Founders Brewing Company seeks to live up to its motto, “Brewed For Us,” in many ways today. But it took the Grand Rapids, Michigan, brewery some trials and errors to get to that point.
Owners Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers started Founders in 1997 with passion and not much else. The pair was scraping together just enough money each night to keep the doors open, maxing out credit cards along the way. Thanks to Stevens and Engbers’ charisma, and the support of a group of silent investors, the doors remained open. Also helping their turnaround: a refocused plan to stop making beers marketed to the masses and start making the experimental, flavorful brews they personally enjoyed. And it worked.
Founders ended 2015 with 267,000 barrels brewed (up from just shy of 200,000 barrels the year before) and plans for yet another expansion. This growth is maintained by some 367 employees, each of whom Stevens and Engbers recognize as a key part of what makes their brand successful—a sentiment they aren’t shy about expressing.
One of the ways Stevens and Engbers show appreciation for their workers is through the employee holiday beer program. Implemented in 2011, the idea was to create a personalized gift for each and every Founders employee—and only Founders employees. The program is a well-guarded secret for anyone outside the Founders family. The specific style of each year’s employee-only beer remains between brewery walls, and no one but Founders employees are invited to drink it. The brewers are the masterminds behind each year’s beer flavor profile, and they see it as an opportunity to go a little crazy, creating a full-flavored, unique beer—something that will be a surprise for those on the receiving end.
The 2015 employee-only beer label features cats, rainbows & dinosaurs. And that’s all we have to say about that. pic.twitter.com/nAvvkrOU8O
— Founders Brewing Co. (@foundersbrewing) December 29, 2015
Francesca Jasinski, PR & communications assistant at Founders, wouldn’t give away her company’s secrets, but was willing to give us a little insight into the annual tradition. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have been around Founders long enough to have received every single employee holiday beer, and they have all been badass,” she says. “What also makes this program special is that they are hand-bottled, typically by the leadership team, so the effort and care that goes into each bottle is felt and appreciated.”
Laura Houser, brewer and Founders employee since 2004, agrees with Francesca’s sentiments. “I love the employee-only beer release,” she says. “It always tastes like love, work ethic, camaraderie, and a little like rainbows.”
Houser is a no-nonsense woman who’s approachable, honest, and never shy to express her true feelings about a subject. Asked how she feels about working at Founders, her eyes soften and the sarcasm fades from her voice. “I feel like we make the impossible happen every day,” she says. “And when our shift is over, that appreciation and love between the team keeps going. It extends to this family of beer lovers, in this taproom and beyond. We all share an overwhelming passion for craft beer, and I love that we make people happy with what we make.”