Founders Brewing: Blood, Sweat and Barrel-Aged Beer

Drink Features
Founders Brewing: Blood, Sweat and Barrel-Aged Beer

The story of Founders Brewing Company is, in general, the sort of tale that exemplifies the excel-or-perish nature of craft brewing—especially in the era that Founders came into being. Born in 1997 as Canal Street Brewing Co., the brewery that became Founders came barreling headfirst into an American market that was just experiencing the burst of its first big craft beer bubble, a downturn in the craft market that persisted until 2002 or 2003 with very slow growth across the entire industry. One could argue that Founders was literally founded at the worst possible moment, and their early offerings didn’t exactly set the local beer community on fire, either. Times were tough.

Times were so tough, in fact, that the brewery commemorated its 15th anniversary in 2012 by releasing a burly, barrel-aged barleywine called Bolt Cutter—a direct reference to the time co-founder Dave Engbers received a call from the bank, threatening to chain the doors of the building if they didn’t pay off half a million dollars within the space of a week. Ready to make a stand, he instead bought a set of bolt cutters, which still remain in his office as a memorial of how close Founders came to the brink.

In terms of the beer, though, it was fitting that Founders should choose to celebrate that anniversary with a high-gravity barrel-aged offering. It was exactly these kinds of beers that helped the brewery finally realize its true identity, build a rabid fanbase and eventually conquer the American craft beer market with a series of critically and popularly adored releases. Over time, the Founders name has come to be synonymous with several varieties of barrel-aged beer—but notably, not with every style. For all its growth and all its popularity, Founders remains a brewery that seemingly answers to no one. Its brewers have retained the ability to make what they want, rather than what the literati of the beer geek world might demand.

These are all observations I was able to make in person when I visited the Grand Rapids brewery in mid-April to attend the 15th annual “Black Party,” a celebration of Founders’ many dark beers. At their invitation, I tagged along as a media representative with a small group of drinkers who one might categorize as lucky superfans—-just 10 winners among the more than 2,000 who submitted writing prompts about Founders to win a trip to the Black Party. I heard some incredible stories from those lovely folks, who you can see in the video below. You can also read their stories here, featuring tales of young love blossoming over snifters of KBS, among others.

The funny thing is, if the same contest had been held eight years ago, I might very well have been one of the people submitting an entry. As a then 21-year-old on the campus of the University of Illinois, Founders was one of the very first breweries I identified as specifically representing my nascent taste in craft beer. I can still recall my first taste of Breakfast Stout (at Champaign’s Blind Pig Co.) with crystal clarity, because it was the first time I ever felt more strongly about a beer than “liking” it. Credit that glass of Breakfast Stout with igniting a craft beer obsession.

And so, I naturally jumped at a chance to return to Founders, which I’d visited once before years ago while taking a brewery-centric road trip through Michigan. While attending the Black Party and touring the facilities alongside the contest winners, I somehow found time to also sit down with Founders’ Brett Kosmicki, the brewery’s cellar manager and brother of brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki. Over pints of porter—which Paste ranked #1 in a blind taste test, by the way—we discussed the history and future of Founders brewing, and his philosophy on barrel-aging in particular.

“When we get ahold of a barrel these days, we don’t have a defined set of expectations of what we want or even what we expect to happen with it,” said the bearded cellarman, now five years into his Founders tenure. “We really have a wait-and-see sort of perspective with new barrel-aged projects, because that’s the spirit of experimentation. With the trajectory of growth we’ve had, we’ve had a lot more freedom to do that.”

kosmicki barrel tapping.jpgKosmicki pulls beer for drinkers straight from the barrel.

Kosmicki is referring to the continuing experimentation that results in many of the ultra-small batch barrel-aged brews that Founders kicks around as ideas, often in only one or two barrels at a time. The batch sizes are small enough to necessitate taproom-only releases, if those beers ever even see the light of day, but the fact that such experimentation happens at all on this scale is likely something that only a larger regional brewery of Founders’ size could pull off. After all, your local brewpub down the street likely isn’t going to have the resources to acquire spent bourbon barrels from Heaven Hill or Buffalo Trace with the intention of filling them with beer that may never get released. Founders, on the other hand, now has the leeway to truly experiment however they please, which unsurprisingly yields some very heady brews. To cite just one example, look for a cherry beer coming down the pipe … one aged in bourbon barrels that have then been used to mature maple syrup. That kind of release is a direct result of those ultra-small batches that quest for what Kosmicki referred to as “a home run beer.”

How easy it is to forget, though, that the phenomenon of barrel-aged beer is still a relatively new one. Despite occasional one-offs from a variety of brewers, commercially released barrel-aged beer was virtually nonexistent before 2003, which is when Bourbon County Stout first appeared at the brewpubs of Chicago’s Goose Island. Founders was right on the forefront as well, scaling up their already decadent Breakfast Stout into the barrel-aged recipe for Kentucky Breakfast Stout in 2004. The two beers have inevitably been compared by Midwestern beer geeks ever since, for obvious reasons. They’re two of the earliest examples of the now-ubiquitous bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout, but they could scarcely be more different in character. Of the two, KBS has always been much more reserved, with a character that Kosmicki would characterize as perhaps more refined, compared to the veritable sledgehammer of oak and whiskey in a bottle of BCBS.

