michigan spirits

Michigan has firmly cemented itself nationwide as a great beer state, and we are all very thankful for that—but what if your adult beverage of choice isn’t beer?

Never fear, friends, you don’t have to go looking outside the state to quench your thirst.-  We’ve got a plethora of craft spirits too, and it’s about time they got their say.

michigan spirits

In the longstanding tradition of all our wonderful beer festivals, events, and educational components headed up by the Michigan Brewers Guild, the Michigan Craft Distillers Association provides an opportunity for a unifying voice for the over 40 distilleries and distilleries in planning. Part of that voice includes events, and the inaugural Michigan Distilled festival allowed 22 of those member distilleries to showcase their spirits.

Held on Friday, September 15th in Grand Rapids at the Fulton Street Farmers Market, Michigan Distilled featured cocktails and/or spirits samples, live music, food vendors, swag, and a chance to learn all about Michigan distilleries all across the Great Lakes State.

$40 dollars got you five 3-ounce batch cocktails (or ¼ ounce straight spirit samples) from any distillery in attendance. A $75 VIP ticket got you the same plus early entry, one free food item, a special handcrafted cocktail from the Grand Rapids Bartenders Guild only available for VIPs, and a swag bag full of goodies, including a commemorative cup.

Totally worth it.

In attendance were some established favorites such as Valentine Distilling and Grand Traverse Distillery, along with some newer and perhaps less well-known distilleries that are absolutely worth seeking out.

Mammoth Distilling, headquartered in Central Lake, offers small batch vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, bourbon, and brandy inspired by the seasons and landscape of Northern Michigan.  Started in 2013 with bottling beginning in 2015, they have grown leaps and bounds since then, and are ready to grow some more.

Chad Munger, Founder of Mammoth Distilling, shared some interesting news for spirit and beer lovers alike. “We are right in the middle of all the interesting Michigan-grown products we use in our distilling, and [we see] a hole in the market for brandies produced locally. Our vision is to create high-end brandy with grapes and other Michigan fruits. Nobody is doing that yet, and we want to stake our claim there long-term,” said Munger.

In the more immediate future, beer will be the focus—with a little twist. “Partly out of necessity and because we are very interested and curious people,” laughs Munger. “Collin Gaudard, the former head brewer at Northport Brewing, is our Regional Tasting Manager and about to become our Assistant Distiller. He’s got a background and real passion for making beer, which he refuses to give up, which we think is great.”

“We want to do what we can to keep our employees employed even though business slows down dramatically in Northern Michigan sometime in February. We believe beer will help keep us keep a strong business going year round and will bring more people to get to our brand. We are trying to tie our beer and our spirits together in a way that is meaningful, so we don’t cannibalize our spirits sales but really truly extend the line in a unique way.”

Another featured distillery that just screams ‘Pure Michigan’ is Iron Fish Distillery, a field-to-glass craft spirit maker founded in 2015 and located just outside of Thompsonville. Farmed directly from their own grains (as much as available), it’s a true working farm dedicated to their small-batch spirits. They are passionate about sourcing locally (from surrounding farms as needed) and holding their products to the highest quality standards possible, using non genetically modified grain, native yeasts, mashing, fermenting, and bottling everything by hand, on their own land.

michigan spirits

Weston Brooks, Tasting Room Manager of Iron Fish Distillery, poured a Wile E. Coyote for us to sample. Featuring their Michigan Woodland Gin, farm-made jalapeno syrup, fresh lime juice, cilantro, and mint, it was crisp with a little heat and a nice finish. The juniper and other native Michigan botanicals in the gin shined through the mild heat of the syrup and accompanied the freshness and aroma of the herbs perfectly. We asked Brooks for his take on the future of craft spirits in Michigan during the early hours of this inaugural event, and he’s pretty sure the outlook is good. “It’s a very exciting time [for craft spirits] in Michigan. Wine was the first to come to its own here, then it was beer, and now it’s the spirits turn to shine… I see a bright future for us and this industry down the road.”

Detroit City Distillery, located in the historic Eastern Market and founded in 2012, roots it’s craft spirits in the grand ol’ history of prohibition. Small batch whiskey, gin, and vodka aim to invoke the history and spirit of 1920s Detroit, with beautifully made art deco inspired labels like the one on their Homegrown Rye, which we sampled. A little spicy with an almost buttery finish and a deep caramel nose, this small batch whiskey invokes not only the spirit of the Eaton County farmers growing the grain, but the old time bootlegger vibe as well—it was produced on a small copper pot still in an old slaughterhouse. Pretty good story and a pretty good whiskey to go with it.

