The Incredible Story of Founders Brewing Company

The Incredible Story of Founders Brewing Company

By Andrew Dickey for Indiana On Tap  

The Founders Brewing Co. of Grand Rapids, MI has an amazing story that deserves to be shared.  It’s even more important to tell the tale now, as Founders is celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2017, a definite accomplishment.  Since nearly all of the Founders beers are available in Indiana, it’s important for us to know about the brewery, their history, their beers, and their philosophy. And as good as the beer itself is, a visit to the taproom might be in your future after reading this.

The Founders story begins way back when Mike Stevens, and Dave Engbers met at Hope College in Holland, MI during the last year of the 1980s. At a party after orientation, freshman Dave met junior Mike and they hit it off immediately. They ended up in the same fraternity, and Mike introduced Dave to a hobby he had recently picked up – home brewing.

After they both graduated (Mike ’91 and Dave ’93), they went their separate ways for work, Mike looking for businesses to start and Dave teaching, but they kept talking about trying to open a brewery together. Bell’s Brewery was a going enterprise in Kalamazoo and New Holland was just about to open in Holland (1996), but Mike and Dave were about 45 minutes to an hour away from these places and figured the Grand Rapids could use a brewery as well. In 1996, they incorporated as John Panell Brewing, but changed the name to Canal Street Brewing when they opened their first taproom on Monroe Street in 1997 in honor of the old brewing district of Grand Rapids.

The famous Founders logo was created by a patron in exchange for some free beer. image credit: Founders Brewing

That’s right – Founders was not the original name of the brewery, it was the third name. The Canal Street Brewing bottles had a black and white picture depicting some of the old brewery district brewers, with the word “Founders” above it, meaning that those old brewers were the founders of the new brewing movement. But because it was the most prominent word on the label, the brewery became known as Founders. In fact, the corporate name of the brewery is still Canal Street Brewing. The logo they use now was designed by a patron in exchange for some free beer; he made “Founders” the focus of the design and they have been known as Founders ever since.

In those first years it was just the two of them and they worked long hours tending bar when they weren’t brewing. Mike and Dave had a long road ahead of them, and with the 20th anniversary of their brewery this year, they have been collecting and posting many memories from the early years. The brewery is using a slogan – “20 Years, Zero Regrets” to commemorate the anniversary.  In their words, “Getting a brewery off the ground was no small feat!”

They often slept at the brewery, using the hoses for showers after 18-hour brew days.  But taking the big risks eventually paid off.  One great decision came from sheer necessity; they had to sell their beer filter in order to pay some bills, and thus became an unfiltered beer brewery.   Today it’s common to leave craft beer unfiltered, but at the time, it was uncharted territory.

Unfortunately, craft beer was about to go into a temporary decline in 1999. The reasons were many: an increase in breweries without an equal increase in demand, there was a fair amount of beer that was mediocre at best, and distribution was very difficult for small breweries. According to Beer Pulse, even the most “mature” craft market in the US, the Pacific Northwest, showed no growth during this period. Sadly, many breweries went under.

The Bolt Cutter Barleywine has a name with some significance. image credit: Beer Journal

Founders was losing money and identity.  Taproom sales were dismal, and the brewery’s income stream came solely from bartending tips. Mike and Dave realized their beer was not special enough to garner a following, so decided to brew the beer they would want drink and not worry about the masses. This led to the motto you see on their logo, “Brewed for Us.”  They were on the verge of bankruptcy, with bolt cutters on hand in case the landlord locked them out.  It looked like time was running out for Founders. Dave still has those bolt cutters in his office, and the brewery named its 15th anniversary barleywine Bolt Cutter in honor of the difficult times they came through.

By 2001, Founders was making daring, big beers that were complex in taste and character, but were expensive to brew. Thankfully, they were very popular with the drinkers and helped the brewery develop a following. An early Founders story from this time tells how a patron gave Dave some chocolate covered espresso beans that he washed down with the porter.  All the flavors went together so well – and thus Founders Breakfast Stout was born. Such innovation and daring paid off beer after beer.

Brewing beer for the “chosen few,” those that could understand and appreciate it, was the defining philosophy that saved them. Soon they had enough business to require bringing in another brewer – Jeremy Kosmicki.  His big ideas helped them keep moving forward, and eventually he became brewmaster.  It was in this period that Founders began to barrel age their beers, a concept that was relatively novel at the time.

According to Grant Ellison of the Grand Rapids Press, the idea of barrel aging developed during the creation of the Breakfast Stout because the flavors seemed to warrant aging. Jack Daniels Distillery found the barrel aging of beer amusing, and agreed to provide barrels. The Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) was the resultant beer, and many other barrel-aged beers would follow.

Founders’ beer lineup includes some great specialty beers. photo credit: Andrew Dickey

Soon Founders was gaining notoriety for their extreme beers, like the Dirty Bastard Scottish Ale that was introduced in 2002.  I discovered them about this time, and got to visit their original taproom where this “crazy beer” was available. Red’s Rye IPA was the first beer I tried from Founders, and it is still one of my favorites.  At the time, I had never experienced a beer this hoppy or flavorful, but I loved it. I remember being at Chumley’s for the tapping of CBS (Canadian Breakfast Stout), which was the KBS aged in barrels that recently held pure Michigan maple syrup!  The supply was so limited, all I got was a taste.

