Not Over A Barrel Anymore

May 21, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — When the dust ultimately settles and the yeast appropriately rises, the Founders Brewing Co. will be able to increase its production capacity by six times in its new home, cranking up the brewing numbers from 6,000 barrels to 40,000 barrels a year.

Founders, which has been serving some of the area’s most popular beers since 1997, is finally moving from its original leased location in the Brass Works Building at 648 Monroe Ave. NW to a building it will own and expand at 235 Grandville Ave. SW.

“It’s exciting. We got the right team put together this time. What’s exciting about it is, it’s actually going to happen,” said Mike Stevens, Founders president, with a laugh of relief.

It wasn’t easy for Founders to find a new home. The company was all set to move last summer to the former Imperial Metals building on Ionia Avenue NW until a loan from the Small Business Administration fell through the cracks. So the award-winning brewing company, rated as the 14th top brewer in the world, extended its lease and its space in Brass Works last September.

While having more space there would have pushed production up to as much as 10,000 barrels, it still wasn’t enough room for Stevens and his partner, David Engbers, to brew as much product as they wanted to.

“Unfortunately, our current location limits how big we can grow. Now, we’re able to brew 6,000 barrels yearly; our new location will eventually allow for 40,000 barrels,” said Engbers.

“That will make a huge difference to our wholesalers, retailers and, of course, our local consumers.”

And to the Founders bottom line, as well. Stevens said people are turning on to their way of brewing, which is probably best described as creating “gourmet” beers. One example is a brew called Kentucky Breakfast that Founders sells for $125 a case, and the brewer can’t serve up enough at its current location. It’s a stout that Founders ages for a year in used oak bourbon barrels purchased from distilleries in Tennessee.

“After they’re drained of the whiskey, the barrels are shipped to us. We brew this beer and ferment it for a year in the gypsum mines here. These bourbon barrels impart bourbon and oak flavor on this already massive beer. So it’s really a cool product,” said Stevens.

After the stout ages for a year, Founders lets Kentucky Breakfast settle in its tanks for another week before it’s bottled, packaged — and quickly sold.

“This year we only had 400 cases that we sold, and these go for $125 a case. We sold out in two days. We had people drive here from as far as Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York on the day we launched this product to come and pick up the beer,” he said.

Founders is going to renovate the 8,500-square-foot, two-story Grandville building for offices, a tap room and a bit of production space. Then the firm will expand the building by 10,700 square feet and use that space for production. Work is set to start in a few weeks and be completed by next fall, when Founders plans to move in.

But the construction plan doesn’t stop there. If the business takes off in the new site like Stevens and Engbers envision, they have enough land just south of the new addition to build another 10,700 square feet of space for production purposes. So if all goes well, Founders could end up with nearly 30,000 square feet, almost double its space in Brass Works.

Pioneer Construction is managing the project, and URS Corp. has designed it.

The cost of the first project has been estimated at $4 million and that includes a parking lot Blue Tiger LLC plans to build next door. John Green and Andy Winkel are Blue Tiger.

Green and Winkel are developers who own the Elevation Group and Kelwin Properties, respectively, and Stevens said they were instrumental in finding Founders a new home.

“Andy and John are key factors in making this whole thing come to fruition. They not only enjoy the beer, but they see the vision. They see the need for Founders to expand, and they really did put together a great package. We obviously worked very closely with them, and now we’re partners with them,” said Stevens.

“Without those two, this probably wouldn’t have come together.”

The new Founders will be located on Grandville across from Hopson Flats, a project of Green’s firm and the D.A. Gulker Group of Fusion Properties. They’re renovating a pair of former five-story warehouses with a total of 100,000 square feet of space at 212 and 216 Grandville into 44 rental apartments and ground-floor retail space. The apartments are being marketed to college students, which is more than OK with Stevens.

“That’s great, because as we all know, college students and beer are synonymous. The fact that they only have to walk across one little street there is going to be great for the brewery.”

City commissioners set a hearing for June 5 to amend a brownfield designation that was awarded to the property before Founders bought it. Founders RE, which owns the land and will lease it to the brewing company, is requesting $431,000 in tax reimbursements over 18 years for cleaning-up the site. The company has also asked for a Single Business Tax credit of $200,000 for the project, which is expected to create 16 jobs.

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