Overall, the inaugural event for the Michigan Craft Distillers Association was a hit. Well attended and well-represented by a wide variety of Michigan distilleries, each with their own unique vibe and style. Be on the lookout for future events and educational features from the Association and discover all the amazing craft beverages Michigan has to offer.


Photography: Steph Harding

long road distillers

Grand Rapids-based Long Road Distillers will release a new seasonal gin, MICHIGIN®, on Monday, February 6 when their doors open at 4 pm. The gin was crafted from 100% Michigan ingredients, starting with water fresh from Lake Michigan, red winter wheat from Heffron Farms and juniper harvested by hand on Beaver Island.

The limited-release MICHIGIN is the first gin to use all Michigan ingredients. While the distillery works regularly with local farms to source ingredients, juniper, the ingredient that distinguishes gin from other spirits, proved challenging to find. “We’ve been planning MICHIGIN since before we opened our doors two years ago, but we were struggling to find a source for Michigan-grown juniper, a non- negotiable ingredient when it comes to gin,” said Kyle VanStrien, Long Road Co-owner and Co- Founder.

MICHIGIN’s base spirit is distilled from red winter wheat from nearby Belding, Michigan, milled on site at the distillery on Grand Rapids’ West Side. It was then redistilled with a variety of Michigan botanicals, including lemon verbena and fennel from Visser Farms in Zeeland, lemon balm from Creation Farms in Beulah, and Galena hops from the Michigan Hop Alliance in Northport. The resulting gin is unlike any other and offers a fresh taste of Michigan from start to finish.

Juniper is commonly sourced through spice purveyors and originates from Europe or the Pacific Northwest. It wasn’t until sitting around a campfire with family over the summer, discussing different botanicals used in Long Road spirits, that a Michigan source for juniper was revealed to VanStrien.

“I mentioned in passing that we were on the hunt for local juniper,” said VanStrien, “and my cousin stopped me and said that it was everywhere on Beaver Island where she grew up!”

Less than a month later, VanStrien and business partner Jon O’Connor were on a small plane headed to Beaver Island, Lake Michigan’s largest island, 30 miles northwest of Charlevoix, Michigan. After a short scouting visit, it was clear finding enough juniper wouldn’t be a problem. The bushes are so prevalent on parts of the island, they’ve become a nuisance for many residents.

During the last week of September, 2016, a dozen members of the Long Road staff set out from Grand Rapids to harvest juniper berries on the island, collecting nearly 200 pounds over a two-day period. The team weathered 15-foot waves on the two-hour ferry ride and chilly rain while picking, but according to O’Connor, the journey was well worth it.

“What started out as strictly a juniper-picking trip turned out to be a great opportunity for our team to work together on a product that epitomizes our core values and our shared vision for crafting world class spirits from local ingredients,” said O’Connor. “Not only that, the finished product is unlike any

other gin on the market due to the unique flavors we were able to extract by using local juniper and distilling it fresh.”

MICHIGIN, initially, has the familiar aroma of fresh pine and juniper berries, but quickly transitions into scents of cucumber, cedar, vanilla and tropical fruits. The rich juniper flavors lead the way at first taste and gradually shift to notes of melon, vanilla, and hints of bright citrus. It’s sure to please in a gin cocktail, on the rocks, or all by itself.

On Monday, February 6, the distillery is hosting a MICHIGIN Release Party to celebrate the new spirit. From 4 pm to midnight, guests will be able to enjoy 50% off gin cocktails and have their first opportunity to purchase bottles of Long Road MICHIGIN to take home.

Long Road MICHIGIN will also be available in statewide distribution for licensed retailers, bars and restaurants beginning the week of February 6.


fountain hill brewery

Grand Rapids is now home to another new brewery—but this one might not be one you know about, yet. Say hello to Fountain Hill Brewery & Peter’s Pub, the first and only federal and state-licensed brewpub owned and operated on a college campus.

Grand Rapids Community College has long had a strong culinary program. The Secchia Institute for Culinary Education (SICE) is considered one of the best culinary schools in the country, producing passionate, talented Chefs who make some of our favorite meals, locally and beyond. Peter Secchia, a native Michigander and philanthropist, is a strong supporter of both food and drink, and recently he realized that SICE was missing a critical component to their program—“beerducation.”

In Beer City USA, it simply is good business sense. Enter a grand plan to create something entirely new, from curriculum to equipment to final product. An ambitious undertaking, but what better place to find the right men and women for the job than Grand Rapids?

The brewhouse itself is a three-barrel Craftwerks system, brewing about six kegs per batch. Those who complete the program receive a certification for Craft Brewing, Packaging, and Service Operations. While student run and led, the gentlemen at the helm is Mr. John Stewart, probably familiar to most MittenBrew readers as Director of Brewing Operations at Perrin Brewing Company.  

“This is truly a unique experience going from grain to glass,” Stewart shares “While the focus is primarily brewing, we have a wider range of what we are teaching. We have students who are doing internships with distributorships, working with the local hop fields—so some of those side industries that are sprouting up in West Michigan around brewing—these students are developing relationships with them. Not everyone is specifically looking just to brew. The breweries in West Michigan are exploding, but so are all these industries that they are supporting.”

GRCC is very much work-force driven, and the practical, hands-on experience that students receive in the program is to the advantage of those in the industry who are looking to hire new recruits, and to the students who complete the certification.

Talking with Jacob Derylo, Head Brewer at Brewery Vivant– during the grand opening, he shares the same sentiment. “I think it’s great. There are breweries opening up, and we obviously need brewers to fill those roles. Having a pool of applicants with some practical experience on actual brewery equipment can definitely be a benefit.”

The ribbon cutting was a great opportunity to hear from those who carved the path for the program and the students themselves, as well as tasting the product the students put forth- it’s all about the beer, of course!

fountain hill brewery

On tap during the ribbon cutting were 8 different brews—Pete’s Wheat (Hefeweizen), Dum Blonde (Blonde Ale), Secchia Scottish (Scottish Ale-on CO2 and Nitro), Sweet A IPA (American Style IPA), Baltic Raider (Baltic Porter), & Fruits of our Labor (Fruit Ale).

The students in the program range in age and gender (yes, there were two women in the program), and they were happy to talk shop about the beer and their reasons for seeking certification. Jason Richards, who currently works at Founders, said he “wanted to gain more tools in my tool belt to become a better asset to my company.”

Other students such as Stephen Holden decided to pursue their passion. Quitting a job in banking, he decided to combine his previous degree in Marketing with the knowledge gained from the program to find employment that was more fulfilling than crunching numbers.

Keeley Dunn simply enjoyed the world of beer and wine. Currently working at a liquor store, she decided to pursue this program as part of her 10 year goal to eventually brew professionally.

If you’re downtown looking for a different spot to try some beers, don’t neglect Fountain Hill Brewery. Try a pint and provide feedback to your bartender. This is a classroom, after all.

Fountain Hill Brewery is open to the public from 5:30-8:30 PM on Thursdays and Fridays. For more information, visit here.


Images courtesy Fountain Hill Brewery

summer beer fest

The frozen washcloths helped. So did the shady trees. But the biggest relief from the sweltering heat was the beer. Because that is what this festival is about—beer. Specifically, Michigan craft beer.

Oh, I’ve read the negative reviews. The festival has gotten too big, too noisy, too full of casual drinkers who don’t know a pilsner from a pale ale. To which I say, what of it? This event, these two days in Ypsilanti, are about beer. Getting people to drink local beer—from the “gray beards” who have been brewing since before I was born to the people who were born the year I could have my first legal drink. It’s all about the beer.

And this year, I am once again proud to announce my top five beers of the 2016 Summer Beer Fest.

The Winner—Hands down, the Mauj Cucumber Lime Gose from Arbor Brewing Company won the day. It is what a mojito wants to be. It is what a refreshing beer wants to be. It is what all of us want to be. Perfectly balanced and absolutely perfect for the 105-degree heat index, this is the beer of the summer for me.

While I was at the Arbor booth, I asked Rene Greff which beer I should try, she immediately recommended this one. “It’s super refreshing for a day like today,” she said. “And Mauj means fun and frolick in Hindi and is the word one of our Indian partners uses for ‘cheers!’.” This fact just made the beer all the more enjoyable.

Other Amazing Offerings

Under the tutelage of brewer Gabi Palmer, Schmohz turns out very reliable, solid beers. This year, the women of Fermenta joined her to make a Mint Chocolate Chip Stout. At first, I doubted the idea of a stout on such a hot day, but I quickly changed my mind as I drank this well balanced beer. It was neither heavy nor syrupy sweet. The chocolate and mint tastes definitely came through, but they accented rather than overwhelmed the beer.

Another refreshing taste came from Griffin Claw’s And So It Goes. The brewery’s own Angie Williams recommended this gose beer, adding that it was brewed as part of the International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day. When I said that I didn’t want a beer that was too tart, she promised, “It’s got some tartness, but not enough to make your face pucker up.” That turned out to be the perfect description for this well balanced beer. Made with blood oranges, there was just the right hint of salt to add the ideal twang to this wheaty beer.

summer beer fest

Right Brain’s Cake Walk is made with Madagascar vanilla beans and that, like taking the road less traveled, made all the difference in this cream ale. Generally, cream ales are hit or mess for me—some are too heavy and sweet, others seem to have no taste. Right Brain, as usual, hit the perfect spot with this beer.

Pike 51’s Pulp Friction was another home run. I really, really try not to pick a beer based on its name; however, Pulp Fiction is one of my all-time favorite movies. Also, I have never been disappointed by a beer from Pike 51, so I figured it was worth a try to see if it lived up to its namesake and to the soul of Marsellus Wallace. The beer was labeled a “fruit beer,” but it was more of a shandy. A lightly malted wheat ale with just enough citrus made it the perfect beer with which to end the very hot festival. The soul of Mr. Wallace can rest easy in that briefcase.

Another summer beer fest comes to a close. But look on the bright side! Only 363 days until the next one!


Photography: Erik Smith

beer city runner

From bachelor and bachelorette party goers, to tourists, to brewery hoppers, to you name who—the Beer City Runner has driven them through and through. Beer City Runner started with a small mission—to bring people together for a night out to experience some of the best breweries in Grand Rapids. The BCR takes the questions, “How are we going to get home later? Where should we park? Who is staying sober? How far is the walk?” out of the equation.

Chris Myers, owner of BCR, always wanted to operate his own business. He just didn’t think a beer bus was going to be the way to go.

beer city runner

“The idea came to me one day and it made sense. It was completely out of the blue. My buddy and I were discussing checking out some breweries in town. We checked out an app that pinned on a map all the breweries in Grand Rapids. Seeing them all laid out, it was easy to see how simple a route could be,” stated Myers.

Running since September 2014, Hoptimus Prime (the name of the bus) has been the host to a lot of out-of-towners. Chris Schultz, from Chicago, found BCR on Google, finding it to be a great idea to check out a bunch of new places all at once for a bachelor party. Chris Preston, from Chicago as well, also found BCR on Google. His gravitation towards purchasing tickets were the unbeatable pricing of $15/person and the one hour time frame at each location.

The BCR has a predetermined route stopping at B.O.B.’s Brewery, Founders Brewing Company, Reservoir Lounge, HopCat/Grand Rapids Brewing Company, The Mitten/Long Road Distillers, Elk Brewing, and Brewery Vivant with precise times for pick ups and drop offs. If you miss the bus the first time around, have no fear, you can catch it when it comes back through an hour later.

“Chris was pretty flexible on stops and times, depending on what the other fares were doing. The best thing was the total number of places you could experience in an evening with relative ease and convenience,” stated Eric Vegter of Grand Rapids.

Currently, you can catch Hoptimus Prime every Friday evening and Saturday. Tickets can be purchased through their website, or you can catch it around town and purchase on the spot (however, people who purchase in advance will have precedence over those who did not.)

beer city runner

BCR is a flexible, enjoyable experience supporting our local beer scene. Heck, Hoptimus Prime itself exposed Chris to the wonderful beer scene our city has to offer and it can do the same for you too! The BCR holds a future full of more routes with breweries looking to open later this year. There is also discussion about starting a lakeshore route, with shuttle service from Grand Rapids to the lakeshore route and back.

Beer City Runner is the name and fun is the game.


