In its first three years in business, Michigan’s Founders Brewing Co. was struggling for survival, churning out uninspired beers and battling impending bankruptcy. In 2000, Jeremy Kosmicki joined the team and took on a mandate that any brewer would dream of: Spare no expense on ingredients and, above all, make remarkable beer.
“Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers [the founders of Founders] pretty much gave us free rein to change all the recipes,” says Kosmicki. “I was working with Nate Walser back then, and we had been home-brewer friends before that, so it was a pretty cool situation. We had the opportunity to take our home-brewing ideas and do it at a professional level.”
In the years that followed, Kosmicki and Walser turned their attention to complex brews with huge aromatics and tons of flavor—including KBS, an imperial stout aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, and a rye IPA brewed with 100% Amarillo hops—effectively transforming Founders from a struggling brewpub into a powerhouse craft brewery.
When Walser left Founders in ’05, Kosmicki took over as head brewer and upped the ante yet again. By 2012, Founders had become the 30th largest craft brewery by sales volume. “The hardest part is managing how fast we’re growing,” says Kosmicki. “Nobody grows as fast as we do—it’s pretty much unheard of.”
Kosmicki is constantly tinkering with new creations that debut in the brewery’s Grand Rapids taproom, while flagship beers such as Red’s Rye IPA and the sessionable All Day IPA have helped make Founders a household name.
Here, Kosmicki takes us from the shelves of his local liquor store in Michigan, where his love of beer began, to the cold storage caves under Grand Rapids where Founders ages its cultish KBS.
Founders Red’s Rye IPA
We began brewing the Red’s Rye shortly after I started at Founders, in ’03. We made a makeshift pilot system, which Nate and I kind of threw together. It was a pretty simple system, but it gave us the opportunity to fool around a little bit more and do some really cool stuff in small batches. With the Red’s Rye, I was looking to make a hoppy, red ale with rye, and the test batch worked out well. Shortly after that we discovered the Amarillo hop, which was just starting to come around and gain some popularity, and that really gave the beer an identity of its own. Amarillo hops are distinct; they have big notes of grapefruit and citrus, as well as a little pine. There weren’t a lot of hops like that around at the time. Still to this day, Red’s is one of my favorites—it’s almost got like a cult following, even if we don’t sell that much of it in comparison to our other beers. It does really well in a taproom because it’s one of those beers that tastes best fresh. (Photo: Founders Brewing)
Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic
Back when I was 20 years old, I wasn’t shopping at specialty beer stores by any means. But I was with friends at our local liquor store and we did notice a couple 22-ounce bottles on the shelf—one was a Cranberry Lambic, and the other was an Old Fezziwig. I don’t see either of these beers anymore. They had really cool labels, and they were in the beer section, and I remember thinking to myself: Is that beer? So we bought them and took them home and I was like: You have to be kidding me, that is not beer. The Cranberry Lambic one was a cranberry bomb and the Fezziwig was a spiced holiday ale, and they were completely unlike anything I’d ever had. That was a big turning point—I took those home, shared them with friends, and we all had that moment where we said to ourselves, “Beer can be that?” That [experience] definitely set me off on a new path. (Photo: Brew Kettle Times)
Founders Breakfast Stout
Breakfast Stout is one of those beers that opened people’s eyes. It combines chocolate and coffee, and then there’s a big portion of oats in there. The idea came about when we were trying to think of breakfast flavors that would be good in beer—we stopped short of putting bacon in it, but I know there are people putting bacon in their beers these days.
It’s kind of a pain in the ass to make. The hardest part is dealing with the chocolate and the coffee, because those aren’t traditional ingredients that you just throw in. You have to melt the chocolate down, but you also want to be careful not to boil it or burn it on the kettle. Same with the coffee. We melt down the chocolate with some hot wort, and also steep the coffee in hot wort, but in separate tanks. At the end of the boil, we dose it back in the kettle. (Photo: Founders Brewing)
Anchor was one of the original craft brewers on the scene. When me and my buddies bought our home-brew kit, the very first beer that we brewed was a clone of Anchor Porter. The company that we went through would send you all the ingredients and the recipe shit, and tell you how you make it. That was the first one we tried, and it came out pretty good (from what I remember). It was good enough to keep us going, anyway, and we bought more recipe kits after that. Eventually, once we had done enough recipes and kind of had an idea what different raw materials were doing, we started making our own recipes and visiting our local home-brew shop to buy ingredients. So that was a big step in moving towards a career in brewing. As for what caught my attention in terms of the Anchor Porter, it was probably the first dark beer that I tasted; it has an excellent roastiness and a sweet fruitiness to it. (Anchor Brewing)
Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
KBS is what eventually happened to Founders Breakfast Stout. It came about because Nate [Walser] ordered some bourbon barrels, and we started messing around. At that time, this beer was not the monster that it is today. I remember when we started making KBS, it kind of just hung out in our cooler and the shelves. Then the Internet beer rating sites started getting ahold of it, and the popularity of KBS went through the roof [RateBeer.com ranked it the "Best Beer in America" in 2014]. It was a good time for barrel-aged beers in particular; there wasn’t a whole lot of barrel-aging going on when we started, but it was starting to get popular.
