d left his family, friends, and job at Guinness. Fifteen years later, he’s still here. Except now, instead of brewing small-batch British-style ales at Sherlock’s (which closed in 2003), Damian oversees Summit’s 150,000-barrels-a-year operation, and is pals with just about everyone in the beer business. As for his opinion of Minnesota, where he and his wife are raising their three children?

“It grows on you,” he says with a smile.

Damian McConn is the kind of guy who shakes your hand firmly while looking you in the eye and whose smile makes you feel like you have known each other for years instead of seconds. He talks fast and emphatically, sometimes a tricky combo as an interviewer considering his thick Irish accent. He’s also a wealth of knowledge—about beer, sure, but also distilling, culture, history, and science. From the exact dates of recipes he’s revived for Summit’s Union Series to the reasons behind Dublin’s initial resistance of craft beer (which he helped bring to the market), Damian’s capacity to recall information would be intimidating if it weren’t for his quick smile and sincerity. Just like his brewery’s flagship EPA beer, Damian is approachable yet interesting, familiar yet novel.

Unlike many in his field, whose careers started as a hobby before becoming full-time, Damian was more interested in history and science than beer growing up. “I was thinking about studying biochemistry at Trinity College in Dublin, or organic chemistry somewhere in the U.K.,” he says. “Then my older brother told me about this program in Scotland.”

The program was Brewing and Distilling BSc at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh. His brother had heard about it while studying law in the U.K. and knew it would give Damian’s interests in biochemistry, chemistry, and physics a practical application. “He told me there was almost 100-percent certainty of getting a job after graduating,” Damian says. “Of course, when you’re Irish, you’re always looking for employment—” he pauses and gives a little laugh, acknowledging the gentle jab at his homeland. “So I said, ‘Yeah, sure I’m interested.’” And off to Scotland he went.

Damian originally planned to pursue a career in distilling, not brewing. He studied both trades at university and was drawn to whiskey. But beer beckoned.

Around the same time Damian wrapped up his first year in Edinburgh, a small brewery, the Irish Brewing Company (“Real original chaps, they were,” he jokes), opened near his home in Kildare County. It was the first craft brewery in Ireland and they wanted Damian to help brew their craft beer of choice: pilsner. “A craft pilsner, of all styles!” Damian says in mock horror. “In a land of black beer, all we did was Czech-style pils. It was great.”

There was no infrastructure for craft beer in Dublin then, and the team spent a lot of time defending what they were trying to achieve. Even his colleagues at university doubted the brewery’s mission. “My friends from France and Germany said, ‘Look, Damo, you can make the best pilsner in the world, but you’re trying to sell it in Ireland, a country that’s been exposed to stout and ale for 250 years!’ It was a real struggle.” He shrugs, then continues: “I think part of that challenge appealed to us—trying to break through the barriers and make craft pilsner in a land that had no idea what a craft pilsner was.”

Back at school, though, Damian kept studying distilling. He stayed on that path for three years—which is when Guinness came calling. “It’s funny,” he says. “Most of the lads who wanted to become distillers ended up in the brewing industry, and most of the people interested in brewing ended up distilling. I have no idea how it happened, but it’s certainly true.”

Even though his heart had been set on whiskey, a job offer from the world-famous Guinness brewery eased Damian’s decision to make the switch. “When you’re an Irish lad growing up, Guinness is such an icon,” he says. “It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

He worked on the technical track at Guinness, dealing with efficiency issues and other procedural problems. While he didn’t get to flex his creative muscles—“You don’t go to the head brewer and say, ‘Hey, I have an idea to change the recipe for that black beer we’ve been making for 250 years’”—Damian says his time at the megabrewery was just the opportunity he needed to gain experience and learn the industry.

Beyond learning a lot, Damian’s time at Guinness also helped him toward the goal he set when starting out in the beer business: namely, to work for a large-scale brewery, a small brewpub/retail location, and a regional brewery. Guinness fulfilled the first category, but to notch off the others he decided to look abroad. He reached out to a former professor to stay up-to-date on any job openings that might pop in the United States.

The call from his professor saying Sherlock’s Home was hiring—and looking for a U.K.-trained, European-educated brewer—came at just the right time. Damian had been at Guinness for three years and things were going well—until Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to create Diageo. The new company became the world’s largest producer of spirits (including Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, and Baileys) and a major player in the beer and wine markets. The merger completely altered the atmosphere of the brewery. “The whole culture [at Guinness] changed over night,” Damian says. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve had some great experiences here with a large brewer, but there’s an opportunity knocking at my door to go to the States and experience the retail side of the beer industry.’ So, I hightailed it to Minnesota.”

Going from Guinness in London to a small brewpub in Minnesota was a huge transition. Instead of being one of nearly 2,000 employees, Damian was now one of only a few. He went from working on the technical side of a giant brewery to the hands-on experience of a head brewer for a small operation. The pub made mainly cask-conditioned beer, but Damian also experimented with barrel aging, new ingredients, and different styles. He embraced the retail side of the business, interacting with customers and constantly seeking ways to push quality, consistency, and innovation. And he got one step closer to fulfilling the final part of his checklist: now that he had experiences with breweries large and small, it was time to find a regional opportunity.

Damian left Sherlock’s in 2003, when the owner decided to create the Granite City chain. Although he was asked to come on as part of the new operation, he chose not to, saying he was uncomfortable with the concept, which involved making wort in a central facility—in this case Ames, Iowa—and then shipping it to the satellite locations around the Midwest. “When you’re doing that, you’re shipping the product at its most vulnerable state,” Damian says. “I told him, ‘You’re breaking the laws of God and man when it comes to making beer.’ Then I called up Mark [Stutrud] at Summit and he said, ‘Yeah, we’ll figure something out. Why don’t you come on over.’”

That was almost 13 years ago.

Next Page: A Day in the Life at Summit

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road, seeking out good food, drink, conversation, and fodder for her next story.