Photography: Bri Luginbill

gray skies distillery

For Brandon Voorhees and Steve Vander Pol, co-founders of Gray Skies Distillery, longtime friends, and Grand Rapids natives, the entrepreneurial spirit has ran through their blood for two generations. Voorhees’ father and grandfather, and Vander Pol’s father were business owners who raised them on the value that a viable idea is just a little hard work away from becoming an achievable reality.

Every day for two years while living in Denver, Vander Pol drove past Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey on his way to and from work. When he finally stopped in to visit, he was captivated by the distillery’s whiskey and atmosphere. As soon as he got his first fix of this budding scene in Denver, Vander Pol knew that crafts spirits were going to be what propelled him home to Grand Rapids.

gray skies distillery

In January 2014, Vander Pol made a phone call to Voorhees that changed both of their lives. Voorhees recounted that Vander Pol’s call on that gray and dreary winter day in Grand Rapids was “totally unexpected and out of the blue,” but one he’s thankful he received.

Vander Pol cut straight to the point with Voorhees, who was big into craft beer, and a homebrewer, “Would you ever consider going one step further, and making liquor? There’s a really amazing craft spirits movement happening out here in Denver, and I think opening a distillery would be something the community in Grand Rapids would be interested in, too.”

The idea peaked Voorhees’ interest. As soon as he hung up the phone with Vander Pol, he Googled “how to make whiskey,” downloaded a 150-page how-to guide on the subject, and read it in its entirety before he went to bed. Voorhees called Vander Pol back the next morning and committed without hesitation, “Let’s do it.”

Now business partners overnight, both men spent the following six months diving into the legalities of owning a business and the logistics of securing a building. Simultaneously, they absorbed every bit of knowledge they knew they would need. Vander Pol took classes in Denver and Louisville, while Voorhees did the same in Lansing, and both met for a week-long immersion workshop at Breckenridge Distillery. They pursued educating themselves on the good faith that by the time they secured a location they’d be fully prepared to deliver on their their first batch.

They were fortunate to find a building in the North Monroe industrial district. It’s an area they originally had in their sights — they could feel its presence as an extension of downtown, and foresaw its attraction to other businesses, and ultimately guests. At 13,000 sq ft, it was a little larger than essential to begin operations, but its footprint allows them to scale comfortably — especially for barrel storage, as their popularity grows.

The building was in “very rough shape” when they bought it, but they embraced it and restored it from the ground up. It needed a new ceiling, walls, electric, plumbing, HVAC — “pretty much everything,” the owners said. Vander Pol expressed, “We were very intentional about this neighborhood. We fell in love with the area because it was half-empty, but all full with potential to create positive synergy with the city and our neighbors.”

Vander Pol’s idea and Voorhees’ willing pivot from craft beer to spirits paid off when Gray Skies officially opened their tasting room March 17, 2016. Now the second distillery in Grand Rapids, alongside Long Road Distillers, they’re honored by the opportunity to elevate awareness for spirits in a city with such a strong affinity for craft beverages. Voorhees affirmed, “It’s exciting for us that we get to establish a relationship with the community and create connections with the consumer all by sharing our passion for making a quality product rooted in Michigan.”

As a small-batch distillery, distilling 500 gallons per batch at a time, Gray Skies is special in that they are grain to glass. Vander Pol explains, “We bring in whole grains — mill, mash, ferment, and distill them — all on site. And, by using all local Michigan grains, we can create mash bills that are exclusive to us.” They did just that with a toasted barley that’s never been used anywhere else, supplied by Pilot Malt House, for their first American single-malt whiskey, which will be available this December.

Gray Skies prides themselves on not conforming to the same expectations as their mass-producing, macro peers. Instead of repeating the same static liquor year in and year out, Voorhees said, “We’re doing classic spirits in a modern way. For me, small-batch means versatility.”

He’s particularly enthusiastic about taking creative liberties when it makes sense, “We have the freedom to experiment with some really unique things to push the envelop with flavor profiles.” Their Barrel Finished Hopped Gin is a testament to that. The introduction of Citra hops to the botanical profile is an invigorating take on gin that gives a clever nod to Grand Rapids’ craft aficionados who would appreciate its inclusion.

