This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Nick Costa.
GRAND RAPIDS, MI
Coming of age in Michigan at the time of the craft beer renaissance sure had its benefits. For three quarters of The Hop Review, we’ve been fortunate enough to cut our teeth on beers like Centennial IPA, Red’s Rye, and Dirty Bastard. Flash forward 15 years, and Founders Brewing Co. is one of the most respected breweries in the world. We recently sat down with co-founder Dave Engbers and Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki, at Chicago’s Timothy O’Toole’s, to discuss what it’s meant to maintain the brewery’s “Brewed for Us” culture through astronomical growth, why Midwest IPAs are best, and what exactly defines ‘fluid suicide.’
Your history is well documented. Most people know of your early struggles as a brewery, and how you changed course with the introduction of Dirty Bastard. Can you describe that turning point?
Dave Engbers: I think it’s kind of funny that so often people talk about that. But in retrospect, you look back and that really was only a year and a half of our history. We wanted to make beers that reached a broad audience. We knew there weren’t a lot of people drinking craft beer, so we were trying to find a way to get them into the fold, but not realizing that there was essentially a brewery opening up every week doing the exact same thing. So we just tried to differentiate ourselves.
There was a similar ‘craft’ expansion going on in the late ’90s as we see today…
DE: The mid to late ’90s was the first big rush of breweries opening up all the time. That’s kind of when we saw every community–every larger population–having a brewery or brewpub open up.
Jeremy Kosmicki: That first wave hit, and then, in the early 2000s, there was a bubble that burst. And there just wasn’t enough consumer demand.
DE: There weren’t enough consumers out there and there were a lot of people getting into it for the wrong reasons. There was a lot of bad liquid out there, just like there is today.
The difference today is now you have that consumer base. And we, as one of those breweries that opened up in the ’90s, helped create a group of enthusiasts out there – and created a demand. The downfall that the new breweries today are experiencing is that if you open up your doors and your liquid is not that great, your customers have options. Now, they can walk two blocks down the road and go to another brewery.
Back then, you might say that people were still ‘calibrating their palates’ to what each style should be.
DE: We were afforded a luxury – that when there wasn’t that big craft beer populous, we had a couple years to really get better at what we do. Now, the new guys have to be pretty good at what they do right out of the gate. There also wasn’t social media back then. If someone had a bad experience at Founders 20 years ago, no one knew about it. Now someone has a bad experience: they’re leaving the taproom and posting, “Fuck this place.”
When you started out you probably didn’t anticipate managing such a large team, with all these people representing ‘Founders.’
JK: That is one of the most difficult things that we have to deal with now. There was a time I would just bring in my friends [for hire], or just people I trusted.
DE: Back in the day we would hire a lot of people by asking, “Is he a good guy?” He would be someone who came into the taproom every Thursday, and seemed cool. Almost everyone we hired was from across the bar. But to your point – last I heard, we have 317 employees. And that is one of the biggest challenges we talk about daily, “How do we maintain our culture?”
JK: A good portion of those people are sales people that spend a week at the brewery at most. So how do you get those guys to convey our ideals and our culture? They represent us out there, they are the face of the company.
DE: It’s not just maintaining the culture, but how do we utilize our culture, because our culture is so strong. Our turnover rate is so ridiculously low. We have a bunch of people who are coming up on their 10 year anniversary!
Can you talk about this beer you just poured for us, we’ve never seen it before.
JK: Hey, this is our newest beer! “reDANKulous.”
DE: I don’t know if I’ve even had this one yet.
JK: I stole one off the line when it was getting packaged about a week ago. We do this “Backstage Release” series, and I took this opportunity to showcase some of my new favorite hops, Simcoe and Mosaic. It’s an Imperial Red IPA. Also has one of my favorite malts in it, a Simpson’s Crystal malt.
How much thought and R&D goes into these one-off beers?
JK: Quite a bit. As of this year, I’ve kind of stepped down as Head Brewer. So I’ve stopped handling the day-to-day operations of managing the brewing crew and covering shifts and payroll and all that shit. Now I focus completely on recipe development. Which is good. We have a lot of new beers coming out – and more we want to come out with.
This one, reDANKulous, is just an idea that I wanted to do for a while. We ran it through the taproom under a different name for two or three batches and it went over really well. We thought it was a good style that would fit our portfolio.
