Dave Engbers co-founded Founders Brewing Company with Mike Stevens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. On June 9, I met Engbers at the inaugural Firestone Walker Invitational Brew Fest, and he helped to explain how he’s found hop-fueled success.
Was it a given that you would work with beer for a living, or did you consider other careers?
I was like any kid. You have the whole world in front of you. You don’t know what you’re going to do when you’re a teenager. Everybody just kept saying, “Do what you love.” Beer had become a bigger and bigger part of my life. I started homebrewing when I was 19 years old. By the time I got out of college, I just had a huge appreciation for beer, worked for a beer distributor. At the time, I got out of college, taught elementary school and I had my first summer off and I thought, “I really don’t like having time off.” I was homebrewing like crazy at the time, and it seemed like that took up all my free time, so I thought I might as well try to make a career out of this.
What’s the very first beer that you brewed, and how did it turn out?
The very first beer that I brewed, I did Two Can Slam, which was the nut brown ale, and it turned out pretty well. After I had a positive first experience, the second batch I did was a Russian Imperial Stout. Then I started venturing off into using my own grains and hops and brewing my own IPA. Once you start experimenting a little bit more, getting into all-grain, then all the creativeness starts coming out.
Is there anybody who’s mentored you along the way?
That’s one of the great things about the beer community. If you find a good shop selling homebrew supplies, somebody who cares, they have a vested interest in developing loyal customers. I found other homebrewers and they were willing to talk about their homebrew kits and how they do it. Then my oldest brother, who’s here with me today, he introduced me to craft beer when I was 17 years old, had my first Mendocino County Red Tail Ale, it’s the first craft beer I ever had. It changed the way I looked at beer.
What do you look for when you’re hiring people to work in your brewhouse?
We hire personalities. We hire people who are driven and passionate about beer, but we hire personalities. We tend not to hire people off resume. We tend not to hire people from other breweries. We do things our own way at Founders. Sometimes it’s a lot of work to retrain somebody, or un-train them, from their preconceived notions of how things should be done. We do it our own way.
What’s the criteria for a beer that you brew at Founders?
We hope that people have the same kind of experience that we have. We want all our beers to be full of flavor, complex, huge aromatics – aromatics are really big for us – but it’s got to be a really drinkable, well-balanced beer.
Is there a brewer who you’ve never brewed with before that you’d most like to brew with?
There are a lot of brewers that we respect and really enjoy their products. The truth is, we’ve only done one collaboration, and we did it recently with Green Flash, Linchpin White IPA, but honestly, we haven’t had the opportunity to do many collaborations because we’re still just trying to keep up with our own production, but there are a bunch of brewers that we really respect. Collaborations are fun, they can be interesting, so you never know what we’re going to do.
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?
Like most brewers, we like to drink the gamut. It depends on the situation, who I’m with, what I’m eating. There’s a great beer for every situation. I tend to lean towards hoppier beers, but if it’s in the middle of the winter in Michigan, sitting down with a big nut brown ale or an Imperial stout’s not a bad idea either.
If you could travel to any city in the world right now to drink beer, what would it be and why?
That’s a difficult question. There’s great beer being brewed all over the world. I haven’t been to Belgium in years, and I’d like to go back there. It’s a delicious place to drink beer.
If you could only drink one more beer and you couldn’t brew it, what would it be and why?
I don’t think I’m going to answer that question. I’ve got too many people to offend. There are so many great beers out there, I wouldn’t want to pick one over anyone else. I’d drink our All Day IPA. I’m going to skirt your question.