Founders Brewing Co.
We discover how Founders Brewing Co. gives an exciting second life to Kentucky bourbon barrels with iconic beers such as KBS and Backwoods Bastard
WORDS: Shannon Long PHOTOGRAPHS: Steph Harding
Wednesday 06 December 2017
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The sun is shining. The birds are singing. The patrons are merrily sipping on their various beers. It’s the perfect day to visit Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.
Although this is nowhere near my first visit to Founders, Ferment encouraged me to venture further down the beer-filled rabbit hole based in what has been affectionately named “Beer City, USA.” I have a personal affinity for Founders, as it acquired my craft beer virginity many years ago. I used to be an avid Guinness drinker until a wise bartender saw the folly of my ways and recommend Founders’ Oatmeal Stout on nitro. And with that first sip, my perspective on beer was forever changed.
During its twenty years in business, Founders Brewing Co. has turned many consumers onto craft beer through its taproom and 46-state and 26-country distribution footprint. Getting to this point of worldwide recognition for quality and innovation hasn’t been an easy journey for Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens. As co-founders of Founders Brewing Co., they defaulted on their bank loans, stole toilet paper when they couldn’t afford it, and nearly slipped into bankruptcy on multiple occasions.
While sipping on a Mosaic Promise, Dave explains to me that from 1999 to 2006, they were struggling to get through the next week, let alone the next ninety days. They were begging their investors for just $20,000 more when, in reality, they likely needed $200,000. “I don’t think many people wanted to work for us back then,” Engbers remarks.
Although he might not have realized it at the time, he already possessed the solution for getting out of this financial slump: Jeremy Kosmicki. During the early 2000s, Jeremy was working on the bottling line, but today many know him as the Brewmaster at Founders, where he is simply known as “Jer.”
Although his shy, sensitive smile and glasses might not be noticed among the hoards of friendly drinkers, Jeremy’s long black hair and goatee are unmistakable. He is attributed as being a significant reason Founders is recognised as a global leader in the craft beer industry. “Jer is remarkably creative. He is constantly pushing the envelope, thinking of new ideas without resorting to novelty,” says Dave.
Dirty Bastard was the beer that gave us confidence as a young brewery
However, Jeremy wasn’t always the superstar we see today; when he started on the bottling line at Founders as a passionate homebrewer, craft beer and brewing weren’t considered cool.
Being a brewer didn’t warrant the celebrity status it does today. Although he has always had a keen sense of taste and a knack for brewing and flare, the beers Founders brewed in the early days were mediocre at best in his opinion. But Dave and Jeremy are more than pleased that they stuck through the darkest days, as the excitement of producing approximately 450,000 barrels this year looms within their reach.
Just ten short years ago, Dave was bouncing Jeremy’s cheques and preparing for the real possibility of losing his house and car. So what exactly changed to cause this upswing?
More than anything, they started being a bit more selfish. Dave, Jeremy, and the Founders family decided to stop brewing the beer they thought people wanted them to make, and they started to brew the beer that they wanted to drink. “If we’re going to go out of business, we are going to do it on our own terms,” says Dave.
Prior to this revelation, their brands consisted of beers such as Founders Pale Ale and Founders Amber Ale. But then came a beer as bold and unapologetic as its name, Dirty Bastard.
According to Dave, “Dirty Bastard was the beer that gave us confidence as a young brewery to not give a shit about what anybody else said. It allowed us the freedom to make our own decisions and maybe be a bit reckless.” This 8.5% ABV scotch ale featuring seven types of imported malts is the lovechild of Founders’ unfiltered creativity. “When we got kicked down, we got kicked a lot. We basically said this is our business and we are going to do it our way. We did take a little bit of a ‘fuck you’ attitude.”
This speaks to the understanding that Founders is more than just a beer. Dave explains: “We’re not just a brewery, we’re a lifestyle. We live a certain lifestyle. This is family.”
