Founders: 20 Years of Triumph & Tribulation

Founders Brewing Co: 20 Years of Triumph & Tribulation in Grand Rapids

A RECENT VISIT TO THE WEST MICHIGAN BREWERY REVEALS HOW 20 YEARS HAS CHANGED THEM FOR THE BETTER

Back in 1996, Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens had comfortable jobs and a single shared idea: make the jump into uncertainty, by beginning a startup brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After having written their business plan and managing to secure several bank loans, Canal Street Brewing Company began as a modest two-person operation. 

The name 'Founders' is a tribute to the original, pre-prohibition brewers that were located on Canal Street in Grand Rapids, and was also the name to their original pale ale. It was adopted as the brewery's new name in 1997, the same year that Stevens and Engbers would witness near bankruptcy after brewing admittedly 'unremarkable' beers. Even when Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki joined the team in 2000, things were not ideal. "When I joined, it was pretty fucking dismal. My goal was to learn everything I possibly could about making beer while I still could."

And while the first few years of Founders Brewing Co. seemed uncertain, it wouldn't take long until rapid growth would greet them full force, thanks in part to a handful of specific beers and a new attitude. "We just tried to differentiate ourselves," says Engbers. "There were a lot of other breweries starting to brew the same thing, and people all of the sudden had other options if your beer wasn't any good." Their solution to the expanding audience's options: adopt the tagline 'Brewed for Us.' As in, brew the beers that you'd actually get excited about drinking, as a brewer. That attitude helped spawn game-changing beers like Dirty Bastard, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, CBS and All Day IPA, among others.

Fast forward 20 years, and Founders is at the forefront of the brewing industry. The past few years for the West Michigan makers saw a $42 million dollar expansion, a spur-of-the-moment 200,000 sf warehouse facility purchase, partnership and distribution with a global brand, several international honors (being named one of the top breweries and producing multiple top beers in the world), and most recently announcing a second brewery in Detroit. A long way from a near-bankrupt business.

It was with all of this triumph and in celebration of their 20 year anniversary, that we made our way to Grand Rapids recently–on the heels of their Detroit brewery announcement–to talk to the men that started it all. And to take a closer peek into 'Founders,' from tasting through 16 different barrels in their 'Beer Caves' (former gypsum mines) to touring each of their Grand Rapids facilities, including one seemingly dedicated solely to the production of All Day IPA.


THE BEER CAVES

Former gypsum mines span near infinite miles, 85 feet underneath Grand Rapids and create an ideal environment for storing Founders' barrel-aging program.

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We meet with the founders of Founders, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers in their taproom, and immediately order a round of late morning pints. Quickly after downing our 'welcome beer', we're off to explore the gypsum-mines-turned-industrial-warehouse a few miles from the main brewery. There, we were introduced to Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki and Cavemaster Jason Heystek. The mines are a naturally consistent 45 degrees. The stable temperature–with only minor variations in humidity–ensures a consistent aging environment for Founders’ beers.

What began as eight barrels, has spawned into nearly 7,000–housing 16 different Founders brands, with most barrels making up the KBS allotment. These barrels are brought up and down through a single freight elevator that can carry 16 barrels per ride, then emptied by hand. The process is laborious, but it's this kind of attention to detail that makes their beer so consistently great, and has earned Founders a reputation for world-class beers.

Cavemaster Jason Heystek leads the tour through the caves, stopping to sample along the way.

Cavemaster Jason Heystek leads the tour through the caves, stopping to sample along the way.

Many of the caves' halls sit mostly empty, after the recent release of Kentucky Breakfast Stout. KBS makes up a majority of the barrels in the caves.

Many of the caves' halls sit mostly empty, after the recent release of Kentucky Breakfast Stout. KBS makes up a majority of the barrels in the caves.

The first sampled beer is a brandy barrel-aged Redankulous.

The first sampled beer is a brandy barrel-aged Redankulous.

During our hour underground, we sample several of the barrel's offerings including the following: ReDANKulous (2017; aged 9 mo in brandy barrels – one of the best of the bunch right off the bat, it's sweet, smooth, easy to drink, with mild barrel flavor), Kentucky Breakfast Stout (2017; In my opinion this is the best year we’ve had – the bourbon is not overpowering and the coffee and chocolate are right out front), Backwoods Bastard (2011; Unfortuantely over-aged, oxidized– this is what happens when you age a beer too long), Dirty Bastard (2016; aged in a 10-year Ardbeg Scotch barrel – Scotch. Heavy, heavy Scotch), Smoked Apple Ale (2016; aged in bourbon barrels – light bodied and sweet), Sumatra Mountain Brown (2015; a hot, coffee-forward brown still waiting for the right moment to package), Imperial Lime Gose (2017; a 9% concoction aged in gin barrels – brewed with lime concentrate, lactose, and salt) and DKML (["Dick Kicker Malt Liquor"] a 13% imperial malt liquor aged in bourbon barrels – it's sweet with a familiar, distinct taste from childhood that we can't pin. Cotton Candy, is that you?).

We leave the caves warmer than we entered.

