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From Mayo H.S., they reached the (Four) Peaks of brewing business

August 29, 2018

When Mayo High School graduates Jim Scussel and John Hostak and two others founded Four Peaks Brewing Co. in Arizona two decades ago, there was little thought that it would become the state’s largest and most acclaimed brewery.

Most people thought the founders were nuts, Scussel said. Who’s going to drink “fancy beer”? The craft brew phenomenon was just in its infancy.

“I just knew: How can this country last on fizzy yellow beer,” Scussel said.

The brewery’s beginnings were decidedly humble. The founders bought an 1890s Bordens creamery in Tempe, Ariz., and converted it into a brewpub. Pictures from those early days show Hostak, a 1983 Mayo grad, chipping away at the stucco facade, and Scussel, class of 1985, knocking down cooler walls in a forklift.

Their brewery would become the state’s largest brewery and the 50th-largest in the country. Starting with a half-barrel brew system two decades ago, Four Peaks today brews more than 120,000 barrels a year.

In addition to the brewpub in Tempe, Four Peaks has restaurants in Scottsdale and at the airport and a producing facility five miles from the brewpub. Its flagship, Kilt Lifter beer, is sold in bottles and cans in Nevada, New Mexico, Hawaii, Colorado and California.

From the beginning, growth was robust but gradual — about 20 percent per year, Scussel said.

“We just started small,” Scussel said. “We had a little seven-barrel system and just started really small. A lot of these breweries now are growing astronomically. But we did slow and easy, and we went really deep in Arizona.”

In 2000 or so, Hostak, getting slightly bored with things, and another partner left the business and started a pizza place in Rocky Point, Mexico. Scussel remains the lone original founder of Four Peaks.

“We never forgot our Minnesota roots,” he said, crediting his and Hostak’s upbringing for the success they’ve enjoyed. From the beginning, their brewpub was a Minnesota Vikings bar. But more importantly, they looked for staff that shared their heartland values.

“When we hire staff, we really like to hire Midwesterners. It’s the work ethic,” Scussel said.

In 2015, sensing it had reached the limits of growth without a partner, Four Peaks owners sold the bar and its brand to Anheuser-Busch InBev, the beer behemoth. The news was greeted by many as a kind of betrayal, the brewery-that-could being gobbled up by the corporate titan.

But Scussel, who stayed on as an adviser, has little patience with such criticisms, calling such critics “the haters.”

“If we didn’t do that, we’d probably be floundering,” he said.

The sale opened up distribution possibilities outside of Arizona that would never have existed if Four Peaks had remained a free agent, he said. Staff, moreover, gained worldwide exposure by working with German brewers. The beers improved and so did the safety.

He argues that breweries are for some reason judged differently than technology companies when they strike it big.

“The Snapchats and the Ubers of the world are heroes. And all of a sudden, a brewery does it, and we are villains to some people,” he said.

The beer-making landscape is considerably different from the days when Scussel and Hostak were first starting out. Today there are more than 6,300 breweries in the U.S., six times the number that existed when the two Mayo grads started out, and the industry is showing signs of reaching a saturation point.

Yet, there’s still room for growth for the small neighborhood brewpub and microbrewery, Scussel said.

“I was in L.A. this weekend,” he said. “I mean, there’s a brewery on every corner. Those will be fine. It’s the regionals that are having a tough time.”

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