Although Jeremy wasn’t trained formally as a brewer, years of homebrewing and professional brewing experience have rightfully earned him the title of Founders’ Brewmaster. According to Dave, “He is a brewer’s brewer in that the quality of the liquid is the number one priority.”
Today, Founders is able to afford a quality control program with the latest lab technology, much to Jeremy’s delight. Jeremy manages the overarching vision for Founders, and his greatest pleasure is “to take people’s ideas and turn them into a reality.” The Founders Production Team now runs a fleet of six brewing systems with capacities ranging from just three barrels to three hundred.
Over his many years in the industry, Jeremy has settled on some tried and true advice for all new and struggling brewers: stick to the basics of sanitisation and cleanliness to maintain consistency and quality. “Wear your gloves when you’re handling anything around beer product,” he urges. He explains that quality is critical as educated consumers have come to expect only the best in today’s hyper-competitive market, and Founders beer quality is unmatched.
For example, Founders’ Mosaic Promise began as a taproom favourite, but today it is a seasonal release, appearing in the market each August due to its high demand. If you’re lucky enough to have a Founders’ Mosaic Promise, you will find a beer that is clean, rich, and golden in colour. Featuring exclusively Mosaic hops and a 5.5% ABV, this beer was a product of Kosmicki’s desire to use Mosaic hops and Golden Promise malt in a Founders beer. “Based on rubbing the Mosaic hops, I could tell that there was a lot going on there. It got its name because it is like a mosaic; it has so many different characteristics that come together.”
The packaging’s inspiration hangs in the Founders Taproom, and features Ninkasi, the goddess of beer, who would undoubtedly be tickled by the considerable hop aroma and masterful blending of this sought-after beer.
This artful use of hops is common for Founders, who use a significant amount in a majority of their beers. Hops are king these days and having a consistent hop supplier is key. As such, brewers from all across the world venture to Yakima Valley, California, during harvest. There, you will find variations in hop strains, as well as subtle difference between the same hops from different growers.
Even the time of harvest can have an impact on the character of the hops, Jeremy explains: “You’re going to get different characteristics from an early or late harvest. Earlier hops are generally a little bit fruitier. They get a little more mild as they go on, and you start to get more of this dank, weed-like note that will turn into honey and garlic characters.” It is the art of navigating these nuances and identifying key characteristics that allows Jeremy to select the specific hop lots to be used in the following year’s beers.
This year alone, Founders is projected to use 850,000 pounds of hops, a significant portion of which will be used in the first IPA that Founders produced: Centennial.
It is a quintessential example of a Midwest IPA with a perfect balance between the hop and malt, sporting a 7.2% abv. Although it boasts a 99 on RateBeer.com and regularly wins in blind taste tests against Bell’s Two- Hearted or Russian River’s Pliny The Elder, Centennial doesn’t get brought up as often as it should with beer enthusiasts. This may be due to the fact that most of the attention is being cast on Centennial’s big-little brother, All Day IPA.
All Day IPA was created when Founders was looking to keep all the flavour of Centennial, but lower the alcohol content. As Dave became a family-man, he found himself working at the brewery each day, which, of course, required a few beers along with meetings. At the end of the day, he claimed he would have a hard time staying awake when reading a bedtime story to his children. Originally named Endurance, All Day IPA was designed to keep your taste buds satisfied while keeping your senses sharp. At only 4.7%, it demonstrates the complex flavours of a full bodied IPA with a lower alcohol level.
According to Jeremy, “we weren’t the first session IPA to market, but we were the first ones to really go for it.” Arguably, Founders helped to define the current session IPA category with All Day IPA. This is the beer that escalated Founders’ popularity beyond such fan favourites as Centennial, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Rubaeus, and Dirty Bastard.
While All Day IPA was designed to keep you going all day with a well-balanced beer, Founders has no problem leveling you with flavour and content. Rubaeus was created to shock your palate and catch your eye. Bright pink in colour, you can’t help but notice Rubaeus from across the room. While there are plenty of fruit beers on the market, Rubeus stands out due to its complete lack of subtlety.
