GRAND RAPIDS — The Backstage Series, those 750mL bottles filled with taproom one-offs or something new altogether are what epitomizes the Founders’ Philosophy of Brewing. Just ask Dave Engbers, Co-Founder and Vice President of Brand & Education. 

“The Backstage Series is one of the fun things that wasn’t part of the original business plan.  We get to push the liquid envelope, to create brands that are exciting, and give the consumer something interesting to drink,” Engbers says.

Engbers is a talker. His conversation is effortless. It’s obvious he is passionate about Founders and what it does, and it’s also obvious that’s hard for him to contain.

“Music is a big part of what we do; we had live music soon after we opened the taproom and so, [calling it] Backstage was kind of in reference to that quality, the atmosphere of Founders.”

That atmosphere, coupled with the growth and expanding popularity of Founders, is what sparked conversation to create Backstage in 2011. 

“As we grew, we were essentially filling orders. Unfortunately. For a long time, all we were doing was trying to fill these orders and we weren’t allowed to itch that — ” Dave pauses here, searching out the correct word, “creative itch,” he laughed, “that we have.

“It frustrated our brewing team that we weren’t able to create those fun and exciting brands. The whole idea behind [the creation of Backstage] was to share something that historically was available only in the taproom, and bring it to people who might not have the luxury to visit us in Grand Rapids.”

An instrument for creativity and test market to Founders’ biggest and more valued focus group, the taproom is the place for experimentation and for that itch to get scratched.  The most recent release in the Backstage arsenal will be the Smoked Porter, set to release in February. First brewed utilizing the new three-barrel pilot system, this is Founders’ first ever smoked beer. The pilot system will play a big part in further aiding the creative urges of the brew staff, allowing more room for experimentation and playing a part in Backstage beers of the future.

The long list of beers that have already graced the Founders floor includes a myriad of taproom-only specials that many would love to have bottled. But how are the decisions made to select what gets the honor of becoming a Backstage beer?

“We have a tight R&D team, a small group of people that talk about future Backstage product. I can tell you there are a very limited number of people here at Founders who knows what the upcoming Backstage Series are. Out of the 205 employees, maybe seven or eight people know. Honestly, it’s kept very quiet — often times the beer is already produced — some of the brewers might not know what it is, sometimes the Cellarmen will be moving beer from tanks or in the barrels and have no idea. A lot of our beers just have stamped codes on them,” Engbers shares.

The magic of Backstage is not just in the mystery of what will be next. The limited quantities and possibilities of never seeing a beer again definitely have something to do with it. Regardless, it’s not about the marketing, not about driving sales. Founders is Founders, and remains true to its mantra.

“For Backstage, the beer has to be unique. One of the most common questions I get is ‘when is CBS going to be brewed again?’ CBS was one of those that hit harder than anything we anticipated, but we won’t brew it again just to create buzz. When we say ‘brewed for us,’ that’s legitimate. We create the beer, we don’t create the buzz. Some of that just happens because the beer enthusiast community is so strong and so engaged in what we do that there’s often this anticipation,” says Engbers.

The best way to drink them? Engbers shares an enthusiasm that all craft beer lovers can relate. “If I score a bottle of something really awesome or rare, my first reaction is to go ‘I gotta call my friend, let’s share this’, because it would mean so much to them to be able to experience this beer,” he says. “Our industry lends itself to people who are a little more selfless.”

So be selfless, find yourself a bottle of Sweet Repute, pull that Blushing Monk out of the beer cellar, or snag some Smoked Porter in February and call your friends. You may not see these beers again, but you can always anticipate something unique in the future. So drink to that.

Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery