Grand Rapids breweries master the art of individualism

April 22, 2012
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If you’re a beer drinker who demands quality in the brews you buy, you’re in good company. At a time when the overall U.S. beer market is in decline, the growing consumer base for craft beer continues to gain momentum, surpassing a 5 percent volume share in 2011 at an estimated retail dollar value of $8.7 billion, according to the U.S. Brewers Association.

Those living in West Michigan don’t have to travel far to sample the best of the best. The region is home to some the key beer players.

Well-respected authority on the craft,, ranked Grand Rapids’ Founders Brewing Co. and Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery Inc. among the top 10 Best Brewers in the World; Founders is listed as one of the top three. Grand Rapids’ HopCat came in 28th for Best Beer Bars and has placed among the top three in the past.

Beyond driving tourism and paving the way for a wave of smaller craft beer makers, downtown Grand Rapids breweries have become somewhat of a mecca for the community, a virtual melting pot of diverse generations and socio-economic groups.

Garry Boyd of HopCat and Bar Fly Ventures said that from day one, the owners of the beer bar, Mark and Michelle Sellers, have been committed to craft beers and the development of their location. Michigan natives, the couple moved back to the area after living in Chicago and found themselves disappointed by the beer culture in Grand Rapids.

In 2008, they took their knowledge of good beer bars all over the world and put it to work. Boyd said that for Hopcat, brewing is an accent to the business; the larger focus is to further distinguish the downtown nightlife area  where the Sellers also own Stella’s Lounge, The Viceroy, McFadden’s, part of The Pyramid Scheme, and the soon-to-open Grand Rapids Brewing Co.

Boyd cites another contributing factor of their success: HopCat’s opening coincided with Founders’ boom in popularity.

Founders co-founders Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers said that in the ’90s, Bell’s was just about the only brewery in Michigan. They decided to tap into the potential in Grand Rapids and turn the craft they loved into a full-time career.

“We just didn’t know that career wasn’t going to be very successful for the first 10 years,” said Stevens.

Though now a world-class brewery that draws thousands of beer enthusiasts to West Michigan, Founders started out in the red; so much so that the company was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

Though sales were increasing each year, by 2002, Founders was facing bankruptcy. The owners received a call informing them that if they couldn’t come up with $400,000 by the following Monday, the bank was going to put a lock on the door.

The pair of bolt cutters Engbers bought in response still sits on his desk today as a reminder.

Under threat of being shut down, the owners took an approach that seemed counterproductive to their goal. Instead of brewing for more people, they began brewing for less.

“Every brewery was doing the same thing: Everybody had a pale ale, an IPA, a wheat beer, something dark. We were cookie cutters,” said Engbers.

Stevens and Engbers took a step back and started brewing the kind of beer they wanted to drink. From this came the greats — Dirty Bastard, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Centennial IPA — which essentially turned the tide for the business.

“We started brewing these aggressive, complex beers. If you looked at the business model, you’d say, ‘Well, no one drinks beers like this,’” said Engbers. “We just removed all the rules and decided we were going to do it our own way.”

For the past four years, Founders has averaged 72 percent annual growth, is currently on track to produce approximately 80,000 barrels in 2012, and has created a total of 107 jobs.

Although Stevens and Engbers are pleased to see the growth of the industry, considering the nearly 900 new breweries in the planning stages around the country, they expressed hope that entrepreneurs will consider how competitive the market has become. Their advice: Narrow your focus.

“Have a sense of purpose,” said Stevens. “There are a lot of people making beer now, and you need to differentiate yourself. If you want to come in to the market and make an IPA, realize everyone makes an IPA. What can you do that’s different?”

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