Monday, June 8, 2009

OTR Destination: GR Part I @ Founders

We arrived in Grand Rapids just before 3PM. Our first stop was at Founders Brewing Company. I’ve been to microbreweries before but Founders immediately pushes the envelope of the term micro. There is nothing small about this place because the Taproom is enormous, the glasses of beer are big, and a server just walked past me with a sandwich the size of my head (you’ll have to trust me that I mean big.) Before I walked into the door, I knew their reputation was big too. Friends of mine that live in eastern Maryland are huge fans of Founders beer which in their area has more popularity than all of the local beer. And let’s face it; their reputation here in Michigan is well respected too. Founders was the most requested place, from our readers, to stop in downtown GR. They were adamant that we stop there. Twist my arm.

Even their co-owner, Dave Engbers stands about six foot three. He’s a local-kid-done-well with a kind of quiet and casual stance but I got it immediately. He shook my hand and put a beer in the other one. Why don’t most of my encounters begin this way? He’s humble and just feels that to truly know Founders, you must start with the product. I tried the Old Curmudgeon Ale: Malty and smooth; a great introduction. It’s early still but the place is humming because it’s Friday, Festival is on, and summer finally seems to be here. The porch, which can easily hold 150 people, is filling up and the tables, which were made from recycled timbers from the last expansion, are quickly occupied. The employees are hopping and they all have that certain spring in their step. Meanwhile, Dave is ready to show us the Founders process with the kind of eagerness a kid has when he wants to show you a new bike. You can tell this guy loves beer.

Through the windowed doors is a spacious and shiny facility where the Founders process begins and ends. Employees zip by with a smile and offer a greeting as the Beatles sound out a blaring cadence to Eleanor Rigby. The place is spotless and sweet smelling while the tanks shine with military-like quality. I pepper Dave with questions and the answers almost always come back to a high standard and employee dedication. Consistently humble. Not once did he compare Founders to other breweries or spend time trumpeting accolades. In fact, he spoke highly of Michigan Brewers Guild and referred to his competition as friends while these people who toil for him are often called family members. He noted that employee loyalty averages six years or better even though they are regularly encouraged to pursue their passions. Employees are often brought to the table for ideas and are prompted to offer suggestions and opinions from everything to beer naming to company involved community reinvestments.

Did I tell you that Dave is humble? Instead of showing us a trophy room full of international awards, tasting grand prizes, jury awards, people’s choice victories, industry number ones and blue ribbons, he takes us to the ingredients room which is a brewer’s candy shop. Hops, and malts, and grains. He described ingredients with a distinct passion and enthusiasm. We saw rows of enormous finishing tanks which were recently installed although they really weren’t supposed to be there for a couple of more years. Business is good at Founders.

The tour continued to the bottling area where the musical ambience shifted from the Fab Four to an electric reggae with a pulse. Again, friendly employees were on the go finishing up for the day. I’m guessing if Laverne and Shirley worked here, they never would have gone to California. We wrapped the tour up in the cold storage, which too was a recent addition due to their expansion, and headed back for a seat in the open-plan Taproom.

The interview really was over so we just talked. He orders us a few samples to try. The Centennial IPA was a little hoppier than I usually would order but evenly balanced and not overly bitter at all. Dave noted that they love hoppy beer at Founders. We tried the Cerise which is made with Traverse City cherries. Far from a novelty beer or even a Lambic, it’s a beer in itself. The Cerise offered a crisp smell with a smooth finish noting the Michigan treasures with every sip. My favorite was the Canadian Breakfast Stout that had a locally produced and fermented maple syrup which he let me try. Rich and buttery to the taste and smell, this syrup was simply too good to ever touch pancakes or waffles.

After a few responsible tastings, it was time to leave. I could have sat and listen to Dave passionately speak about everything that is Founders. It’s refreshing to hear someone speak so highly about owning a brewery, about brewing, about ingredients, about his actual family, about his work family, about his friends in the Guild, about Founders and the community, about Grand Rapids, and about Michigan. While not long-winded by any means, he was just that interesting. Beer drinkers beware though. Founders is all about quality, integrity, and craftsmanship. If you seek the generic flavor of Bud or Miller, they might have to wring the floor mop out for you. If you seek a drinkable treat, Founders is your place.

Thank you to Dave Engbers and his high energy staff at Founders Brewing Company for the pleasure of being a guest. Come back tomorrow for Part II: San Chez Tapaz Bistro and Peaches Bed and Breakfast.

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