People go crazy for it because the flavors work well together and are well-balanced—there’s the chocolate and the coffee; then you add in the flavors you get from the wood, which are vanilla, bourbon, and oak. There’s so much going on, but I don’t think any one flavor or aroma dominates that beer. We’ll never be able to make enough KBS, even though we have thousands and thousands of oak bourbon barrels that are needed for each batch. We store the barrels in old gypsum mine caves located nearby in Grand Rapids, which we’ve converted into dry storage. We do this because we don’t have room for 4,000 bourbon barrels here at the brewery. We go over there every couple weeks, and we’ll pull some samples to see how everything’s doing. (Photo: Founders Brewing)
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Back when it first came out, you were starting to see some specialty beers around, but nothing like today. And a lot of times, Sierra Nevada was the only craft beer you could find; it was always there, and it was always consistent. Even today, it blows my mind that Sierra Nevada makes so much of it and the brewery sends it all over the country, and it’s always really consistent and really good. If I’m at a restaurant and a little weary about picking some beer I haven’t heard about, I know that I can go with Sierra Nevada and be satisfied. It really is perfect—it’s got the great hop character, great level of bitterness, and it’s fairly sessionable. (Photo: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.)
Founders Harvest Ale
This is one of our more limited beers. It’s made with fresh wet hops. Brewing with wet hops means that they’re picked off the vine [when the hop harvest happens in September] and then you have to use them immediately—they’ll start to decompose pretty rapidly if you don’t use them within a couple of days after they’re picked. We get some of the hops shipped from across the country overnight, and we get them in the brew immediately the next day.
Fortunately, the Michigan hops scene has been blossoming lately. We had a hops shortage a couple years back, and a lot of people decided, Well, I’ve got land—I can grow hops. Hops actually do fairly well here, which has been real handy for this beer in particular because I can get them even fresher and I don’t have to pay the exorbitant overnight shipping costs—a lot of these Michigan farms will just drive it right to us. They pick it in the morning and they’ll have it here in early afternoon. The fun thing about Harvest Ale is that every year we use different hops; I use whatever I can get my hands on. (Photo: Founders Brewing)
Redhook Double Black Stout
I remember this beer jumping out at me at the store because you can get a 22-ounce bottle for $2.99, and this is a 7% beer. Double Black Stout was the first coffee-style beer I’d ever had, and now I do a lot of playing around with coffee. It had a really roast-y, burnt flavor to it that I enjoyed. A lot of my friends couldn’t understand how I could drink it. I’m not a big coffee drinker, really, because I don’t do well with caffeine, but I do love the flavor of coffee and I think it works really well with beer. (Photo: My Beer Buzz)
All Day IPA
This is my baby. I worked on the All Day IPA recipe for years before we finally took it to market. It came out of selfish desires to have a hops-forward beer that I could drink large quantities of. Early on, Founders made their mark with all these super-high alcohol beers—the KBS, the Dirty Bastard, etcetera. That’s what got people’s attention. But there came a time when I wanted to not be so drunk all the time, so the goal was to make something in the 4% range, where you can honestly drink it all the time. It took me a while to dial in that recipe, because it’s a lighter beer with a lot of hop flavor. Getting the balance down so it wasn’t too bitter or too sweet or too dry was a challenge. Since we released the All Day, I’ve seen a lot of sessionized IPAs come to market, which is awesome. I think it’s a great trend and I’m glad that we were at the forefront of that idea, because I think it was the responsible thing to do. (Photo: Founders Brewing)
Bell’s Two Hearted Ale
For my final beer, I’m choosing Bell’s Two Hearted, but you could pretty much say Bell’s Brewing in general was influential to my career. Bell’s was the brewery that made me really want to start brewing. Their beers had a mouthfeel and a flavor that was so rich and interesting and different from anything that I’d had at that point. And the Two Hearted was the best use of hops I’d ever tasted at the time.
We’re only 45 minutes away from Bell’s, so we find ourselves down there quite often and we have a really good relationship with them. I kind of feel like we’re their little brother sometimes; they’re paving the trail, but we’re both of a significant enough size where we can help each other out with certain raw material needs, or questions about process, or have you ever encountered this? questions. The whole brewing community is like that—it’s more of a community than a competition. I don’t think you’re gonna find another industry like ours, where we invite our competitors in and show them our facility.