The experience Gray Skies provides in their tasting room is personal. It’s a chance to engage with both owners and bar staff in a meaningful way — one that’s different from ordering a drink in a bar and then becoming anonymous in a crowd. They serve over ten cocktails on a regularly rotating menu that feature either their gin or Utility Vodka. The drinks are impressive, mixed with house-made liqueurs, fresh fruit, or herbs. And, worth the visit alone is their scratch-made Moscow Mule… wait for it… on tap(!).

In addition to their gin and vodka, which are available by the bottle at their tasting room and in limited distribution around West Michigan, Gray Skies is moving to expand their portfolio. This summer, they’re set to release a spiced rum aged in red wine barrels, which will also see distribution. By the end of the year, they’ll add a white rum, apple brandy, and barrel-aged apple brandy aged in Journeyman Distillery rye barrels.

For the true connoisseurs of brown spirits, Gray Skies knows that good things come to those who wait. Taking very seriously the traditional methods for the two spirits they hope to ultimately be recognized for, Gray Skies will release their first straight bourbon and rye whiskies in 2018. Both have already been laid down in new white oak barrels to age for the next two years.

In the meantime, Gray Skies will shine.


Photography: Steph Harding

elk brewing

As some of you may already have heard, Elk Brewing is expanding. The sudsy city of Grand Rapids contains yet another brewery with eyes growing larger at the prospect of snagging a good location and introducing more of their product into the market.

Eric Karns, co-owner of Elk Brewing, is expanding the brewery into a second location in Comstock Park across from the Fifth Third Ballpark. The new facility will be used to brew Elk’s mainstay beers on their new 15 bbl system, as well as to develop a brand new food program utilizing a full kitchen.

“The rule of thumb is to not outclass our product of beer” said Karns regarding the food program at both locations. The new location will also be serving wine and cider, which is not served at their original location.

There was one question I couldn’t resist regarding the expansion — did Elk Brewing feel pressured to expand due to the growth and expansion of other local breweries in town?

“I think for us we didn’t get pressured into it. If anything, the location became available and pushed us into it more than what we were pressured into it.”

Though many changes are ahead, the original location, set at the corner of Wealthy St. and Henry St, is going to have quite a roller coaster ride in their future. With the production of their mainstay beers being moved to the new facility, their current 3bbl system will be the home to their new souring program, as well as the testing site for new beer recipes.


With two brewers now on the staff, Karns can tend to the necessities of running the entire operation — though, he said he’s still present for recipe building and overseeing the brewing operations. “The major fun part is coming up with the recipes.”

I was curious, though — Is there a theme, or even certain beer styles, that embody Elk Brewing, or is it being kept undefined as tweaks and kinks are worked out?

“I hate styles and themes. I brew it purely out of taste” Karns said. Flavor first, specifications later. Karns likes to brew until it tastes right and then locate the specifics once the artistic component is complete.

elk brewing

Speaking of no strict style usage and brewing for taste — their mainstay, the Blonde Espresso, has been a great success to the brewery. “We keep our beer list where the demand is — Blonde Espresso. We didn’t plan on that being a mainstay but it’s become a mainstay.” said Karns.

Upon inspection of their food menu, I’d like to suggest to all of you to drink their Blonde Espresso with The Salty Pig sandwich. Prosciutto ham, beer braised onions, fig and goat cheese spread and lemon zest sounds like a fascinating pairing for the beer. A Blonde beer style base can cut through the fats that are consistent in this dish, while the coffee notes latch themselves onto the prosciutto, onions, and fig for contrast. Think roastiness + salty fat (coffee rubbed prime rib anyone?) and roastiness + sweetness from the braised onions and fig. Lemon, or citrus in general, can also have a surprisingly pleasant effect with roasty flavors from coffee.

Be sure to test out their six sauces as well at the original location. All sauces are made with different beers from the brewery and can make for a fun palate exploration with friends.

So who are the folks visiting, drinking, and eating at Elk Brewing?

“70% of our beer goes to the Detroit area. Kalamazoo has picked up quite a bit too.” Karns said. As far as the on-premise guests, Karns finds it to be a lot of walking traffic, with about 90% being locals and 10% tourists checking out the brewing facility. When asked what drives the traffic, the opinion is that “Founders is the best thing that’s ever happened to my brewery (to drive traffic). The beer passports have also helped. They’re amazing.”


Photography: Bri Luginbill

founders education program

“At first we thought, what more can we learn about Founders?”