Do you always hide the beers under a different name in the taproom?
JK: They get working titles. I’m not a good beer-namer. If I were naming a beer and it had Simcoe hops in it, I would call it Simcoe IPA. So it usually starts with that working title – and then if it’s going to go into a bottle, we let the marketing team get after it. This particular beer was called Chief IPA in the taproom. It was an homage to Christian Okoye, one of my favorite NFL players back in the ’90s. The Chiefs wore red…it’s a Red IPA…
DE: As far as naming and the marketing of the brands, quite honestly, it used to be just us sitting around a table talking about music and life. And we’d be like, “We need another name for that beer!”
JK: I remember you guys came to me way back in the day when you wanted to call a beer Dirty Bastard. We made that beer around the name, and came up with a scotch ale.
DE: Well, Dirty Bastard was going to be called Fat Bastard, but had trademark issues with it. That was during the dark days when we thought we were going to go out of business. So we were like, who cares? Let’s call it Dirty Bastard.
Talk a little more about the early-on period you refer to as the “dark days”…
JK: When I joined in 2000, it was pretty fucking dismal. My goal was to learn everything I possibly could about making beer while I still could.
DE: Back then there weren’t many of us, maybe 10 total. Even in 2007, when we left our first facility, there were 16 people between taproom, deli, and production. I was doing sales and marketing. My partner was doing operations. If you were in production, you were brewer, cellarman, and worked the bottling line.
JK: I had bar shifts when I first started! Tuesday nights, that was my night.
How have your roles changed through the company’s growth?
DE: It has been a pretty interesting journey. [Co-founder] Mike (Stevens) and I both started out doing a little bit of everything. We helped brew, we would package, we would sell. We were pretty young when we started the company and we didn’t know what we were doing. But as the company grew, we started to realize we had to departmentalize ourselves. That wasn’t that long ago – I was still bartending every Sunday back in 2002 or 2003.
It’s just interesting to see how the whole industry has matured a little bit. I am hoping people continue to get better educated on better quality beer.
JK: There really is no excuse for making bad beer anymore. With the resources that are available – and with the consumers’ improving palette. The breweries that are making good beer, and have enough volume, will be able to survive.
You mention volume, what does that number mean to you when defining ‘craft beer’?
JK: I’ve always hated that definition.
DE: To me, the definition of a craft brewer is the quality of their product. Founders, because of the partnership we have formed with Mahou San Miguel last year, we are no longer in the Brewer’s Association definition of a craft brewer. Well, look at the quality of our liquid and I don’t think anyone will say Founders isn’t a craft brewer.
JK: I’m fine with that. I am over the term “craft brewer.” I am a brewer. We make beer. We make really good beer.
Your new partner, Mahou-San Miguel – was that something you had on your radar?
DE: As a company that was growing as quickly as we were growing, in a category that is getting as much attention as it is, we were getting plenty of calls from private equity firms and big breweries. At a certain point, you have a responsibility to acknowledge it. It would be irresponsible if we didn’t at least look into it. When we met the folks from Mahou, at first we didn’t know who they were. But, they were brewers.
JK: They are really good at making beer, and making a lot of their style of beer. But as far as what we do and American craft beer, they are clueless. They have no idea; but they want to learn. I feel like working with a company from Spain is so preferable. I’ve worked with the Germans and English a lot, and they both have really deep brewing traditions and history, but are very set in their ways. But these Spanish guys just want to learn, and they want to learn from us. They are curious about things like dry-hopping. That shit just blows their mind.
DE: To me, it ultimately boils down to the fact that they respect us. Even though we are so small compared to them. But they also realize we are really good at what we do.
JK: And there is a demand for this style of beer from where they come from. It’s not huge yet, but it’s definitely growing. The new generation of drinkers are not mired down in tradition.
So, All Day IPA has been the catalyst for all this rapid expansion. Did you foresee that at all?
JK: It is kind of driving all that volume for sure. In 2013, we released it in summer and it was only going to be seasonal. But when fall came around we realized we couldn’t stop brewing it.
And that was a recipe you had been working on for a long time, correct?
DE: 2009 was when we started making the first incarnation of it, it was called Super Gold.