Founders was now outgrowing the original taproom, and in 2007, they opened a new taproom/brewery in a spacious old truck depot. They saw their popularity continue to grow as a new wave of craft beer interest ushered in a vast number of potential drinkers. By 2010, Founders was voted the fourth-best brewery in the world behind Cigar City, Alesmith, and 3 Floyds.  Then they were voted the second-best brewery the next two years (only being beaten by Indiana’s own Three Floyds!)  It is even more impressive when you realize they also beat Russian River, New Belgium, Stone, and countless other amazing breweries.

As Founders barrel aged lineup continued to grow, storing the barrels became an issue.  It was about this time that they began to use the caves of an abandoned gypsum mine 85 feet under the city.  Since they use over 3500 barrels annually, the space was ideal. They now have over 7000 barrels in the caves, and the whole place smells of chocolate and bourbon.  This year, Founders gave five lucky winners a tour of the caves, as permission to see them is very rarely granted.  It created a stir, and I hope they offer tours again.

In 2013, Founders began canning and by 2016 their beer was available in 37 states/19 countries. But perhaps the most startling development was the partnership they entered into with the family owned Spanish brewery Mahou San Miguel in 2014.  The Spanish brewery helped them with worldwide distribution, but Founders retained total autonomy in their brewing. Mahou San Miguel does not distribute in the United States and has no plans to do so; Founders has total logistical control here.  Founders PR Communications Assistant Francesca Jasinki describes the relationship as symbiotic, saying, “Mahou San Miguel trusts Founders with all domestic US matters, and has no interest in changing how they do business.”

The Brewers Association created a logo to identify independent craft breweries. Founders isn’t one of them. image credit: Brewbound

The Brewers Association has set up guidelines on what constitutes a craft brewery in the wake of “International conglomerates looking to trade on the growing market for microbrews.”(Grant Ellison: Grand Rapids Press).  According to the BA, a brewery is a craft brewery if they: a) produce less than 6 million barrels/year, b) are independent, being less than 25% owned/controlled by a company that is not a craft brewery, and c) are traditional, making the majority of their products using traditional or innovative ingredients.

Mahou San Miguel, which produces over 6 million barrels/year, has 30% ownership in Founders, so the BA does not consider Founders a craft brewery.  Prior to the partnership, Founders was an active member of the BA, and a part of their export development program that works to bring American craft beer to other parts of the world. Mike Stevens says this program is what led to Founders partnering with Mahou San Miguel while, “Still independently crafting the beer we want to drink.”

The partnership created a stir in 2014, and some were quick to demonize Founders as a sell out.  The Men’s Journal listed them among an article about “fake craft breweries and their real owners!” Founders took it all in stride, and decided they were done with BA. Mike said, “Ultimately the consumer will decide what ‘craft beer’ means based on quality and ingredients, and we’re very comfortable with that.”(Ellison) Founders is one of the best breweries in the Midwest, and I will continue to support and drink their products even if the BA doesn’t consider them craft.

Founders’ twenty years of brewing has culminated into what can only be considered a stellar lineup. Currently their year-round “flagship” line-up consists of six beers including the All Day IPA which helped start the current session IPA craze, and the Rübaeus which is a very tart crimson raspberry ale. There are also beers in Founders Specialty lineup, including the Curmudgeon Old Ale that is Mike’s and Dave’s favorite Founders product, the Sumatra Mountain brown ale with coffee that I have found ages very well, and of course the Breakfast Stout. Using oats, chocolate, and coffee, this is a rich and flavorful beer.

Rumor has it that the CBS may come back, aged in barrels that previously held whiskey, and then maple syrup. photo credit: A Perfectly Happy Man

Perhaps as well known as the flagships, but less commonly tasted are the Founders barrel aged lineup.  April sees the KBS released with annual fanfare, while Doom is a barrel aged Imperial IPA and the Frootwood is a cherry ale aged in barrels with maple. Currently, the DKML is in stores.  This is a barrel-aged malt liquor using lager yeast from Mahou San Miguel and goes off at 14% ABV. There has been some buzz online that the Canadian Breakfast Stout will be re-released this year; if that happens, I trying it alongside the Frootwood in order to compare the maple notes.

To celebrate this beer lineup and their two decades in the business, Founders will be having an anniversary party at the taproom on Saturday, October 14th with lots of great music, and other activities.  To commemorate this milestone, Founders is releasing Tank Bender, a barrel aged eisbock.  It will only be available at the party because Founders wants to “illustrate the importance of their home base” who have supported them from the beginning. More details for this anniversary gala will be available soon on Founders website.

From simple beginnings and the weathering of tough early years, Founders has paid its dues and continues to make great beer.  Mike and Dave have stayed true to their dreams, and brought creativity to the craft beer scene through their barrel aging line.  Their first twenty years have been amazing, and I wish them success for the next twenty and beyond. Definitely no regrets.

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