Our “Brewer’s Spotlight” is a series of conversations with innovative brewers across the country. Recently we sat down Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki and VP of Brewery Operations Alec Mull from Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, MI. John I. Haas is honored to be a trusted supplier of quality hops for Founders—and Jeremy, Alec, Brad Stevenson and Adam Schmitt are currently featured in our “Here’s to the Moments” ad campaign. This month, we talked with Jeremy and Alec about finding balance, being unapologetic hop heads, and making beer that’s always “Brewed For Us.”
Q: Could you give us a quick history of Founders?
Jeremy: In the late 90s, our co-founders Mike (Stevens) and Dave (Engbers) had a dream and business plan to open a brewery in Grand Rapids. It started out brewing basically the same types of beer every craft brewery was doing back then: wheat beers, pale ales and amber ales. After a couple years of not huge success, they decided to take another direction—brewing beers that were not quite so accepted universally by consumers; beers that featured a bit more flavor, more character, and typically higher alcohol.
So in the early 2000’s, we went after a different clientele and we began working with the idea of “Brewed For Us”—things we want to drink, rather than things that marketing experts told us people wanted to drink. And we just focused on making quality craft beer ever since.
Q: Is there a “brewing philosophy” at Founders?
Jeremy: As a brewer, I focus on finding balance: balance of flavors, creating a beer that can be extreme but it works because those extremes balance each other out and give you something that’s enjoyable to drink.
Alec: As a brewery, I think our philosophy is ‘Keep It Simple and Sanitary (KISS)’. When we moved over to our new facility and then expanded, we had to make a decision about our brewing process. The types of systems large brewers typically use–they have a mash conversion vessel, a lauter tun, a wort kettle, and whirlpool–we didn’t know if we wanted to go that route. There was a German brewhouse from Steinecker that we wanted to purchase but we still wanted to drop our mash in a lauter tun. That was a big challenge for them but ultimately, I’m really excited and happy that we decided to stick to that simple philosophy. Sure, it has certain limitations, but it’s got some advantages that keeps us distinct from the pack.
Q: You have an extensive line-up of beers—how do you keep it fresh?
Jeremy: We’re pretty blessed here—we have an enormous tap room attached to our production facility that gets a lot of people through it. We have a lot of regulars, but we’re also a destination. A lot of people come through just to visit our brewery. They expect to try beers that they can’t find on the shelves back at home. Out of that demand, we have to keep all kinds of new beers on tap. And it’s a great opportunity for us to do our R&D projects, try new things and get great, quick feedback from these customers.
Inspiration comes from all over the place. I do a lot of cooking these days. Cooking is all about combinations, flavors, and what works good together. I also do a lot of traveling, so I can keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on all over the country and the world, what kind of beers people are brewing. Here in the U.S., it’s so vast that there are different trends and styles everywhere you go… everyone’s got a different take on it. I get a lot of inspiration from that, I pick up ideas and try to make them my own.
Also, one of the coolest things for me, and I think a lot of people, are the advancements in hop breeding, and all the new varieties that are coming out. Having a great relationship with supplier, like Haas, allows us to be able to get some of these new hop varieties before they are made available to the public. We’re about to do trials and give feedback on these varieties. That’s one of my favorite things about this job.
Q: Are there any new experimentals that you’ve found that are really exciting?
Jeremy: Generally, when we get a new hop in, we’ll make an IPA out of it because that’s a telling way to see what the flavor, aroma and even the bitterness character imparts. Although, there are some new hops coming out that might not be IPA focused, but are pretty intense and interesting. HBC 438 and HBC 472 are both different as far as anything I’ve experienced in a hop. They have more of a coconut, cedar wood character to it. We just took 472 and made an Imperial Brown Ale out of it, hoping to get some of that woody character from the hop. It was pretty fascinating.
Q: All Day IPA has been such an influential beer for Founders, how did it come to be?
Jeremy: It was really just the right beer and the right time. We cut our teeth here making pretty extreme beers: high alcohol, high octane…that was kind of our thing and what put us on the map. 15 years ago, a beer like All Day IPA would not have even been noticed, nobody was interested then. Fast forward to a few years back and, you know, we all drink IPA all the time—but a full-strength IPA at 7% catches up with you real quick. We love IPA, we love the hop character, and we wanted to maintain that but find a way to tone down the ABV a bit and make it a bit more manageable.
Alec: Yeah, I like to think it was a little bit selfish on our side. We wanted beers to enjoy that have that big character, the hop flavor and the hop aroma, but the alcohol was just getting in the way. All Day was just a quintessential brew for us. When I think about “Brewed For Us”, I think of All Day. The timing was just really perfect because the market was maturing a little bit. I think Jeremy hit the nail on the head with the balance part of that beer which a lot of session ales do not. They have big hop aromas but haven’t figured out how to balance the malt with those hop characters. I think our session ale is the best on the market because of that malt backbone.
Q: What are some of the most curious beers you’ve made?
Alec: I think when we came up with Mango Magnifico, that was something else. We were in a beer team meeting and Jeremy and Jason had this crazy idea of adding habanero to a fruit beer. I was like, ‘No way. We can’t do that.’ But it worked perfect. I don’t think it’s one of our most extreme beers but, for me, it’s when I realized I am not worthy of coming up with stuff like that.
Jeremy: We also did a beer called Lizard of Koz—a chocolate, vanilla, blueberry Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels. There’s a lot going on with that one and I really had to go heavy on all the flavors to make sure they all had their own spots. It resulted in an intense beer that’s actually one of our more polarizing beers. I hear a lot of people love it, but a bunch of people hate on it too, and that’s fine. We understand that we’re going to stay true to our roots of “Brewing For Us” and if we get behind a beer, it’s to be expected that not everyone will follow.
Alec: Again, that’s why our taproom is so great, it really affords us the opportunity to get feedback. We do have those polarizing beers but I think that’s pretty cool to get some of that dialogue back and forth about the beers. We’d love it if everyone liked every beer we made but the reality is, we need critical feedback every once in a while, too.
Q: What gets you most excited about future growth as a brewery?
Jeremy: Traveling overseas, it’s interesting—it seems as if Europe is about ten years behind us in the sense of where craft is. So the opportunity is just enormous, given how many people there are who have a real appreciation and interest in American style craft beer. Right now, you really have to go looking for craft beer in Europe, but I think it’s going to catch on fast.
Alec: There’s definitely market opportunities here as well. There’s a changing demographic of the kind of people who buy craft beer—a lot of people buy their beer in bigger chain stores. So, right now there’s a huge opportunity for craft in those outlets. I agree international is a huge market, but shipping is a big challenge. We need to be sure there are people supporting us on the other side, keeping our beer fresh.
Really, what’s most exciting for me is IPAs and the fact that the IPA category is growing. I’m a hop head so I love going out, drinking IPAs and seeing all the new stuff that we’re making…it’s just really exciting. I think there’s a huge opportunity for hoppy beers in general, even single hop beers, which we’ve done a lot of. But, man, I love those IPAs.