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Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers (Part 2)

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In the second of two installments, the founders of Founders take on some more subjective topics.

Was there a first beer you remember that made you realize you really liked beer?

Mike: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the beer that really got me hooked on this idea that beer could taste different than the yellow fizzy stuff we were all drinking in high school or early college.

Dave:  The first beers I experienced were stolen off my father’s back porch when I was a teenager.  My father was not much of a beer connoisseur and he typically had the cheapest beer he could find.  A lot of Wiedemann and Falstaff and even a beer out of Canada called 50 Cream.  When I was 17 years old, I went to visit my oldest brother in California and he was responsible for introducing me to craft beer. When I got off the plane, the first thing we did was stop at a little bottle shop, and I was not used to seeing beer sold by the bottle. I was used to seeing it sold by the 6-pack or the case.  We bought a few bottles of Mendocino County Red Tail Ale.  When we cracked that beer I called it the sip that changed my world.  I never knew beer had that much flavor.     

How did the two of you meet?

Mike:  I was a junior at Hope College and Dave showed up as a freshman and we connected at a party.  The friendship started there and we ended up in the same fraternity.  We had a lot of similar likes and we just became really good buddies. We were friends before we were business partners for sure, and even before we were homebrewing. By the time Dave and I started talking about a business it was always a brewery. I come from an entrepreneurial family. My dad always had his own business and while it wasn’t always successful, it was the environment I grew up in.  I came out of college and knew I was going to start my own thing.

Dave and I always kept a good friendship. He became a teacher, then he got a little bit into the manufacturing world. During this time period the businesses I was trying to create never worked. Then I started writing the business plan for the brewery while I raised a little capital. I didn’t come from any money so I didn’t raise much beyond 50 grand. Dave and I kept talking and we thought about maybe setting up a brewpub then going from there. Dave’s dad was an attorney in town and he could get us in front of some investors with the amount of capital we needed. It took six months, but we raised about $400,000. We were business partners off and running on a great 20-year adventure that was really, really brutal for the first 12 or 14 years.

Dave: We literally met the first day at college when the freshmen first arrive. After orientation during the day, they had a “disorientation” party that night. Like many college parties a lot of young kids come in, then the cops come later to break it up. When the cops show up everybody runs out of the house, but I did the opposite and ran upstairs and jumped in a closet. I ended up with Mike’s future wife and another friend of mine and we just sat there for about a half-hour until the police left.  Right after that I got to know Mike and it kind of went on from there.  

We were young and we needed to go for it. There really weren’t many craft breweries in the state. Larry Bell started brewing in 1985 down in Kalamazoo but we were an hour north. I thought, “We are in a big-enough town; we should have a brewery here. We are young enough that we can bounce back if it doesn’t work, but I want to live life without regrets.”

I know I am almost asking you to pick as a parent who is your favorite child, but is there a beer at Founder’s that resides in a special place for you, which you think of as your “baby” or favorite?

Mike: I tend to break them out into families of beers – hoppy beers and malty beers – because I think there’s an occasion for each. I do tend to gravitate toward malty beers so Backwoods Bastard is one I really like. As far as when to drink it I’m a little different. The standard answer is to work your way up from a lighter profile to a heavier profile. It could just be my palate, but I don’t like to mess with too many beers before I hit the cream of the crop because palates change quickly. At least mine does. You can maybe accept one or two beers to warm the palate but that’s about it.

Dave:  All Day IPA is my go to beer. It has all of the flavor you’d expect a beer from Founders to have, but it’s low in alcohol. I appreciate that because I’ve got a family. When I’m at work I’m dedicated to work, but when at home I’m dedicated to my family. It has the flavor but it keeps me levelheaded. I want people who have never been here to have the best experience when they come to Founders so I think All Day IPA is a great place to start because of the tropical aromatics from the Amarillo hops awaken your taste buds. It has great balance and flavor. If you have only three, I would drink All Day IPA, then Backwoods Bastard because it goes in an entirely different direction. Anytime you put something in a barrel you get oak and, in this case, residual bourbon and it is just a beautiful beer to drink. It is fun and a nice sipping beer. If they were going to have three beers I think our Breakfast Stout is a nice beer to close it out. It is a nice, rich oatmeal stout that allows the coffee and chocolate to come out.  It is so well balanced that none of the flavors dominate – they just complement each other so well.

Is there a beer (including one at Founders) that you wished you had thought of first?

Mike:  Yeah – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (laughs).  I think it worked out well for Ken (Grossman). That is such a cool brewery too, and I’ve always respected what he’s done. I think he always keeps his nose to the grindstone, and he is that entrepreneur who really gets it. We are by no means a Sierra Nevada, but I think the personalities that exist at Founders are because of our approach to business and life.  I much prefer the adventurous side of life and business and I think that is where Sierra Nevada came from, chasing after something that didn’t exist and now, here it is. You look at any of the successful breweries and the leaders in place there are the folks that founded it.  They worked the bottling lines, they worked the brew house, they sold the beer, they marketed it and they ran the books. That’s how we grew up.We didn’t have a big executive team in place until about maybe 3 or 4 years ago.  We are still hands on.  There is 18 years’ worth of institutional knowledge that just doesn’t go away.  It’s what we love to do so I don’t see it any other way. We try to keep it fun and focus on the product side of it. This is what we wanted to build. The goal and the dream was creating beers everyone wanted and it wasn’t about writing a great financial model. Dave and I would sit back and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we were someday known for making some of the best beers in the country?  That would be kick-ass.’ And here we are, a product driven company trying to make better beer every day. We come back the next day and try even harder.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Everybody has been part of that.  It started with two of us, then three, then five, then 12 and now we have 250. Even though I leaned toward the business side, Dave and I were never dictators. We introduced everyone to the family and went from there. The culture and brand that developed was a culmination of everybody who ever worked here. It’s a melting pot of personalities that formed our culture and our brand. I am not a marketing or brand expert but when you go down to Georgia, Florida, Texas, New York, or Michigan and you see a Founders fan they look, talk, feel, and even smell the same because somehow that culture and that brand translates through that liquid. It’s cool to watch a brand develop that way.

Do you have any advice for people who are brewing or thinking of brewing their own beer at home?

Mike:  The obvious thing that you always hear is clean, clean, clean, clean. If you want to get into it, I have always been an advocate to get into all-grain brewing as fast as you can. I think the science and the magic happens when you are able to go full scale. I didn’t get into the science of it and understand the true meaning of it until I was all-grain.Push your knowledge to all-grain brewing.

Dave:  It’s a great hobby. Have fun. The American Homebrewer’s Association had their annual convention in Grand Rapids last summer.

Was there a homebrew you tasted that made a lasting impression?

Mike:  I tried a lot from the conference and we routinely get a lot of homebrewers stopping by with beer they made for us to try. I think what does it for me is not that they used 14 different ingredients as much as I taste it and say, ‘Wow – that is good enough to be a commercial beer.’ When it’s clean and of high quality it will be memorable because it doesn’t taste like it was made at home. When Jeff Carlson, a local homebrewer (who collaborated on the Founders AHA Convention Beer) brought beer in you could taste that he was on a completely different level.  At least above anything I could ever do (laughter).

With all the recent changes in yeast and hops, do you think a brewer today can still have a favorite hop or yeast?

Mike:  We are very consistent with our yeast. Ninety-eight percent of all the beers at Founders come from one yeast strain. We do mess around with other yeasts but in reality, we don’t dance around much there. As far as a favorite hop for me, I think it just changes with time. We all might have started with Cascade, and then shifted to Centennial, then moved on to Amarillo as time moved forward. It kind of goes around in a circle. For me I appreciate more the citrus and floral hop varieties with bright aromas.

Dave:  As far as hops go, there are a lot of hop varieties we use; however, there are one or two that we tend to favor.  We do so many things with barrels, fruits and adjuncts like coffee and chocolate that there’s a lot of variety we can offer. We try to make sure the beer makes sense and the flavors complement each other.  Adding things just to create novelty is not what we do.  It hurts the industry when people don’t make good beer. Barrel-aged cherry custard wintery ale can be made, but it doesn’t make any sense. At the end of the day we as brewers have to make great beer.

We agree the beer connoisseurs of the world love Founders beer.  Is there a Founders beer that you think the community should give a second try?  Is there a new one in the works you want to tell us about?

Mike:  Curmudgeon Old Ale. I’ve always felt that is one of the better beers we have ever produced. There is a lot of complexity there. There’s some molasses, some oak, some vanilla with just a ton of flavors going on. It’s got that Werther’s candy caramel thing and I think it is a phenomenal beer. A lot of us at the brewery feel the same way. It’s been around for over 10 years but I think people should try it again. It’s an Old Ale style but the bars serve all beer at the same (cold) temperature. Put it in a brandy snifter and let it warm up.  We have plenty of it downstairs (laughter).  

Dave:  One thing you notice right away is that anything that is barrel-aged and higher in alcohol gets a lot of attention and buzz. I think that is because people just like to talk about those more intense beers. Founders Porter is one of those beers that we made when we first opened up and yes we tweaked the recipe a bit, but it is a really solid beer. Another one, as Mike said, is Curmudgeon Old Ale – the beer we say that never gets the credit it is due. We typically call it our most underrated beer. Old Ales are not as sexy as Imperial IPAs or barrel-aged anything.  It is not a highly sought-after style. Curmudgeon Old Ale is named after my father by the way.  He’s a bit surly, but I love him. He took it as a compliment when we named it. I tend to drink hoppy beers but Curmudgeon is a big – at just under 10 percent ABV – gorgeous beer.  On a warm Michigan day like today, I am going to go downstairs and get an All Day IPA but on a cold winter night I will grab an Old Ale.