Friday, December 20, 2013

Dave Engbers of Founders Brewing

Interview with Dave of Founders (Flash version) Non-Flash podcast  

On Dec. 9, 2013, The Jeffery hosted a tap take-over by Founders Brewing, and featured such rarities as Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Doom, Sweet Repute, Backwoods Bastard -- which was amazing! -- and many others. The following day at the Blind Tiger we caught up with Dave Engbers, co-founder of Founders, and Tim Traynor, the NY Marketing Manager for the brewery, for an interview.
Bob, Dave and Tim -- all very serious men. (Not really!)
Founders was established in 1997 and originally named Canal Street Brewing after the neighborhood in Grand Rapids, MI which was home to a number of breweries in the 1800s. Eventually, the name became Founders, a nod to those long gone 19th century fore-bearers of beer. Their original location was in a building with some serious space restrictions, which required them to brew with horizontal tanks as part of their ambitious 30bbl system.
Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, both Grand Rapids natives, met at Hope college, which is where Mike discovered homebrewing. Dave, however, started homebrewing at age 19. Neither went to brewing school or even apprenticed in a brewery before they decided that life was too short to not chase their dream of brewing beer professionally, and after a short stint in the post-college working world, they started their journey on becoming brewing founders themselves.

They wisely hired a professionally trained brewer at the outset. And, as so many of the "first craft beer bubble" breweries did, they brewed pale ales, ambers, and all the rest of predictable styles, in Dave's words, making "technically solid, but unremarkable beers". They thought that this would give them the greatest potential market. But with everyone else making essentially the same stuff, they soon found that they weren't selling enough beer to be profitable. They were behind on rent, late on loan payments. Something had to change.
So, they decided to set themselves apart from all the rest of the pack by brewing something that they themselves were excited about -- a Scotch Ale called Dirty Bastard. And thus began the change in direction away from common-denominator beer and towards "brewing beers that we wanted to drink." The Dirty Bastard was an award winning beer and, more importantly, a sales success! Soon after followed other beers that would remake the brewery's image: Breakfast Stout, Devil Dancer, Curmudgeon Old Ale, Bad Habit. Dirty Bastard was the brewery's biggest seller from 2002 to 2006. Then from 2007-2012 their Centennial IPA was the #1 seller. Currently Dirty Bastard and Centennial are neck-and-neck in sales, and the recently launched All Day IPA has overtaken the #1 spot, a beer that took 3 years to develop.
In 2012 they brewed about 71,000bbl of beer, and they expect 2013's output to be around 115,000bbl. The brewery underwent a massive expansion in 2012, having installed two 85bbl brewhouses, a new packaging line, a new canning line, and a new beer cellar, all of which will allow them to grow to about 320,000 barrels a year!
The brewery started experimenting with bourbon barrel aging beer in 2000-2001. They currently go through about 3,000 bourbon barrels a year. The barrel-aged beers are stored 85ft underground in the old gypsum mines in Grand Rapids -- about 6 miles of mine space! While Dave declined to reveal the source of their barrels, he said that many are barrels that had been aging bourbon for 15 to 18 years. The first beer that they experimented with in a bourbon barrel became Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and they have since gotten quite creative with the barrels. They age some specialty beers in maple syrup barrels -- former bourbon barrels that then were used to flavor maple syrup. Those barrels come from BLiS, a Michigan maple syrup producer, and are used to create the complex oaky, sweet, smokey characters in the rare and highly regarded Canadian Breakfast Stout as well as Black Biscuit, Curmudgeon's Better Half, Bolt Cutter, and Sweet Repute.
While Dave also declined to divulge any of the breweries secret projects under development, he did assure us that we won't have to travel to Michigan to enjoy them -- they'll all make their way to New York City when they're ready! For more information, check out the Michigan Daily's article on Founders from 2011, and a recent article about laid-off Miller workers seeking employment at Founders.

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