JK: We always had a “session beer” in the taproom for the people who came in and ordered a damn Coors Light. Then we grew on that idea, thinking, “Could we throw some more hops in it – can we make it more craft-beer-like, but keep the ABV low?” It took a lot to dial in. It’s not an easy style to do; the hops can get out of control, it can get to dry. I have tasted a lot of other session IPAs out there – and they are not all good.
I’m glad we were able to spend that amount of time on it. I don’t think we were the first to launch a session IPA, but we had been working on it a long time. It was 2011 – the first year they had a session category – and we won a medal at GABF. It was the beer that I needed at the time.
Well, we are all very appreciative that you made it.
JK: We are savin’ the world! We’re making the world a safer and more productive place. I love it, it’s what I always wanted in a beer with that aroma and flavor.
You had mentioned that there a lot of beers you want to get out there. But besides All Day and Dark Penance, you haven’t released many other beers to your regular lineup in the last half decade. Is that a conscious effort to keep a nice tight portfolio, or does this most recent expansion allow you to do more?
JK: Obviously volume is driving us right now. But what we need to do is stay relevant, with the creativity aspect. To our fans, ‘if you are not producing, you’re dying.’ The beer drinker will get bored. There are so many options for them, and they will quickly get bored with you if you can’t push the envelope and get some fun stuff out there.
DE: That is a double-edge sword because we also have a responsibility as a brewery whose reputation has grown over the years. As you climb that mountain, and your name and your brand becomes one that people talk about, and all of a sudden you come out with a beer that not everyone loves. People may start to think Founders isn’t cool anymore; Founders jumped the shark.
The reality is, you have to be constantly innovating. The challenge for us is it has to hit the quality standard, and it can’t be a fucking novelty. Now Joe Shmo, who just opened up this nano brewery and is making this doughnut peach shandy with bacon, creates this buzz because he created some piece of shit beer.
I think that is the great thing about what we do. We don’t do novelties, and that’s to Jeremy and his team’s credit. We don’t always hit a bullseye on the first shot, but when we are developing a beer, we usually get in that first concentric circle, and then it is about honing it down. Also it is about releasing it when it’s ready. We could have released All Day a year and a half earlier, but I think everyone thought it was really good, but it could be even better.
JK: We put the time into that beer –and since we released it, session beers have become really popular. So everyone is kind of rushing to get theirs out there. But I would say back to the drawing board on a lot of those.
You both have been in Grand Rapids for a while, what has it been like watching Grand Rapids grow?
JK: It is such a cool city. It has come so far.
DE: Compared to 20 years ago, the city has done a 180. There really was no reason to go downtown, unless you worked there. Grand Rapids started to change when they built the Fifth Third Ball Park –the minor league baseball stadium. Then people with the wherewithal realized there was an unmet need, they put in the hockey stadium, and that’s when all the restaurateurs started coming in.
JK: It is pretty cool that we started this little company with a couple guys and it has blossomed into 300 employees and still working on this $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.
Grand Rapids is booming and Michigan is a well respected beer scene, but do you feel it still gets overlooked by what is happening in other parts of the country?
DE: I think we control how much noise we want to make about it. We do a great job in Michigan – we have some really creative brewers who have all kind of found their own niche. We work in this community that doesn’t look at each other as competitors. All we’re trying to do is increase the awareness of craft beer. I do get a little tired of people just talking about West Coast IPAs – because Midwest IPAs are better. They’re better balanced.
JK: It’s all about balance. You can get aggressive and use a lot of hops, but you got to have a little malt in there to balance that out. My brewing theory and ideals are based around balance. That is how you can do some extreme things, by keeping the balance in check.
We definitely are spoiled to be able to have beers like Centennial readily available.
JK: Two Hearted too. I think us and Bell’s are some of my favorite beers in the country.
What is it like having a brewery like Bell’s, who is also world-renowned, right in each other’s backyard?
DE: Don’t forget about 3 Floyds. For a number of years, Floyds was number one, we were two, and Bell’s was three on Ratebeer or BeerAdvocate. You could go to the three highest rated breweries in a day.
JK: Being in the brewing community is hard to describe. People from other industries don’t understand how cool it is. The relationship we have with our competitors, it is nothing but open arms. You need a favor, need to borrow some grains, need some hops? Everybody is so cool, but it probably is not always going to be like that.
You are obviously well aware of your rankings on sites like BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer. How do you manage your exponential growth while still maintaining your culture?
JK: Another difficult part of our jobs, like we said about finding the right people to hire as we grow, it all goes hand in hand. Getting the right people in place to spread that culture.