“As much as those two beers are similar, they have a lot of different properties,” Kosmicki said, mulling over the requested comparison. “We want different flavors to showcase, not just that hard-driving alcohol and huge whiskey presence. The intense oak, I find that overwhelming. We think KBS is really all about the blend of those chocolate flavors, and certainly the coffee addition; it really helped hone in the identity for that beer.”

Indeed, in Kosmicki’s mind it was the creation of KBS that truly crystallized the Founders philosophy that has continued on to this day. By 2005, the beer had already built the beginnings of its cult. By the beginning of the 2010s, it had become the sort of thing that people drive across the country to acquire. That goes double for the extra rare maple syrup variant, Canadian Breakfast Stout, which I myself was lucky enough to buy a single bottle of the sole time it was commercially released in 2011. At the Black Party, the afternoon arrival of CBS in the taproom was heralded by a processional of the Canadian flag and national anthem, accompanied by raucous cheering and a crush of human flesh flowing in the general direction of the bar.

black party crowd.jpgThe Black Party crowd at full strength on the Founders patio.

And yet, despite their barrel-aging prowess in beers like KBS or Backwoods Bastard, it’s important to note that Founders is a brewery that picks and chooses its arenas fairly judiciously. Think of just about any other major regional brewery also known for barrel-aging—from New Belgium, on down through the likes of Deschutes and Firestone Walker—and the thing they all have in common is a well-developed “sour program.” As any observer of the beer market would have seen in the last half decade, tart styles and wild ales have fully come into maturity in American craft brewing, and have become all but expected. In 2016, if you’re making barrel-aged beers, then you’re also making sours—but notably, not Founders, and not by coincidence.

“All I can say is that so far, a program like that just hasn’t fit into the profile of beers we want to make and the identity we want to put out to our customers,” Kosmicki said. “So far, we’ve not found a way to have it make sense. The first thing we consider with any beer is ‘How do we make it Founders?’, and we’re never going to do something just because everyone else is doing it. If we do it, it will be because it’s true to us. And of course, purely in terms of logistics that’s a huge step to take for a brewery of this size. There’s an incredible contamination risk, and we regard sanitation so highly that we might not be any good at making sours, quite frankly. I know that sounds funny, but it might be true.”

In the same vein, the cellarman is also cognizant of how fickle the average beer geek can be in which breweries they choose to support and even in their assessment of the same beer, a year later. More than most hobbies, beer geeks (myself included) at their worst project a wicked sense of entitlement and the attention spans of decadent Roman emperors—oh, it’s only a barrel-aged imperial chocolate coffee stout? Had a million of ‘em. Yawn. We complain online about a lack of interesting product when five years earlier we might have been losing our minds in ecstasy over beers currently collecting dust on the shelf. But Kosmicki is unfazed.

“We understand how that goes; ‘oh look, another barrel-aged imperial stout, whoop de doo’,” he said. “That’s the reason why you don’t see half a dozen different barrel-aged stouts from Founders. We know what we do well and what people look forward to, and we don’t really invest more experimentation into what we already do really well. KBS thankfully has no problem selling out, and I doubt it ever will. If anyone thinks it’s gotten stagnant, then don’t purchase it and let someone just getting into craft beer find that bottle. I mean really, what resources can we devote to control for that sort of perception? Better to simply not chase after what is trendy, or chase the latest style.”

Of course, the politics of craft beer and brewery ownership are another facet of beer geek interest that Founders can hardly ignore. Since the acquisition of 30 percent of the company by Spanish brewers Mahou-San Miguel in 2014, the brewery has gone through what has now become the standard acquisition cycle in this industry: Assurances that nothing will change, beer geek complaints and vehement criticism, and finally grudging acceptance. Kosmicki, as the employee, naturally assures that nothing is being done differently, but as an outside observer I certainly can’t find reason to disagree. Founders has remained Founders, even if the Brewers Association will categorize them as outside the realm of “craft beer” in the years that follow, alongside the likes of Ballast Point and Lagunitas. If anything, Kosmicki makes it sound like the company’s Spanish investors are primarily interested in learning as many secrets of barrel-aging technique as they can, and there aren’t many breweries more qualified to teach them.

What then, does the future hold for the Founders barrel-aged empire, laying in silent, underground rows of oak in the gypsum mines below Grand Rapids? Kosmicki believes that the future of barrel-aging involves an expansion of diversity, of the sort that we’re already seeing from many small breweries. As the market gobbles up every available liquor and wine barrel, creativity becomes a necessity.

“Logistically, we craft brewers have been lucky that the popularity of American whiskey grew alongside craft beer, or there wouldn’t have been nearly enough barrels to go around,” he said. “That possibility of running short, though, is certainly a driving force in pushing brewers to experiment with new barrels. There’s a lot of other liquor out there: Gin, tequila, scotch and even rum—that’s a pretty fun one to experiment with. Certain beer styles may have reached the climax of experimentation, but there’s a whole bunch of mediums to age that beer and achieve a variety of unique new flavors. I think that over the next 10 years you’ll see a whole lot more variety.”

And with the assurance that yes, there will still be yearly KBS, it’s a premonition that beer geeks will no doubt anticipate for years to come.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he could go for a Breakfast Stout right now, regardless of when you might be reading this. You can follow him on Twitter.

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