Get to know Grand Rapids (and the world)

Dave Engbers, Founders Brewing Co.

From an early age, Dave Engbers has loved tasting things.

His family was revolved around the dinner table; every night at 6.

When he was 6 or 7, Engbers’ mother taught high school cooking classes, and he quickly learned his way around the kitchen.

“Just being a little kid and paying attention around that, I learned how to hold a knife, how to saute,” he said, rattling off a list of skills he learned in his youth.

His experience with beer— which would become essential in his life since he started Founders Brewing Co. with friend Mike Stevens — started when he was 15.

“I started stealing my dad’s beer,” he said. “I wasn’t doing it because I liked the taste; I was doing it because I wasn’t supposed.”

The next year or so after, he went out to California to visit his older brother the family had lost touch with.

His brother introduced him to craft beer with Mendocino County Red Tail Ale.

The next year, he went to Europe with his parents and sister. With an open family, he began trying the various styles of European beer.

In college, he went to the “broke college kid” beer, and working at a beer distributor where he was able to buy cheap leftovers.

He spent six weeks in a program in Austria, where beer took a hold of his life. And when he was 19, his parents bought him his first home brew kit.

“It simplified things,” he said. “All of a sudden, you realize you’re in control. It’s like you’re on a playground.’

One late night in college, he and Stevens came together in the wee hours of the morning. They wrote up a business plan for a brewery, a completely fairly new and unknown industry at the time.

As the end of college loomed, Engbers was unsure of what to do; hanging at the college bubble that eats at many pending graduates.

“All the people said, ‘Do what you love,'” he said. “At the time I didn’t really take that seriously.”

He went on to be a teacher; a substitute teacher in Grand Rapids Public Schools. At one point he was offered a temporary full-time position to replace a teacher on maternity leave.

At the time he was brewing beer at home “like crazy.” If he wasn’t brewing on the weekend, he was bottling.

“At one point, I said, ‘This could become a reality,'” he said.

So he and Stevens had a chat.

“We talked a bit and said we’re young enough, if it works, great, if not we can start over,” he said. “Let’s live life without regrets.

“Making mistakes is a part of life.”

So he and Stevens opened up Founders, and struggled for several years making “well-crafted, unremarkable beers.”

Bankruptcy almost ended the Founders run, but it survived and has become one of the most well-respected and sought after breweries in the world.

At one point, Engbers was kept up at night, worried how he can keep the brewery in business for another day.

Now as the brewery grows almost daily and adds more employees, Engbers is kept up at thinking how to make the right decisions.

“It’s how to make the decision,” he said. “There are more people now and we have to be conscious of how our decisions affect the brewery.”

Of course, being a “career hobbyist” has it’s downsides. Occasionally, Engbers will run into friends from high school.

“We’re a bit of novelty,” he said. “Sometimes people are like, ‘Hey, you still doing that brewery thing?'”

Yea, he is and having a heck of a time doing it.

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