Jeremy Kosmicki achieved the Michigan equivalent of Manifest Destiny. He grew up in Detroit, completed high school due west, in Pinckney, and stopped just short of Lake Michigan, settling in Grand Rapids, where he now works as head brewer for Founders Brewing Co. Unless you live east of the Mississippi or frequent GABF, there’s a decent chance you’ve never tried beers like Curmudgeon Old Ale and bourbon barrel aged Backwoods Bastard. Despite their somewhat limited distribution, Founders has become one of the nation’s most revered microbreweries since Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers founded the brewery in 1997. Now Kosmicki is in charge of the Bastards and the rest of Founders’ line-up. He recently shared insights about his background and approach.
How did you become so interested in beer?
I really didn’t enjoy drinking beer that much when I was younger. Of course, it was cheap domestic swill then, but that’s all there was and so I drank my share. (Sidebar: I’ve since come to enjoy this style of beer, there’s a time and a place for everything.) Then the first few craft beers that I drank really blew my mind. My friends and I tried every microbrew we could get our hands on for a while. Eventually we heard about homebrewing, bought a kit and had a whole lot of fun with it.
What’s your first beer memory?
My first important memory was probably 1995, I was either 19 or 20 years old. My cousin was attending Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and had told me about this strange and delicious thing called Bell’s beer. At the same time my roommate had turned 21. One night in Grand Rapids, the three of us went looking for some strange and delicious beer and found a party store that carried 22 oz bottles of Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic and Old Fezziwig Ale, and Buffalo Bill’s Alimony Ale. I had never tasted anything like it and my life definitely changed.
What’s the first beer that you ever brewed, and how did it turn out?
When we got the homebrew kit, we ordered two recipes – an Anchor Porter clone and a Ballantine IPA clone. We brewed the porter first and it seemed great. I’m sure it tasted like bad homebrew, but to our immature palates (and that of our friends), it was definitely a success. I remember most of our homebrews going pretty well. The only problem we ever had was when we put too much maple syrup in a maple porter (I swear that must have been a misprint in my Charlie Papazian book!) We really enjoyed brewing the big, flavorful beers as homebrewers.
Where did you go to school and what was your major?
College came at a weird time for me. I was really into music and trying to start a rock and roll band with my cousin. But I had good grades and some scholarships, so I ended up trying Grand Valley State University, just west of Grand Rapids. I studied music for a few weeks, quickly realized that wasn’t the side of music that I was interested in, and changed my studies to Communications. By the end of the first semester, I knew I was done. My dad had opened a music consignment shop back home in Pinckney, and I decided to move back home and work with him. Fate would lead me back to Grand Rapids, however. I had started playing music with the drummer who lived across the hall in my dorm. Soon I moved back to GR to pursue the band.
How do you think that impacts what you do for a living now?
I guess the only impact school had on my current situation is that I made connections here in Grand Rapids.
What was your first beer related job?
Probably around 2000, a tiny brewpub opened just around the corner from where I was working. Obviously I found that extremely convenient and began to frequent there. Eventually, I convinced the owner that I knew something about beer and he agreed to give me a few bartending shifts. So I would work all day in an auto detailing shop, then head straight to the pub to pour beers all night. Saturdays I would go in and help with brewing, and that was my first professional experience.
What was your career path before arriving at Founders Brewing?
I had spent quite a few years in the auto detailing profession. Basically we had to make used cars look nice before they were sold again. It improved my attention to detail and forced me to develop a structured cleaning procedure, which I believe has helped me in the brewery. Of course this was all just to pay the bills – what I dreamed of was my band making it big. I knew I wanted to brew beer or play rock and roll for a living, but I was content to do crap work all day so I could enjoy my hobbies by night. (Sidebar: I still play in that band I started with my cousin and college dorm drummer. We found a bass player who eventually became my right hand man in the brewhouse here at Founders. We still play a handful of gigs every year, pretty much exclusively at Founders Taproom.)
Would you say that you have any brewing mentors? If so, who are they, and what did they teach you?
Back in the day, another one of my friends wanted to start homebrewing and asked if I’d come to his place and get him started. His name is Nate Walser and he was living and working near Holland, Michigan at the time. Nate had been hanging around New Holland Brewery quite a bit and eventually got himself a job there as assistant brewer. Soon, my job at the tiny brewpub fell through, so I went down to Founders and took a job in the packaging department, doing whatever I could to get hours and be involved. In the summer of 2001, Founders’ head brewer left and we hired Nate to take over. I became his assistant and learned how to run the bottling line, transfer beer, and brew on the brewhouse. I pretty much did every job, including shipping and receiving. Founders’ owners soon gave me and Nate the opportunity to get really creative with the recipes and make the beers big and flavorful. Nate is one of those geniuses that can always find a way to make something work, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. He’s a great visionary and really got Founders rolling in the right direction.
What distinguishes your beer from other breweries?
I like to brew interesting beers and of course Mike and Dave (Founders’ owners) are always encouraging me to push the envelope. My goal is to be creative yet delicious. I don’t want to use some crazy exotic ingredients just to sound interesting, if it isn’t thoroughly pleasing to the palate. I love our portfolio of beers – we don’t really have one or two brews that really carry us. I feel like we have something for everyone, as long as you like big flavor in your beer.
Who are some other brewers that you respect, and how come?
Bells has probably been the most influential for me. They really put Michigan beer on the map and gave us all a chance here. They make some really good beer. A few years ago I hadn’t even heard of Firestone Walker, but my wife had mapped out some breweries for us to hit during a California vacation. I thought the beer was amazing and have noticed that they’ve won about a thousand medals in the past few years. I love what Allagash is doing and of course Ron Jefferies at Jolly Pumpkin here in Michigan is really on to something. I’m always impressed when I get to try Russian River brews.
What are some beers that you typically enjoy drinking?
I love American hops, so I’ll normally go for an IPA. If I’m at bowling league, I like to crush Miller High Life or PBR for a few hours. Tall glasses of Coors Light are on special at the bar where I watch football all day Sunday, so I’ll usually have a few of those. I love a big stout on a cold night or a weekend morning. I fell in love with sour beers on a trip to Belgium years back, but those are for special occasions. If it’s everyday drinking though, it’s gotta be delicious hops.
What’s the most recent beer that you developed, and what was your approach?
My most recent development came from this love of drinking IPA all day. Most are in the 7% ABV range, so it will eventually make you too drunk too soon. What I needed was a session beer that gave me hop satisfaction. I took a few stabs at it, trying to get the bitterness level just right, trying to get the hop aroma to explode. Now we have Endurance IPA Jr., a 4% ABV hop bomb, designed for maximum crushability. We sent it to the GABF last month and it won a silver medal in the Session Beer category. More importantly, I have my all day beer.
If you could only drink one more glass of beer, what would be in the glass?
What a sad thought! I think the Pliny I had at this GABF might be the most delicious thing I’ve had. A glass of that would probably be quite satisfying. Plus I would need the extra alcohol from a double IPA if it’s really my last beer.
Would you eat anything with it?
I’m doubting it.