Dave Engbers of Founders Brewing Talks Risk and Reward in Craft Beer

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During the past 19 years, the founders of Founders Brewing Co., in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have learned a thing or two about brewing, both in process and marketing. As the Founders team prep The Dirty Dozen, or a canned 12-pack of the now-popular Dirty Bastard scotch ale, co-founder Dave Engbers had a few words about lessons learned along the way.

In addition to releasing Dirty Bastard in cans, Founders also recently released its bourbon barrel-aged cousin Backwoods Bastard and their third Backstage Series beer, Project PAM barrel-aged black IPA.

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Paste: You just released Dirty Bastard in cans. In the release there’s a “saved the company” comment about the beer. Can you elaborate on that?

Engbers: Prior to Dirty Bastard our portfolio was fairly safe: pale ales, red ales, an American wheat, a porter, and that was the extent of it. Dirty Bastard was really the beer that got us on the right path where we broke out of our shell. It gave us the confidence to move forward with beers like Breakfast Stout, Curmudgeon, and Devil Dancer. It led us to our philosophy: brewed for us.

At the time we were on verge of filing for bankruptcy. Obviously there are a lot of moving parts but this was the beer that defined us. We decided if we’re going to go out of business we’re going to do it on our own terms. Dirty Bastard was released and in fairly short order it gave us the confidence to modify our entire portfolio.

Paste: Was there an epiphany moment when it came out?

Engbers: I’ll say this: we were a very small struggling brewery. At the time the craft landscape was nowhere near what it was today.

One, we introduced a scotch ale which is not the most popular style of beer. We released an unpopular style of beer, high ABV, expensive to make.

But we created Dirty Bastard, a beer that had attitude. It’s remarkably smooth for its strength but also we created a product with a little more sexiness to it than Founders Pale Ale. A lot of this stuff was uncharted territory: let’s brew beer that we want to drink; the beers became bigger and bolder and more complex. It gave us the confidence to say this is our business, we’re going to run it our way, which led us to all those other brands. The fact that beer enthusiasts liked what we were doing—the enthusiast community was small but those that were out there were highly engaged—and we realized we had a relationship with the end consumer.

Paste: Looking back on that, as you called it, “sexiness,” what is your perspective on how the industry has changed?

Engbers: It wasn’t uncommon for most breweries to have Fill-In-the-Blank Pale Ale. It’s nice to have a brand to give a different dimension to each one of these products. At the same time, with over 4,000 breweries in the US right now there is a bit of concern on the novelty of beer. It’s becoming more mainstream and we don’t want to see breweries just putting a silly name on a beer to get some recognition. The reality is with this many breweries there’s going to be a lot of novelty beers out there. There are so many new breweries trying to make their mark right now…as long as they keep in mind that the product has to be well balanced and delicious, you have to keep the consumer in mind.

Hopefully every one of these start-ups has their heart in the right pace. When you open a brewery it takes some time to hone your craft. Most people don’t go from being a homebrewer to hitting it out of the park. It takes you a while to figure out your processes.
We’ve been doing this for a while. Hopefully our beer doesn’t taste different but our process is constantly under scrutiny. The beer that we’re brewing today is great, but three months from now it should be a little bit better, whether in aromatics or shelf stability.

Paste: How have you seen the community’s understanding of craft beer grow?

Engbers: The landscape of retailers has completely changed. In the late ‘90s, there was just a handful of retailers even interested in craft beer. In today’s landscape every chain store has it. If you don’t have craft beer on tap you’re probably for sale or out of business. Consumers are driving it, which is awesome.

As the industry continues to pull people into it, they’re not all just turning 21. It’s not uncommon to have somebody who is 60 years old being introduced to craft beer. I think it’s phenomenal, I say it at every one of our events: if you introduce a friend to craft beer it will change their life.