“Founders doesn’t do subtle very well,” Dave confirms. Your first sip will pummel you with the taste of fresh raspberries, but the blend of sweet, tart, and refreshing flavour make this bold beer recognisable and extremely popular in an oversaturated category.
Barrel-aged beers spend months in an abandoned gypsum mine
Another Founders creation that is anything but subtle is Backwoods Bastard, the older, boozier brother of Dirty Bastard. Spending months in a bourbon barrel, Dirty Bastard becomes nearly unrecognisable.
According Jeremy: “Fresh Dirty Bastard has a little bit of a hop pop to it that, with some ageing and some oxidation, really rounds it out to feature more of the malts and natural woodiness. It takes well to the flavours of the whiskey.” This 11.2% ABV testament to barrel ageing brings with it an aroma of scotch, oak, sweet caramel, and roasted malts.
A large part of the secret to Founders’ successful barrel ageing programming is the subterranean cave where the maturing beer rests. One hundred feet below ground, where the temperature is stable throughout the year, Backwoods Bastard, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and the other barrelaged beers spend months in an abandoned gypsum mine.
Jeremy explains: “When you walk down into that place, the overwhelming smell of bourbon hits you.” Today, a sea of barrels lie in these caves, as well as the Founders Barrel Ageing Facility called “WTF”. But it wasn’t always like this; first brewed in 2003, Jeremy remembers his infamous Kentucky Breakfast Stout was released “at a time when people probably weren’t ready for it. That’s why it spent so much time in our beer cooler.” Fifteen years later, Kentucky Breakfast Stout has an entire week dedicated to its release, with a frenzy of beer lovers waiting in line at Founders, bottle shops, and beer bars to get their taste. While owning a literal cave full of beer would go to many of our heads (add it to the bucket list), Dave and Jeremy stay humble and remember their product’s roots.
With trends like barrel aging, wild ales, and New England style IPAs at the forefront of a craft brewer’s mind, many forget that it was the United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, and Belgium which gave the original styles to American craft brewers. In the past two years, Jeremy has collaborated with Beavertown and Abbeydale, recognising that “the United Kingdom, London in particular, and Scandinavia are really farther ahead than most places.”
Dave echoes this observation after visiting many United Kingdom-based breweries such as Buxton Brewery, Marston’s Brewery, Cloudwater Brew Co., Brew by Numbers, Meantime Brewing Company, and many more on his latest trip. To both of them, it was clear that the United Kingdom has taken its roots in malt-forward, low alcohol beers and expanded upon them dramatically with hop-forward, innovative beers.
Upon entering Founders, you are urged to “leave your title at the door."
Dave recognized that Europe afforded the opportunity for Founders and other United States brewers to “put a North American spin on” the traditional styles, but more importantly, he recalls visiting London at the age of seventeen. Engbers said that “beer and pubs were just a part of everyday life. You could go to a pub in England and it was part of their community. It was a much more prominent role in society than [the pub] was in the United States.” This sense of community was unforgettable to Dave.
He strives to build this family bond between Founders employees as well as all those that enter the taproom because upon entering Founders, you are urged to “leave your title at the door.” The wood finishes, stained glass artwork, and natural light fill the expansive space making it warm and inviting. Founders Brewing Co. is even spreading the welcoming presence to Madrid, Spain as well as Detroit, Michigan. European friends of Founders can visit Roll Madrid to experience a minimum of ten Founders beers.
This means Founders fans from across the globe can experience their favourite beer and share it with friends and family.
But in reality, the only way to keep the dream of Dave, Jeremy, and the thousands of other amazing craft breweries alive is to expose beer drinkers to the endless array of high-quality brews available, just like when a wise bartender handed me Founders Oatmeal Stout. All I can say is that I’m happy I drank that beer and never looked back because when Jeremy and Dave brewed beer for themselves, they really brewed it for all of us.
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