If there’s someone who doesn’t love at least one of Founders Brewing Co’s beers, we’re yet to find them. Maggie Cubbler visited Grand Rapids, Michigan, to find the secret of its adoration

“You came here on a good day,” Francesca says taking a sip of the 11.2% Backwoods Bastard. “You’re the first person besides the staff to see our new expansion.”

Gesturing to a door at one end of the sleek wooden bar, Francesca’s colleague continues: “This expansion is huge. We used to brew a lot. Now we’re capable of brewing a f*$% tonne.”

“A f*$% tonne?” I laugh. “Must be metric.”

I’m at Founders Brewing Co’s taproom in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There’s a chill outside, suggesting impending snow, which makes its wooden interior feel all-the-more cosy and very, well, Michigan. A Michigan girl myself, I slip back into my native accent as I chat with my hosts, Francesca and Mike, about the specifics of the massive Founders’ expansion. They’re excited.

2015 saw a capacity of 270,000 barrels shipped. 2017 – the 20th anniversary year – is expected to see 460,000 barrels flow out the doors. While much of that is due to the excellent All Day or Centennial IPAs, Founders is expanding the series of experimental brews.
“Let’s do it,” says Mike, speaking of their Backstage Series. “A Lizard of Koz.” We are soon presented with a killer stout made with fresh Michigan blueberries, chocolate and vanilla and then aged in bourbon barrels. One luxurious sip that is at once rich and tart answers any who are sceptical about what expansion can do to quality. It is epic. Wanting to savour it forever, the original brewery calls to us. It is time to take our first steps on a journey that has been 20 years in the making.

Back then, the future looked bleak. Founders’ co-founders Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens had just recalled their first batch. “We struggled for years financially but throughout those years we honed our craft and persevered to push the liquid envelope and innovate new styles, champion barrel-ageing and bring craft beer to a much larger audience,” explains Dave Engbers. “It’s been great to watch our city embrace beer in a way, which initially was a bit more of a novelty, but has now positively changed the personality of our entire community. I can truly say that the personality of our Grand Rapids has changed due to
our industry.”

Today, a million miles from that first failure, we round a corner in the ever-expanding Grand Rapids facility, which consumed both a car park and petrol station. Omnipresent tanks tower overhead.

“I’m always quick to point out that Mike and I had this dream but the credit belongs to the Founders family,” Dave says. “We now have over 450 employees that really move the needle forward. If you want to give us credit I would say we excel at hiring really bright, badass people.” Walking below a sign proudly declaring that they brew ‘For Us’ it’s these badass people for whom each brew is intended. But as I feel the pride from the team, the community and the state, this Michigan girl feels like one of them. Success.

Time to go, I push open the door to leave and am hit with a sharp, cold air. The outdoor fireplaces are lit with a welcoming fire and I see the first snowflakes fluttering down from the sky. I pause to take it in. Great people, beer and snow. There’s no place like home. And now, thanks to an exciting beer culture that has transformed a city all because Founders started the boil 20 years ago, there’s no place like Grand Rapids.