My first sensory experience, as I enter Founders Brewing Company’s pristine facilities, isn’t the smell of hops, or the burbling sounds of brewing. It’s “Bananas and Blow” from Ween’s White Pepper blaring from every corner. Founders, like Ween, can’t be defined by a single genre and aren’t afraid to do something different. The story of Founders starts from the depths of pitch-blackness (and bankruptcy) with their cult-classic barrel-aged Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) and finishes light, delicious and very much on top with the golden hop sparkle of All-Day IPA.
It’s pretty incredible to imagine that Founders, which moved to its new digs in Grand Rapids, MI, in 2008, nearly tanked. According to co-founders Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, the roots of the company’s success primarily involved making beer that no one initially thought would sell. Take Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, for instance. “That all goes back to our bankruptcy scare,” says Stevens. “We couldn’t come even close to making our payments and defaulted on all of them. Once we realize we were going down, we figured we’d brew some beers were actually proud of, and that’s when everything changed. We created Dirty Bastard, an 8.5 percent [ABV] scotch ale, as our swan song for going out of business and, within months, started getting calls from wholesalers. From then on, everything was made with bigger, bolder aromatics.”
Plenty of those extreme beers, like KBS and Breakfast Stout, use the highest-possible quality ingredients. But, one of the most important ingredients to Founder’s success is family. The environment is very comfortable for such a big operation; you might even call it homey. There are beanbag chairs in the marketing department and a giant mural of hands clinking beer glasses painted by head brewer Jeremy Kosmicki’s wife on the back wall of the first brew room. It’s this type of camaraderie that makes Founders’ slogan, “Brewed for Us,” more than a catchphrase. I came away believing that this really is the beer these guys want to drink.
This is especially true when it comes to All-Day IPA, a beer that’s been a taproom staple for years but didn’t see the light of day until 2013. If bold, intense stouts and ales represented founders Stevens and Engbers in a younger, brasher stage in their lives, it’s All-Day IPA that defines them now: fathers and CEOs. Being responsible and/or accountable after a few of their 7.2 percent ABV Centennial IPAs is a chore in itself. All-Day IPA is their solution, and the public seems to agree. Just one year after its release, it’s the brewery’s best-selling beer. For a session ale, it’s just bursting with Amarillo hops, which happen to be Engbers’ favorite: “This is what heaven smells like.” I smelled the fresh hops, then smelled them again in the final product and I agree. All-Day may be a lighter beer, but it’s definitely still a slice of hop heaven.
Though Founders is known worldwide for stouts and IPAs, that old pilot system has spawned some crazy experiments, like last year’s Mango Magnifico Con Calor, which Stevens calls a “highly signature Founders beer, a total departure from what the world expected from us.” It was a different beast entirely, an ale brewed with mango and spiced with habaneros. But, Engbers adds, “We say ‘brewed for us’ and it’s kind of a catchall to say, if you don’t like it, it’s okay.”
So, even if you didn’t like that delicious Mango Magnifico, there’s still a Founders beer for you. Just don’t count on it being a wild ale. They have such a way with barrels, but much to my disappointment, cross-contamination is just too buggy. “That’s why we don’t do sours!” says Stevens. “We’d love to do sours if we could just buy another building for them.” Until then, I’m happy to rejoice in all things stout and hoppy.
After a recent $26 million expansion, Founders’ capacity sits right at 200,000 barrels. Back in June, the company’s annual Founders Fest was the perfect end-of-construction celebration. (Here are my favorite beers from the party!) But, that was just the beginning. The partners are set to invest another $25 million to more than triple their output. That’s a ton, well, many tons, actually. It’s likely that they’ll take a leap from 26th largest craft brewer to crack the top 10. What’s really refreshing is that they’ve gotten there in record time by brewing the beer they really want to drink themselves. Thanks for sharing, guys.
More beer on Food Republic: