July is "Craft Beer Month" in Michigan, and there can be no better way of acknowledging this occasion than by interviewing Dave Engbers, one of the key figures responsible for Michigan's ascension to America's craft brewery mountaintop.
When Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens founded the Canal Street Brewing Company in the mid-1990s, they could not have know they were laying the cornerstone to what would become a West Michigan craft brewing dynasty. As we all know, the Canal Street Brewing Company eventually morphed into Founders Brewing Company, and the overall brewery regularly ranks as one of the best in the world, with many of its individual beers also ranking among the world’s best.
Inspired to a great extent by the tremendous success of West Michigan breweries like Founders, New Holland Brewing in Holland and Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, several other high-quality craft breweries have emerged across the Michigan landscape in the hopes of experiencing similar success. While some craft breweries, like the Dark Horse Brewing Company in Marshall, have proven to be quality driven breweries in the same vein as Founders, others have fallen by the wayside.
Fortunately, Dave’s experiences creating a successful craft brewery have also developed a makeshift set of guidelines to craft brewing success. And, over the course of a 30-minute conversation, he revealed almost everything an aspiring craft brewer would need to know about establishing a successful brewery in West Michigan, or anywhere else for that matter. What we present here, in Dave’s own words, are 18 essential rules, steps, and considerations that would-be brewers should take into account if they want to replicate Founders' success.
1. Only become a brewer if great beer is your passion.
“Mike and I met while we were at Hope College together, and as we went through that journey, over and over again all we ever heard was ‘do what you love.’ I was fortunate that I was introduced to craft beer at a very early age. I started home brewing at the age of 19 and we just decided to go for it. That’s the philosophy at Founders: ‘Live your dream.’”
2. Understand the social significance of beer.
“Beer had become a pretty important part of our lives, and I’d been fortunate that I was able to travel to Europe a couple of times and experience beer in multiple countries all over Europe. So it wasn’t just the idea of brewing beer that kind of fascinated me, but on a social level I saw how beer was a social beverage and that it brought people together. Beer is the everyman’s drink and the common man’s beverage. It’s accessible to everybody, and that’s what attracted me.”
3. Start by trying to fill the needs of your immediate area.
“When we started, craft beer in the United States wasn’t that prevalent, and there were only a couple breweries in the state. We had the Kalamazoo Brewing Company, Frankenmuth Brewing Company, and obviously Stroh’s down in Detroit. Mike and I are both from Grand Rapids, so we really looked at this as an opportunity and said ‘why isn’t there a craft brewery here in our hometown?’ So we went ahead and started one.”
4. Constantly strive to improve your products and processes.
“The beers we serve now are so much better than anything we brewed on a personal level. What we do now is a night and day difference from what we used to do. The quality systems we have in place are so much better, and so are the ingredients we have access to. Our hobby started nearly 30 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. The ingredients are better, our equipment is better, and I think everyone can be thankful that the beers we used to brew don’t hold a candle to what we do now.”
5. Take advantage of your local resources.
“I think a lot of our success is due to the fact that we are in West Michigan, primarily because we have such a fantastic water source. The water we use is Grand Rapids City water, which is pumped right out of Lake Michigan. Water is one of the four ingredients of beer that for some reason people don’t talk about, but considering that water is 88 percent of our beer, the quality of the water makes a huge difference.”
6. Make sure your brewery is quality driven.
“We use malted barley or malted cereal grains. Craft brewers typically use nearly 100 percent barley, but there are a few others like rye and oats. Most craft breweries use all malted barley, while the big domestic fellas use rice, corn or anything that ferments, essentially. They’re just trying to get their costs down whereas we don’t put anything in our beer that doesn’t add flavor or character to it.”
7. Use only the best ingredients to get the most out of your beers.
“We source our ingredients all over the world. One of our philosophies is that better ingredients make better beer. We have some malts from England, Germany and Canada, and we do use quite a few domestic malts as well, but if there’s a better ingredient out there, then it’s our job to find it.”
8. Learn from the successes and failures of others.
“The craft beer revolution started in California, and the east is pretty quick to pick up on trends, so they embraced it, too. In the Midwest, things take a little bit longer to develop. So by the time the Midwest started to embrace the craft beer industry, we were in a situation where we were able to see what was happening on the west coast and the east coast and kind of put our Midwestern spin on it. I always say about the Midwest that maybe we’re a little bit late to the game, but when we join the game, we know exactly what we’re doing.”
9. Support the other members of Michigan's craft brewing brotherhood.
“There’s a lot of collaboration between breweries here in Michigan. We help each other out. We all compete on a certain level, but we’ve always used that phrase ‘a rising tide lifts all ships.’ We all have similar stories as we’re building our brands, and as we’re really trying to develop more of a craft beer consumer. We’re to the point where if someone has a piece of equipment that goes down and they need some help, we’ll help each other out. We don’t want to see anyone have to shut down their production because they have a pump out or something like that.”
10. Fully embrace your competitors and learn from them.
“I drink a heck of a lot of our beer, but I always have a handful of beers from other breweries in my fridge as well. I think sometimes that’s a misconception people have where they think they should only drink our beer. When I go to grocery stores and I see friends of ours, and I see a six-pack of somebody else’s beer in their cart, they’re so embarrassed and they say they feel so bad. Then when they come over to our house, they look in our refrigerator and they see that I’m supporting those other breweries because while we make great beer, there are a lot of great beers out there in Michigan, too.”
11. Seek out the hidden gems of the brewery world.
“There are a handful of breweries here in Michigan that are producing some great, great beers. When it comes to Dark Horse, I love Crooked Tree IPA. It’s a great beer. I LOVE Crooked Tree, although Double Crooked Tree can get me in trouble! (laughs) Bell’s Two Hearted is a beer that I really enjoy. Bell’s Expedition Stout is a really nice beer. Jolly Pumpkin continues to brew some killer beers. And, it’s not just distributing breweries; some of these little brewpubs are creating some really fun, interesting beers. It’s the public’s responsibility to search these out. That’s one of the nuances of the craft beer industry that’s fun. You have to dig a little bit. You have to explore and discover these little breweries. If our industry just started marketing the crap out of itself then it would almost dilute some of the value. Part of the fun is in the search, and in the journey to find great beer.”
12. Break the rules and be innovative.
“We got pushed to bankruptcy when business wasn’t so good, and we made a conscious decision all of our beers were going to get bigger, bolder and more complex, and we would spare no expense on the raw materials. That’s when we started becoming more innovative. We started brewing beer in a bourbon barrel early on, and we were one of the first breweries to start experimenting with rye and malt, and adding chocolates and coffees. We basically came to this realization that we knew how to brew beer, so we should throw away the rulebook and do it our own way. That’s honestly when things got really fun, too.”
13. Be prepared to struggle; success isn't guaranteed.
“There is no question with the rise of the exposure to craft beer and the industry, there are a lot of people that are jumping on board. What we do looks pretty sexy, and it looks like we’re having a lot of fun. Well, we are having fun, but the first 12 years were not a hell of a lot of fun. We had as much fun as we could, but like any business owner that’s running a business, when you’re not making money, and you’re not paying yourself, and you’re working 14 to 18 hours a day, it’s not much fun. We know what it’s like to have your gas and electricity shut off and to not afford to buy your family Christmas presents. I spent a decade doing that.”
14. Only hire people that share your vision.
“We had a vision and we went for it, and we are fortunate that the craft beer enthusiasts really embraced our brand. We hired some fantastic people that share our vision, and that work hard every single day. Our process is different, and the folks that work for us understand that our process is different from almost all the other breweries. We’re not the most efficient brewery in the world, but our beer tastes the way it does for a reason. We’ve been able to grow our brand. For the second year in a row we were the fastest growing brewery in the United States out of the top 50 largest breweries. That goes right back to being a product-driven company. All the folks that work for us share this vision.”
15. Make great beer, or you won't survive.
“Are there too may breweries out there right now? Quite honestly, yes there are. There are too many breweries out there right now making marginal beer. They won’t all survive, and the truth is, they shouldn’t all survive. Because if they’re not willing to hone their craft, get better at what they do and not take shortcuts, they’re going to make crappy beer. There’s a lot of crappy beer out there, and that ultimately has the potential to put a black eye on our entire industry.”
16. Make sure your exotic ingredients are actually beer friendly.
“At this point, I’m not surprised when I taste someone’s craft beer and I’m disappointed. You see a lot of novelty beers coming out. I think as the industry has gained attention, and as more and more breweries are opening up, we are starting to see kind of a glut of breweries that are brewing beers that are more of a novelty just to get attention. And so, we’re careful about what we produce. We never put something in our beer if it’s not going to add to the character of the beer.”
17. Protect your beer's price integrity.
“I was just down in Oklahoma, and I saw these craft beers, and all of a sudden you could buy a 12 pack of some of these beers for $2.99. For us, that’s like putting a neon sign up saying ‘This Beer Is Bad.’ Why would anyone buy a 12 pack for $2.99? Something is wrong with it, right? They were just trying to blow it out.” We don’t like seeing retailers discount our brand because we think it dilutes the value of the brand. I’m not a car guy, but it would be like selling a Cadillac for 20 grand. All of a sudden, if Cadillac came out with the 20 grand vehicle, you would think about they spent all these years building the brand up as a premium quality product, and now they’re introducing something for a third of the price. You would assume something was different and not as good.”
18. Keep working hard to maintain your success.
“I would ask that all the breweries in West Michigan raise the level of quality of their products. We’ve got a lot of breweries here in West Michigan that are doing a really good job; there’s a handful of breweries that aren’t. That’s what we try to do as the second-largest brewery in the state now. This isn’t just limited to West Michigan. As an industry, we want to continue to flourish, and to raise the level of professionalism across the board in terms of how we market, how we deal with our wholesalers, our retailers and our customers. That’s what’s going to maintain the industry so we can continue to watch the craft beer market share increase.”
“As far as West Michigan is concerned, as long as we continue making great beer, and we work together as a community of brewers, that’s what’s going to solidify West Michigan as a beer destination.”