Founders’ focus: Just make beer


Is the mug half empty, or half full?

2013 turned out to be a challenging year for Founders Brewing Co., according to co-founder Mike Stevens, but not necessarily a negative one.

The year included several expansion projects, including a larger production facility and a new and remodeled taproom and a beer garden, totaling nearly $26 million.

The production facility more than doubled its capacity to more than 340,000 barrels a year — although it will take a while to get to that level. The taproom also more than doubled with its additions to indoor seating and an outdoor, semi-covered beer garden.

Throughout the process, the brewery had several downtime periods that resulted in a delayed release of All Day IPA in cans. The taproom also shut down for two weeks as it was revamped.

“We had a pretty tough year, but it was positive turmoil,” Stevens said. “All the construction, expansion and capital being invested in new machinery — everything is now in place and on the floor.”

Now, co-founder Dave Engbers is ready to take the brewery to the next level.

“It just feels good that 2014 can just be about executing,” Engbers said. “We still have tremendous demand for our product; our focus now is to make beer.”

Last year, Founders brewed about 112,000 barrels. The brewery went from brewing 11,898 barrels in 2008 — the first year in the Grandville Avenue location — to about 24,500 in 2010, 41,000 in 2011 and 71,000 in 2012.

This year, Stevens said production should be amped up enough to brew up to 200,000 barrels, which should place Founders among the top 20 largest breweries in the U.S.

Although Founders’ products are sold in more than 25 states, Engbers and Stevens already see the brewery as a national player in terms of quality and reputation. They’ll continue to push for a larger distribution footprint, albeit slowly to ensure the satisfaction of current markets.

“It’s always our responsibility to look at our markets, and there still are some major ones left untouched,” Engbers said. “As long as we can service the demand in our existing markets and there still is future demand from other markets, we’ll continue to look at those markets.”

With the new facilities, not only will current and future markets be better served, but so too will the hometown fans. 

“People have embraced the beer garden (and) bringing back the original Brass Works bar,” Engbers said, referring to Founders’ previous location in the Brass Works building on North Monroe Avenue. “It was emotional to us and the guys who were there then. A lot of them are still around (and) come here every day.”

Early on the 2014 docket are the already-released Centennial IPA cans — the brewery’s second offering in cans — and the newest edition of the Backstage Series: Smoked Porter in February. Smoked Porter will be a more limited release than some previous Backstage Series beers because of the addition of a three-barrel pilot system for research and development. 

It was basically a happy accident, Engbers said. 

“That’s the fun of the system: It gives us the flexibility to take those that might be one-off taproom beers, and we can at least come up with something,” he said. “If there’s some room in the schedule, we can bang out 200 barrels and let some people sample beers that have only been available in the taproom. We get to create a new brand that is fun and exciting.

“For years we were forced to fill orders, so we weren’t able to scratch that itch. Now we have some additional tanks and the R&D system. That’s when some of the nuggets come out: the next Devil Dancer, Curmudgeon’s Better Half.”

As for canning, for now it will remain just All Day IPA and Centennial IPA, but the brewery will continue to look at other options. Last year, All Day IPA cans came out late in the season, so this year Founders is excited to see how the two packages do with a whole summer outdoor season to sell.

“It’s back to the infrastructure,” Engbers said. “We’re positioned now to just execute. It’ll be nice to have a breather from the expansion.”

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