January 20, 2005 Written by Zach Diesel
Portland, OREGON -
For some outside the Great Lakes states, Michigan beer can be summed up with the word "Bell’s". But nestled on the banks of the Grand River inside the red brick Brassworks building lies the beating heart of a new champion who is challenging King Larry for his proverbial throne with their innovative use of rye and coffee and most of all their call to beer drinkers everywhere to “ignore the mainstream”. This dark knight who has risen out of the peasant ranks to a place of noble stature state and nationwide is of course none other than Grand Rapids’ Founders Brewing Company.
As you walk up to Founders at 648 Monroe the only indication of its existence is a small neon sign over the door and the pungent aroma of hops and malted barley wafting through the biting January air. Once inside one first must be careful to avoid getting in the way of the dart board and then second to maneuver around the packed in tables, across the peanut shell strewn floor to the small bar in the far right corner. A large chalkboard lists the beers on tap that day, and most days it includes three or four only available at the taphouse in addition to the beers more widely available in bottles.
Founded in 1997 Founders has only recently come into their own. Founders Weizenbier, Amber Ale and Porter, the most unimpressive and overall weakest three of their bottled beers, have all recently been phased out to make room for Black Rye, Red Rye, and the newly launched big beer series which includes the highly-lauded Breakfast Stout. Black Rye and Red Rye have both been receiving solid reviews here on Ratebeer.com and have both quickly grown into some of my go to beers. As their name suggests both Red Rye and Black Rye use generous amounts of rye in the kettle which adds a complementary slickness and spiciness to Red Rye’s hop bite and makes Black Rye a unique drinking experience. Founders’ successful experiments with rye have also led to Honey Rye and Chocolate Rye Porter available only at the brewery. Undoubtedly other brewers have taken note of Founders’ rye obsession and perhaps rye beers will become the next double IPAs or barrel aged beers.
Founders Breakfast Stout in recent weeks has leaped to number 21 on Ratebeer and is currently the number one rated stout on the site. The explosion of coffee is sure to wake you up in the morning and at 8% abv Breakfast Stout is equally capable of putting you to bed at night. Bottled for the first time recently, Breakfast Stout can be found in better beer stores throughout Michigan. Joining Breakfast Stout in Founders new big beer series is Devil Dancer Triple IPA which weighs in at an intoxicating 13% abv and coming soon are Olde Curmudgeon Ale and a Bourbon Barrel Aged version of Breakfast Stout.
If anyone reading this is not thirsty for a Founders yet then something must be horribly wrong with you. To all the non-Michiganders do not fret because Founders’ sphere of influence extends well beyond West Michigan. Besides statewide distribution, Founders beers can be found in Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts and I’ve even heard rumours of Founders popping up in Rhode Island. In fact just yesterday my friend called me from the Hopleaf to tell me they had Founders Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale pouring.
Founders’ wide distribution and newfound devotion to innovative brewing have undoubtedly played huge roles in establishing their stranglehold on the Grand Rapids brewing scene. Like Oda Nobunaga, Founders unified Grand Rapids under their banner by asserting their dominance through their beer, erasing lesser breweries like Robert Thomas and Hair of the Frog from the map. With New Holland Brewing’s fall from grace in recent years (see my previous article) I suppose it was only natural someone would step up in their place. Surprisingly enough while surfing through my various Founders ratings preparing for this article I stumbled across this rating of mine from the year 2000 for the long since dead Founders Noble Lager: “This once again proves how Founders is one step away from making good beer. They should keep experimenting and one day I see them blowing some people away.” And sure enough that day has come. Founders’ experimental beers like Red Rye, Black Rye, and Breakfast Stout are blowing people away and with any luck they will continue to in the years to come.
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Once inside one first must be careful to avoid getting in the way of the dart board and then second to maneuver around the packed in tables, across the peanut shell strewn floor to the small bar in the far right corner.