[Regarding the Dirty Bastard aged in 10-year Ardbeg Scotch barrels] ...this tastes like something you’d rub on a wound as anesthetic...
— Dave Engbers, Founder
Founder Dave Engbers and Cavemaster Jason Heystek describe their barrel program in the caves.

Founder Dave Engbers and Cavemaster Jason Heystek describe their barrel program in the caves.


THE BARREL HOUSE

Several barrel-aged boozers and a short van ride later and we arrive at Founders' impressive ancillary distribution and production center, the Barrel House (Internally affectionately referred to as the "WTF" [Warehouse Transfer Facility]). Dave Engbers briefly tells the story of how the idea to build the facility arose on a Monday and the property was bought the following Wednesday (earning it the nickname). It took them only 120 days to get this facility outfitted and operational. Oh, and it's 120,000 sf with capacity to produce an additional 250k barrels of beer per year (this alone is more than 99% of breweries in America). It's also enough space to coordinate their rapidly expanding distribution footprint. As we exit and see the city-block-long facility, we double check the build date of the warehouse with Engbers, "Oh yea, we built it this January." 

In total, Founders has the capacity to brew 1.25 million barrels of beer, at the time of publication (give it a few months and we're sure that number could change).

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We began making KBS in 2002, after the recipe for Breakfast Stout was adapted to withstand the aging process.
It is pretty cool that we started this little company with a couple guys and it has blossomed into 400+ employees and a $42 million expansion. We are spending a lot of money and hiring new people, but we are also bringing people into the community. It is our responsibility as a brewery to do what we do, but it is our community’s responsibility to really shine when these people do come to West Michigan.
— Jeremy Kosmicki, Brewmaster
Dave Engbers approaches the entrance into the 120,00 sf warehouse space built this year. Picture several football fields lined up end to end.

Dave Engbers approaches the entrance into the 120,00 sf warehouse space built this year. Picture several football fields lined up end to end.

As one of the breweries that opened up [in the first wave of craft beer] in the ‘90s, we helped create a group of enthusiasts out there – and created a demand.
— Dave Engbers, Founder, Founders Brewing Co.

THE MAIN BREWERY, TAPROOM & DETROIT EXPANSION

Once we had finally grasped the magnitude of Founders' new footprint, we headed back to the taproom for food and beer(s) with our hosts and talked mainly about their announcement the day before: The Detroit Taproom. Located in the Lower Cass Corridor neighborhood on Charlotte St., a couple blocks from the new Little Ceasars Arena, the taproom will be a unique venue that will draw on the “confidence and attitude” of Detroit.

They will also feature a brewing system taken from the original brewpub and make one-off beers just for the Detroit taproom. When so many of the nation's larger breweries have looked to expand their new facilities from coast to coast, Founders has chosen to stick 'close to home.' It's a true testament to the pride that Michigan brewers and craft drinkers exude.

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When you look at the similarities to Detroit and to Founders and consider the struggles and the growth, it just made sense that we should make this our second location. It’s our home state, it’s where we belong.
— Mike Stevens, Co-Founder
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We make our way through the new facility that's expanded their footprint on Grandville Avenue, rumbling inconspicuously beyond their taproom walls. Upon entering the brewhouse, we're reminded of the scale of the operation, thanks to a hanging sign that reads: 'One person would have to drink a 6-pack a day every day for 226 years to drain just one of our 1500bbl tanks. Get drinking!'

As part of their recent multi-million dollar expansion of their main brewery, the session beer industry standard, All Day IPA, has found a shiny new home and packaging line. It's not often that you think of breweries as factories, but watching All Day makes its rounds around the canning line in Grand Rapids makes you think of a state-of-the-art robotic assembly line.

And it's mesmerizing.

‘One person would have to drink a 6-pack a day every day for 226 years to drain just one of our 1500bbl tanks. Get drinking!’
— Sign greeting tour attendees, before entering the brewhouse
The original packaging sits on display at the Grandville Ave. taproom. Originally 'Canal Street Brewing Co.', their flagship pale ale provided the name they would soon adopt as their brewery moniker.

The original packaging sits on display at the Grandville Ave. taproom. Originally 'Canal Street Brewing Co.', their flagship pale ale provided the name they would soon adopt as their brewery moniker.

2017 marks an important milestone for Founders. Not only are they pushing the envelope and expanding their barrel-aging program with a new release every couple months; it is also their 20th anniversary. The tagline of this anniversary is “No Regrets.” The stories of their beginnings and hardships are well documented, but helped mold their philosophy, which would make them so successful. Check out this link for just a few examples.

It’s hard to believe, but there are still big things on the horizon for the Grand Rapids-based brewery. But we are eagerly awaiting and watching their next move. And you better believe we will be there when the doors open on the Detroit taproom.

Stay tuned.

 

–THR–


Photography by Jack Muldowney.

Authored by John Page & Jack MuldowneyJohn Page is a collaborator for The Hop Review, based in Detroit, Michigan. This is his third piece for THR, his first two being a writeup for HopCat and an interview with Detroit's Batch Brewing.

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Be sure to check out our 2015 interview with brewery Founder Dave Engbers and Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmickihere & our previous visit to the Beer Caves and 2016 Founders Fest, here.