For the first time, Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids is Michigan's largest brewery.
Founded in 1997, it eked past longtime leader Bell's Brewery with the most beer brewed in 2017, according to production numbers released this week from the breweries.
"If that's the case, it's definitely quite an honor, and a pat on the back to our team," Founders co-founder Mike Stevens said. "To be honest, Larry Bell and Bell's Brewery is the brewery I've looked up to for years."
Stevens said Founders produced about 466,700 barrels (a beer barrel is 31 gallons) last year. Bell said Bell's Brewery, based in the Kalamazoo area, produced 464,000 barrels. Both breweries grew substantially last year: Founders by 34% and Bell's by 9%.
"We're the largest craft brewery in Michigan," Bell said, on hearing the numbers on Founders. "Mahou (San Miguel) has always been a bigger brewer than us."
Founders, having sold a 30% stake to Spanish company Mahou San Miguel in 2014, is no longer considered a craft brewery under guidelines from the national Brewers Association trade organization. It defines "craft brewer" as a small, independent, traditional brewer — specifically, annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Also, the brewer must be less than 25% owned or controlled by an alcohol industry member that is not itself defined as a craft brewer. Bell's Brewery is family-owned.
"Bell's will always find a way to make sure they're No. 1 – and I say that in a loving way," said Tim Costello, owner of 8 Degrees Plato beer stores in Detroit and Ferndale. "I know our Founders numbers are up in both stores from last year."
He said it's good news for both of Michigan's largest breweries to have had substantial growth last year, when several other breweries didn't.
"It was a great year," Stevens said. "We're more on the front end of things than reactionary. We've been able to maybe, kind of create trends rather than follow them."
All Day IPA (4.7% alcohol by volume) is 62% of Founders' output. The easy-drinking session beer is immensely popular, including and well beyond Michigan. In 2017, it was the No. 1 most popular beer on beer-tracking app Untappd, with 193,988 check-ins. No. 2 was Bell's Brewery's Two Hearted Ale (7% ABV), with 186,599 check-ins, as reported in Beer Street Journal.
Founders didn't have a flagship beer for its first 15 years in business, Stevens said, and All Day IPA has only been in national distribution since about 2014. He said that now, it's the top-selling craft beer can in America. With lower alcohol than most IPAs, it's a session beer that nonetheless has plenty of flavor. It's a "perfect storm," approachable enough for mainstream beer-drinkers, while also an easy go-to for craft-beer fans looking for something easy-drinking, Stevens said.
"It's really done things that nobody else, I think, fully expected," he said. "Now and then, (thinking) about the bigger picture, somewhere down the road: Why can't the next great American brewery come from the craft segment?"
Founders could make another leap in 2018, to as many as 625,000 barrels. Stevens said they're well-prepared for "the day that you hit the ceiling, so to speak," but meanwhile, they grow. "We've done 10 expansions in 10 years."
Last year, Founders was the 16th-largest beer company in the United States, and Bell's was 14th-largest, according to the Brewers Association.
Bell said his brewery, founded in the mid-1980s and the state's largest craft brewery for many years, is focused on quality and environmental sustainability.
"Bell's sort of remains true, I guess, to the original revolution of craft brewing," he said. "We're not really into giving up our ideals to chase volume."
Costello said he has a word to describe both Founders and Bell's: "phenomenal."
"I don't want to get caught up in the argument of who's pure," he said. "There's something in everyone's closet."
As a store owner, he said he appreciates that both Bell's and Founders's beer arrives shortly after it's brewed, as "freshness is the key."
Spirits of Detroit columnist Robert Allen covers craft alcohol for the Free Press. Contact him: email@example.com or on Untappd, raDetroit; Twitter @rallenMI, and Facebook robertallen.news.
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