Chances are if you’ve talked with anyone from the area long enough, they’ve told you about Grand Rapids recent award as Beer City. If you inquired further or had a particularly chatty conversation partner, they probably listed off a couple of breweries to visit, should you find yourself on the hop infused streets of Grand Rapids. I’d be willing to bet the farm (I don’t have a farm) that Founders Brewing Company would emerge at the top of their list.
Founders has underwent several large expansions over the last six years, a surprising feat for a company that was close to bankruptcy in the early 2000’s and fought its way into the light with a large cash injection and a new ambitious product line. Their latest expansion has added around 9,000 square feet of space to the brewery; 3,975 square feet of which went to a newly commissioned beer garden. The rest was divided between the brewing area, tap room and company store. This growth is befitting for a company that has made a name for itself across Michigan, expanded into much of the US and sailed across the pond to the UK.
My first impression of Founders two years ago, were reminiscent of a barn, plus beer and minus the stalls and horse smell. The tap room is a large open space with high ceilings and a dark wood floor that once welcomed the dusty husks of gnawed and littered peanuts. I was a newcomer to the craft beer scene and in these pre-craft days, I had trouble swigging down Dirty Bastards and Reds Ryes. But as I stayed in the area and my love for beer grew, Founders became a haven in a world filled with boring beer. I found myself seeking refuge in its single tap room, nursing an Oatmeal Stout and purging myself of any PBR or Michelob I may have ingested in a time of weakness and confusion.
Rather than hinting at being unique, Founders beer is truly crafted for the microbrew enthusiast. They made a name for themselves and gained some hipster street cred by giving up on brewing what they thought people wanted and starting to brew beer for themselves. Their previous line of self-proclaimed mediocre lagers and IPA’s were replaced by current staples like the roughhewn Dirty Bastard and the silky Porter. They run seasonal beers to keep things fresh and have created a cult following of their limited run beers. The Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) is sold in small quantities during short periods and left over supplies sell for ten dollars a bottle in liquor stores. They also have a particularly unique “Backstage Series” of beers that mysteriously appear in the tap room lineup and local stores for a limited time from the depths of the brewery. Some stick around and some don’t, however the series has yielded highly awarded and coveted beer like the Canadian Breakfast Stout and Bolt Cutter.
Their unique brewing philosophy is carried over into their food with many of their sandwiches named after their brews and other unique characters. A molten lava injected, insta-heartburn, jalapeno encrusted, Devil Dancer will keep the spice hounds at bay, while the mild, cranberry chicken salad oozing, Blushing Monk will satisfy those not keen on waltzing with Hades. Part of Founders new expansion involved increasing the flexibility of the menu. It used to be that you would wait in a line, order your sandwich, get a buzzer and claim your grease dripping from every possible corner, Godfather. Now, they offer table side service and the option to turn a few of their sandwiches into salads. For this journey I opted the Tree Hugger salad, chalked full of black olives, avocado, hummus and topped with a Centennial IPA Honey Mustard. My out of character vegetarian choice proved to be a solid decision despite its lack of carnivorous material and the rest of my Founders food experience has been on par. There is enough variety on the Founders delicatessen menu to keep any beer soaked foodie interested.
Founders offers a variety of shows on Thursdays and Saturdays that regularly fill the house. Regardless of the time of year, the space is filled with flannel clad young adults, sporting bristly beards and Warby Parker-esq eyewear. The cover is normally low, with the music airing on the side of folky. The open space of the tap room yields plenty of standing area, especially with the new addition and offers decent acoustics. You can get an eyeful of the band, tap room and brewing vats all while enjoying the music and whatever unique brew strikes your fancy.
In a city that is all about craft beer, Founders Brewing Company sets the standard. It is one of the fundamental places that have grown with Grand Rapids, helping the city along to become what it is and mirroring its success. Looking back on Founders growth and watching as it expands into the future is indicative of the progress of the city. The brewery is the definition of a success story and a large piece that makes up the Grand Rapids puzzle. The future direction of Founders is unclear, but just like the city, anything is possible.
235 Grandville Ave SW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503