(Grand Rapids, MI) – The Brewed Palate caught up with Founders Brewing Co-Founder, Mike Stevens, recently to chat about the history of the brewery and Stevens’ thoughts on how fifteen years in the business has shaped his view of the industry today. The 21-minute interview is worth a listen but a few transcribed highlights are below…
On the last fifteen years and the current state of the craft beer industry:
“Fifteen years ago, we used to have to push our beer onto people. I remember the day that we started this company as homebrewers and when we came out with our beers, we had to knock down doors and beat down doors. We had to beg, ‘Please, please, please sell our beer.’ There really wasn’t as much passion as there is today. I think that what we have today, probably in the past five years- this thing is kind of in vogue. I like it but in the same tone, I don’t know that I love it. It’s changed the dynamic of what craft beer was to me personally when I first got into it which was strictly based on homebrewing and passion. I think we have a very great future in our craft beer industry but it’s important that those who are entering now are entering for those same reasons, passion and homebrewing, and that’s why, when I reflect back on fifteen years, I’d say that the first ten were very difficult and the last five have been this whirlwind of an industry that we’re just starting to see unfold. I don’t know where it’s going to go. We’ll see what happens.”
On the big picture of craft:
“I’ll be dead honest with you. It’s difficult for me, Dave (Engbers, co-founder) and all of us at the brewery to really quite understand what the hell is going on here because, to this day, we’re homebrewers including Jeremy, our head brewer. It’s still the same thing (as when we started). To be in a place like New York City, Chicago and 23 states…it wasn’t that long ago that life was so different and our beer was not that wanted or respected. It wasn’t because it was bad beer. Jeremy and the guys were making fantastic beers. It just took a while. Now what you have is this surge of people out there that are very intrigued. Craft beer is creating an entire industry that is so different from what most have seen in the beer industry, the wine industry or the spirits industry. We’re re-inventing new flavor profiles and it’s bringing people that never would have come to our table to our table. It’s becoming something that I don’t think most of us that started breweries ever thought would exist.”
On the origins of Kentucky Breakfast Stout:
“I think it was 1999 or 2000 when I called the Jack Daniels General Store. […] I told them that I have a brewery in Michigan and I want to buy some bourbon barrels so that I can put beer into it. They said, ‘What?’ I asked, ‘What do you do with your leftover bourbon barrels?’ They said that they throw them out. I asked if we could buy some. Long story short, we ended up going down and picking up barrels at Jack Daniels and brought them back. In 1999, we put two barrels filled with our Breakfast Stout in our refrigerated walk-in storage facility. That was the foundation of Kentucky Breakfast Stout. We pulled it out a year later and tried it and that is when we realized we had something. Eventually, KBS turned into a different recipe.
Next year, we’ll do 2,500 whiskey barrels. We mostly carry Heaven Hill barrels. It’s getting to the point where we have Grade A, B and C which to us is more about the aging of the whiskey in the barrel. Heaven Hill is our primary (supplier) though we mix it up a little bit so long as it has been in the barrel for enough years.”
Stevens also talks about the maple bourbon barrels used to create Canadian Breakfast Stout, flavors imparted from the barrels they use and briefly mentions that the company stores its barrels in six miles of Gypsum mines underneath Grand Rapids. Here are some cool shots of the mines if you missed them.