Zero Regrets

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Celebrating 20 years of success, Founders Brewing shows no signs of slowing down in innovation and inspiration.

By Stef Schwalb

For two decades, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Founders Brewing has been a force to be reckoned with in its industry. Beer enthusiasts around the globe have been drawn to the company’s innovative releases that include complex, in-your-face ales with huge aromatics, bigger body, and tons of flavor.

In short, these are the kind of brews that prompted co-founders Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens to get in the business to begin with, and their mission to move beyond beer basics is what continues to inspire their team today. Ranked for the last five years by as one of the top breweries around the globe, Founders also has numerous beers listed in the top 100 beers of the world by The company has won six World Beer Cup medals, four European Beer Star medals, and three Great American Beer Festival medals – 13 medals total across eight different beers.

With 20 years behind them, the Founders team has witnessed tremendous growth as well as several major changes within the industry, and Engbers says for them, it’s been one heck of an adventure. “When Mike and I began dreaming of starting a brewery in our hometown back in college, there were about 300 breweries in the entire United States. By the time we started brewing there were nearly 1,400 brewers, and now it’s well over 5,000,” he explains. “That said, smaller breweries have now become part of the fabric of our communities across the United States. Because we are so deeply tied to our community of beer enthusiasts, and have a tendency to be stewards of it, we have gained a great deal of momentum and respect in a relatively short amount of time.”

Renowned and beloved by beer lovers worldwide, Founders’ humble beginnings are part of an American success story that comes with all the obstacles and hardships, which makes it so inspiring. “In the early years, our initial challenges were simply that there weren’t enough beer drinkers who were interested in our category,” notes Engbers. “Microbrewed or craft beer wasn’t essential in the minds of wholesalers, retailers, or consumers. It has truly taken a national movement to increase the awareness of the entire category to be recognized as legitimate.”


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Bigger and Bolder

For Founders, the sweet taste of success has come from a combination of brand loyalty, industry and media recognition, and plenty of uplifting, fortuitous experiences throughout their journey. “I think our first surprise was the early success from Dirty Bastard (Scotch Ale), which is the beer that put us on the right path,” recalls Engbers. “DB verified that there was a niche within the craft segment of beer enthusiasts who were looking and demanding more from their local breweries. That gave us the courage to become a product-driven company, change our entire portfolio, and take larger risks to go big.”

An integral influence on the company and its expansion were flavor combinations that inspired the Founders team. These combinations primarily lie at the intersection of food and drink. “I have always drawn a parallel between brewers and chefs. The culinary scene can often inspire us with flavor combinations, and we’re now watching how brewing can influence culinary creativity. Both artisans challenge the palates of their consumers,” reveals Engbers.

“We truly built our reputation from bigger, bolder, complex flavor combinations,” he continues. “We take more of an excessive approach to recipe formulations. I like to say we don’t do ‘subtle’ very well. Our product development team is made up of a small group of individuals who have a keen eye on innovation and emerging markets. The segment is changing quickly, and we need to continue to innovate and push the liquid envelope. Staying stagnant in this industry can be the kiss of death.”

Staying Innovative

Founders will continue to maintain its drive through a diverse product range, which includes six year-round beers plus several seasonal and limited-production releases. Founders’ session-superstar All Day IPA launched the flavor-driven, lower-alcohol trend, while Barrel-Aged beauties such as the iconic Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS), and this year’s reDANKulous, DKML and Doom are by nature more limited, always experimental, and aged to perfection in a former gypsum mine. The sheer variety on offer keeps the team at the top of their game.

Interested in a visit to Grand Rapids? Twice named Beer City USA, Grand Rapids’ landmark brewery hosts off-site and taproom events, plus their yearly Founders Fest where local, regional and national acts perform and area food vendors and artists showcase their goods at individual booths.

davemike historypage inlinephoto copyIn honor of the brewery’s 20th anniversary, Founders has launched the Zero Regrets Artist Series and the “20 Years Over Beers” video collection that features Engbers and Stevens recounting the company’s history, sharing their story, and reliving major experiences. Special gear marking the momentous occasion, a contest to win a trip to the brewery, and a 20th Anniversary Party round out the festivities.

In terms of what’s next for the company over the next two decades and beyond, Engbers and his team hope to continue inspiring beer enthusiasts as well as the industry at large. “I see craft beer continuing to inspire future generations to demand better and more choices, greater quality, and consistency. We need to keep retailers honest by upholding high standards in maintaining clean draft systems and product rotation,” he says. “Major chain retailers will continue to dial in the mix of domestic premium, craft, regional and local flavors.

“Consumers will ultimately drive the industry by demanding higher quality and consistent products that have a larger appeal to those who are craft curious,” Engbers continues. “We hope that we have provided a strong base to build a legacy of beer enthusiasts, today and in the future, who recognize that we can build and strengthen our community based on the quality and distinction of our brands.”

A born and bred New Yorker, Stef Schwalb's love of everything culinary knows no bounds. She has written about food and beverages for several years, covering everything from how to make goat cheese to pairing oysters and Chablis. Schwalb is the senior content manager at Gregory White PR where she writes about enticing food and wine experiences at restaurants, bars & lounges, wineries and wine regions across the globe.


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