“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.”
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.”
“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