DE: That’s the biggest issue I see as we continue to grow as quickly as we are, and I don’t know if we will continue that. Last year we grew 74%, our five year is 68%, or something like that. There is a reality, if you look at the top 15 largest breweries – they are all still growing, but their growth rate is now 6 to 9%. Because when you’re doing 900,000 barrels, 6% is still a shit load. I do think there is a sense that it would actually be nice to…I don’t want to say ‘plateau,’ but at least catch our breath. We use a phrase, “We are building an airplane, while we are in midair.” There are a lot of times where we are already off the ground and we don’t have a choice, and we need to figure it out.
JK: We just put this new brewery online, the new 300-barrel system, and the first thing you do is make some beer. Well we need a tank to put it in, now we have to get that tank installed, then you need the tank to move it into. Then you have to get the packaging line ready. So it’s like we have created this boulder that is running down a hill and you are just digging new trenches because you need somewhere for it to go. We have started production and we are not done with construction.
DE: Another important thing is that there is no end game. The beer is getting pulled out of us. The only way I can describe it, is that we decided to get in this game, and it is our responsibility to keep up with it. If people want it, it is our job to make it. I said this years ago, my brother lives in California, and if my brother can drink Centennial IPA and it taste like it does in our taproom, that is pretty fucking cool.
Since we have jumped off this bridge, it is our responsibility to make the best beer we can, and keep it as clean and bright and as fresh as we can. And to fill that need. The more people that drink our beer and get turned on by great quality craft beer then we did our job. If that means we need to do 300,000 barrels then that’s what it is. If people are still demanding it and its going to get bigger and bigger and we need to get to 700,000 barrels or a million barrels or two million barrels we will figure it out.
With demand driving the need to get beer into the market, does that affect some of your rarer beers like KBS?
DE: As our capacity increases we will be able to get more of those rare beers out. At the same token the craft beer community continues to get bigger. Every year we seem to be doubling our production of KBS – and it will never be enough. The accounts that got six cases last year may only get four cases this year. And even though we made more, our footprint has grown as well. Whatever beer we make goes everywhere, we don’t keep certain beers out of certain markets. Like we just opened up the Dakotas, a small population base, but they deserve KBS just as much as the people in Michigan do.
Do you ever feel like a small group of fanatics are ruining it for the masses by going to extreme lengths to get as much as they can of these rare beers and hoarding it for themselves?
DE: I always say, “We brew the beer, we don’t brew the buzz.” I am not going to name names, but there are breweries that make limited amounts of some of their beers just to create this false sense of urgency. At least KBS kind of grew up. The first year we packaged KBS I think we sat on it for six months before we could sell it all.
JK: The hype is a double-edge sword as well. It’s hard. People get frustrated and then they get mad at you, and its not your fault. And with hype there are always these huge expectations. It is real easy to let people down when there is so much hype around it.
DE: That is one of the hard parts, “How do we maintain?” People will say this year tastes different than last, or last year’s was better. The recipe is the recipe, but every year we have the variable of what barrels it goes in.
When you are in Chicago, what or where are you typically drinking?
DE: Well we can’t get 3 Floyds in Michigan…but we have enough people in the Founders family running back and forth that will pick some up for us.
One last question. What happened with Red’s Rye?
DE: That was fluid suicide.
JK: We fucked that up so bad.
DE: It was this brand that was year-round. And we moved it to a seasonal brand. Essentially it came down to a pricing issue. To our defense, Red’s Rye did not have the shelf life that Centennial, Pale, or Dirty Bastard have; and it is our responsibility to control quality. So it was either “86” the beer, or find a way to control it. So that’s when we made it a seasonal. We originally put it into our year round portfolio because we used to call it the “Brewery’s Beer”, because almost everyone at the brewery drank Red’s Rye.
JK: It’s a cult favorite. It lives on, it is our number one selling beer in the taproom.
DE: Yeah, we kind of killed that brand. Not intentionally. It is a great beer and we will see where it turns out. I will still say Red’s Rye is one of the best beers I have ever had from Founders. But I can also say it is one of the worst beers I have had from Founders.
A huge thank you goes out to Dave and Jeremy – it was truly an honor to share a few pints together. If you have not made the trip to Founders and the rest of Grand Rapids yet…what are you waiting for?