GRAND RAPIDS — “1 in every 200 Americans homebrew.”

Charlie Papazian, quietly unassuming, gently humorous, clad in a hawaiian shirt, shares from the stage. This number has implications. “You — homebrewers — have ignited and inspired the world of craft brewing, in America and elsewhere.”

Grand Rapids, especially and Michigan, too. The homebrew culture feeds the craft brew culture in this city and in the state. “There’s a special spirit here,” says Charlie as he introduces the 2014 AHA Conference Keynote Address speakers, Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens, co-owners of Founders Brewing Company.

The pair shares their story, which is not only a story of a Grand Rapids renaissance in the craft beer world, but the story of small brewers all over the country, former homebrewers turned pro, or a story to provide inspiration for those who are looking to do so.

A short video is played, and familiar faces to MittenBrew readers pop up on the big screen. What is a home brewer?

‘Cheap.’

‘Opinionated.’

‘Intense.’

‘Likes to party.’

‘Someone who pushes the boundaries of the craft beer movement.’

Rockford Brewing, New Holland, Brewery Vivant — all these guys — started as homebrewers. And that’s what Mike accentuates and shares with a crowd of 4,000.

“The craft beer industry is built on nothing more than a bunch of homebrewers. We are real, authentic, and you can take that away or fake it.”

Founders beer is poured all around for attendees, as volunteers hold high pitchers of the commemorative AHA beer, a Rye Oak Aged IPA, and walk through the crowd. Mike and Dave talk about their personal journey, and what the homebrewing community means to the craft beer industry, right now and in the future.

Tips for going pro

Engbers sips on his beer. “You must be driven, committed. It will take over your life. You’ll make the leap, you’ll go all in. Be unconventional, a little reckless. You’ll make some beautiful mistakes.”

Feed your passion, make quality products, be unique and find your voice, what works for you, be true to yourself and your product will follow. And be professional, it will allow you to grow. “Understand the business side of this business,” adds Stevens.

Founders almost failed. Engbers and Stevens were college friends, and talked about opening a brewery someday as a dream, not a reality. The ‘what ifs’ were too much to bear, and they decided they had to go for it. Growth was slow, non existent, really. They made beers for the masses — wheats, ambers, simple and not always that good. Bills accumulated and compounded, until they reached a point where they owed half a million dollars in six days or they would have to shut their doors. Long story short — they found the money. And they learned.

They learned that they needed to brew for them, not for everyone else.

“So who are we?” Engbers asks the crowd. “We are passionate, genuine, we don’t compromise. We’re a bit unconventional — but whatever the fuck we’ve got going on, it works. Maybe a little bit badass — quietly badass, it’s very Midwestern. But — we are humble! Don’t tell anyone.” He smiles.

Founders. When they say ‘brewed for us’, they really mean it.

Growth happened. And happened. Moving into a new space in 2007, they started in that location with 14 employees, producing 6,127 barrels. Jump to 2014 and now they employ approximately 240 people and are making 180,000 barrels a year.

Founders wants you, the homebrewer, to continue to brew. Your experience, passion, unconventionality, and reckless experimentation are pushing the craft brew industry forward. “Brew great beer. Have fun.” Says Engbers. And Stevens. And Papazian.

What’s the takeaway after this weekend? Keep doing what you are doing. Or start doing it. Introduce someone to craft beer today. Sit down with them; find a beer they can learn to love. Share your passion. Make it their passion. Brew. Drink. Bond.
Cultivate what we’ve started, and keep it moving in the right direction, Michigan. It’s all up to you.

Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery