GRAND RAPIDS, MI
A Weekend with Founders: Behind the Scenes at the Acclaimed Grand Rapids Brewery
Images & insight by photographer and contributor, Hilary Higgins
The Chicago craft brewing scene is an amazing thing. However, if you’re looking to get out of dodge for a weekend–preferably to another city with some amazing beer to offer–consider moving "Beer City, USA," Grand Rapids, Michigan, to the top of the list. A mere 3-hour jaunt from Chicago's city limits, Grand Rapids is close enough for a weekend trip, and far enough to warrant a vacation.
With 40+ craft breweries under its belt, Grand Rapids has cultivated a bit of a craft beer mecca. However, though there are incredible lesser-known breweries (I’m looking at you, Brewery Vivant), Founders Brewing Company has undoubtedly become the city's beer icon. So much so, that 2016 saw the 9th annual Founder’s Fest–a day long festival dedicated to the current portfolio of Founders beers, as well as tastes of rare and experimental beers that the brewery is crafting.
So, we decided to jump in the car and head up to Grand Rapids, to take a closer look behind the scenes at the famed West Michigan brewery–and spend some time getting to know the Founders team...
Once we made it into town, our first stop was the Founders taproom, where we had the chance to catch up with Co-Founder Dave Engbers and Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki and a few others from the Founders family. We shared a few beers, while Dave discussed their recent taproom expansion and the reception of Founders on the West Coast. Jeremy discussed what drove him to create the All Day IPA back in 2009. He says that he wanted a beer that was hop-forward, while still being drinkable–something that didn’t really fit the Founders portfolio at the time. With the success of the All Day IPA, Jeremy was also able to create the PC Pils, another session beer that spoke to drinkability while still maintaining a bit of hoppy on-brand character. Jeremy and Dave also talk about the possibility of expanding into Europe where American beer styles are starting to gain some serious traction.
It becomes clear how Founders has come to be such a respected name and well-oiled machine. You would be hard pressed to find a more genuine co-owner than Dave Engbers. He candidly appreciates the past failures in their company history, the heights they’ve been able to achieve thus far, and the freedom they now have to move the brand forward. Almost more impressive though, is that the more staff we meet–whether it be a distributor, a designer, a bartender–I get a sense of how much genuine pride they have in the company. Over the years, Dave and co-founder Mike Stevens have created and grown a company culture that is invested in expanding the Founders brand while still maintaining the humility and excitement around creating great beer.
The highlight of the trip was, hands down, the Caves. Founders does their barrel-aging 85 feet underground, in humidity- and temperature-controlled caves that once acted as a gypsum mine dating back to the 1890’s. Once we got underground, our tour guide, Jason Heystek hands me his business card, obviously listing his roles at the company: Director of Planning, Packaging, Inventory & Logistics/ Lead Guitar. The Planning, packaging, inventory and logistics credit his role as the master of the barrel-aging process. The “Lead Guitar” refers to his station in the Founders family band, The FBC All-Stars who are slated to play at Founder’s Fest. Clearly...this guy was the best.
As we moved through the caves housing more than 7,000 barrels, I began taking in the chocolaty-bourbon smell, and Jason jumps up onto one of the barrels and pulls out a giant baster among other cleaning and beer extraction tools. The first beer we tried was a young, future (2015) KBS. The KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout), has become a signature in the Founders portfolio and highly sought after, as you are likely aware. Less than a year into the aging process, it still has a bit of that alcoholic heat to it, compared to a 2013 KBS that had been oxidizing for a few more years. We also sampled the Backwoods Bastard, a Scotch ale that has been barrel-aging since 2011. It was beautiful. We end the tour by tasting a little experimental porter, aging in a local hot sauce barrel that shares the cave space. And, it definitely tasted of hot sauce. Founders announced in January that they are expanding their Grand Rapids reign yet again and will include a location that will be focused mainly on barrel-aging.
Once back above ground, we headed the three miles back to the taproom where Founders Education Ambassador, Marklyn Behling, gave us a tour of the brewing facility. Like any brewery tour, she takes us through the history of the brewery. However, the interesting thing about Founders is how many stories highlight the initial failures as guiding points that ultimately lead to staying 'true to themselves.' For example, when you’re on the tour, ask how the Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale came across its name. Do it.
Aside from soaking up the history, watching the current level of production on just the All Day IPA alone was pretty damn awe-inspiring.
The next morning, we decide to take a little daytrip out to the beach. Michigan beaches do not get enough credit. Between the grassy sand, serene freshwater lakes, and a couple cases of All Day IPA–it’s the perfect getaway. I would definitely campaign for All Day to be the ultimate Midwestern beach beer. California can keep to their Coronas.
If you wanted to do a bit more driving and really have yourself a Michigan beer day, you could even stop at New Holland Brewing in Holland, MI (about a 30-minute trip outside Grand Rapids) or head south to Kalamazoo to check out the Bells Brewery facilities. Itching for a cider run? Vander Mill is about a 20-minute drive from Grand Rapids.
Now it’s finally time to head back to Grand Rapids for the main event, Founders Fest. Upon entering, people immediately flock the lines to get a taste of the more rare beers, some of which are extremely limited release, rarely bottled and distributed. Among the few that we actually got our hands on was a limited edition KBS. Believe me, it’s worth the hype. Also on that list were the Lizard of Konzilla (a dessert stout with vanilla, anise and black berries), a Cask-Aged Curmudgeon, and a Blushing Monk. This is more than just a beer-tasting festival though. With more than 6,000 attendees, Founders Fest is a celebration of the town and how far this brewery has come.
The real highlight of the fest is when the Founders staff band, The FBC All-Stars take the stage. They nail some classic rock covers, throw in a sax solo, bring up a bunch of painted ladies and overall just look like the most fun you could possibly have performing on a stage. Jason Heystek even comes in to close out the performance on lead guitar (as promised), for “Highway to Hell” and the crowd erupts.
In my last year of college, when craft beer really started flooding the shelves, the first one I truly loved was the Founders Red’s Rye IPA. That was the beer that made me want to delve into craft beer. To meet the man that crafted it, and hang out with the truly wonderful guys and gals behind that company was a singular experience.
Founders Brewing Company has come a long way and I can’t wait to root on their next steps.
Authored by and photography by Hilary Higgins.
Hilary is a Chicago-based food and lifestyle photographer, and contributor to The Hop Review. Her photos are rooted in a love for connecting with people's stories and communicating the genuine moments of day-to-day life. Her work has also been featured in the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, Draft Magazine and Food Network Magazine.