That’s what Eva and Bob Trudell asked themselves before attending a “Palate Exploration Series” event at Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids. The two Founder’s aficionados were given tickets as a Christmas gift from their children and weren’t sure what to expect. The event was part of the Founders Education Program and was a collaborative, cross-promotional night between Founders and Robinette’s, an apple orchard just north of Grand Rapids. After a few hours of donuts, drinking and discussion, the curious Bob and Eva were sold. “It was right up our alley,” they said, “We’d recommend it a billion percent.”

founders education program

The Founders Education Program is more than just learning how to pair beer with local food. It’s a comprehensive outreach effort to teach everyone; customers and employees, novices and experts, everything there is to know about craft beer. It’s what Founders has created to spread the gospel of beer.

The Education Program has an extensive syllabus and most of the offerings are open to the public. Tours are conducted on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The weekend tours are combined with tastings as well. Founders also offers two classes designed to enhance your brew knowledge. “Beer 101” is a crash course in craft beer. It covers beer history, ingredients, brewing processes, beer styles and tastings, and the evolution of Founders. The “Sensory Evaluation” class is a chance to take a deep dive into how to properly taste and evaluate a beer. Both classes take place quarterly and are open to the public.

Also open to the public are two different types of special events. The Palate Exploration Series featuring Robinette’s was one of those events. Founders teams up with a local food merchant and gives beer fans a chance to see how beer pairs with a wide variety of food. The other special event is the Founders Beer Dinner. This is a six-course food and beer pairing with food prepared by Founders’ own culinary team.

The events are hosted by the Founders Curriculum Coordinator, Mike Willcox Steil. Mike loves showcasing Founders beer, but what he really enjoys is the experience he can create for his customers. “When you set something up like this (the Robinette’s pairing) all the sudden you have 15 to 20 people who never met each other and within fifteen minutes they’re all talking like friends.”

founders education program“That friendly feeling was what got me working in this industry to begin with,” Mike elaborated.

The friendly and outgoing vibe he speaks of is intertwined deep into the fabric of Founders and it’s a huge reason for the existence of the Education Program. They truly believe in the “good news” of beer and they’re anxious to share it with anyone who comes through the door. Mike explains, “If I was working at the bar and someone told me they only liked Budweiser, to me, that’s an opportunity. Let’s change this guy’s mind. And if we can’t change his mind, let’s get him something so that he still has a good time tonight.”

Eva and Bob Trudell mentioned that the same outgoing and educational attitude is what endeared them to Founders from the beginning. “I feel like we originally learned about beer from Founders,” said Eva. “All the servers we’ve ever had at Founders, that’s how they’ve been. They want to educate us about the beer we’re drinking. It’s not just about giving you a beer.”

It’s no coincidence they had that experience with their servers. The final part of the Founders Education Program is all internal. It includes staff education and beer orientation for everyone in the company. Every month, Founders offers to pay for a 3-session training program that allows staff to obtain their Cicerone Beer Certification. It’s a program that certifies and educates beer professionals in order to elevate the beer experience for consumers. Currently, Mike says the entire staff is at least a level 1 Cicerone.

The other internal education component is the beer orientation program. This program is required for all new employees, despite Founders growing size. “No matter what, everyone comes for orientation,” said Mike. “That includes new heads of marketing, guys starting in the deli, or someone new on the packaging line.” That company-wide inclusion is a philosophy that goes back to the early days of Founders. “The Founders family mentality that brought this brewery to where it is, we try to keep as much as that as possible.”

The welcoming attitude that Founders attempts to show towards both employees and customers alike also extends to everyone else in the craft brew industry, including other brewers. The tours that are part of the Education Program are popular among brewers large and small from all across the state. Mike says that in the world of craft beer, they aren’t viewed as competitors, but instead as friends and collaborators. “I’ve always felt like nobody’s better than I am, and I am better than nobody else. That attitude is very much a part of this place. It’s the ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ kind of thing. We wouldn’t be around if other people weren’t trying other craft beers.”

The Founders Education Program is an effort by a growing company to share their passion with as many people as possible. For them, it’s all about the beer, and they’re doing what they can to spread the gospel.

If you’re interested in tours, special events, classes or any other part of the Education Program, get more information from the Founders website.



Photography: Jason Batts & Steph Harding