We've been fans of Founders Brewing Co. for a long time—we love their porter and Breakfast Stout, and we'd happily drink their All-Day IPA, well, all day. So it was fun to chat with Founders Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki about how he learned to brew, the challenges of the job, and what he thinks will come next in the American craft brewing scene.
When did you first decide to get into the beer industry?
Back in 1995, after a very short stint at college, I started noticing strange looking bottles in the beer coolers at a few stores around town. I didn't really like the taste of domestic macro at the time, so I was definitely ready to try something new. I remember my first purchase was 22-ounce bottles of Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic and Old Fezziwig Ale, and I thought they were really fun and completely different from anything I'd ever had.
My cousin was attending school in Kalamazoo at that time, which led us to discover Bell's beers. We were so impressed with their beers, especially Two Hearted Ale, that we bought a homebrew kit and set out to have some fun and make some tasty concoctions. Until then, my dream had always been to play guitar in a rock and roll band, but all of sudden making beer for a living definitely became an alternate goal!
How did you learn to brew? How did you find your way to Founders?
So we started off with a few recipe kits and the beers came out pretty decent. Soon we were creating our own recipes and trying out different ingredients. We never got all that advanced with our homebrewing but I definitely thought I had developed a good palate for recognizing what these raw materials (malt, hops, etc) would contribute to the finished product.
In 2000, I found myself unemployed and a bit desperate. My girlfriend (now wife) persuaded me to apply for a job at our local brewery. Founders was honestly not one of my favorites at the time, but I went down there and asked if they needed any help. I started working on their packaging line that very day. Bottling and kegging was only a part time gig then, so I did everything I could around there to get involved and get some hours. By 2002, Founders had hired a new brewer (who happened to be a good friend of mine and someone I had introduced to homebrewing years prior). I became the assistant brewer, where my duties included running the packaging line, warehouse, cellar and helping with brews. The best part was that Founders was a bit desperate too, and gave us the green light to change the recipes and develop new beers however we saw fit—as long as they were big and flavorful. That plan worked out pretty well for everyone.
What's a typical day on the job like for you? How much brewing do you personally do these days?
There were many years where all I had to do was come in and make beer/transfer beer/package beer every day. In 2005, I took over as Head Brewer and with that came quite a few additional tasks and responsibilities, but I still was personally making nearly every drop of beer we produced. Soon, though, we began expanding quite rapidly and I had to start training some new people to help out. Up until a few years ago, I was still brewing almost every day, but these days, I manage a crew of nine brewers and assistants that brew around the clock. Removing myself from a lot of the day-to-day details has allowed me to travel to conferences and do events for Founders with a little less stress about being away from the brewery for an extended period of time.
Last year we bought a 3 barrel pilot brew system where I can experiment and perfect recipes on a small scale before ramping them up to the big system. I brew on that about every other week, and it's been quite helpful in working through some new ideas. Other than that, I go to a lot of meetings. And taste a lot of beer!
What are the biggest challenges of the job?
We've been through a lot of expansion lately. We've been experiencing 60-70% growth for several years now, so that means that we've had to incorporate a lot of new equipment and new personnel.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges for me personally is designing the next great beer. If you're not on the cutting edge with new and exciting offerings, consumers can definitely lose interest because there are a whole lot of options out there as far as new breweries and beers go. And not only do I have other breweries to compete with, but I feel a (probably unrealistic) pressure to have every new beer I create outdo the previous one...Every new beer I make, people are like, "It's no KBS, man." Just kidding (sort of).
What is it about KBS that draws such a cultlike following, do you think?
I think KBS really sums up what the Founders brewing style is all about for me: big, bold flavors that are appropriately balanced. There's more to it than just cramming your beer full of stuff. You have to balance those big flavors with each other to create something that is totally pleasing. I'd like to think that's why KBS is so popular, but that's probably naïve. The beer rating sites on the internet probably have more to do with the hype than anything else, and fortunately they've been pretty kind to us. I certainly didn't see the success of KBS coming. For the first few years I made it, it sat virtually unnoticed in our beer cooler.
Will we see increased distribution of Founders beers in the next few years?
We seem to be taking on a handful of new states every year and we're checking out the international market as well. We're always brewing at maximum capacity, so the plan is to be able to satisfy existing markets and then have enough product to take care of these new markets that are asking for it.
What's in your fridge at home? What other breweries do you admire, both locally and from afar?
My fridge is almost always full of All Day IPA, sometimes Centennial IPA or Red's Rye IPA, Breakfast Stout when it's in season, and probably a dozen specialty beers in big bottles that I share from time to time. That All Day IPA has really saved me. Beer is always my beverage of choice, hoppy American IPAs in particular. But it's hard to live a productive life when you're drinking beers in the 7% ABV range all the time.
As far as other breweries go, I've already mentioned my affinity for Bell's here in Michigan. Three Floyds is only a few hours away and always worth the trip. From afar, I'm a big fan of Sierra Nevada, Russian River, and Green Flash, just to name a few.
Where do you think American craft beer is going next?
I'd like to think that the key to our longevity is in these delicious and flavorful session-style beers. Big beers are great for getting people's attention, but I think the responsible thing to do would be to offer interesting, palate-pleasing, lower alcohol beers that excite the craft beer lover and also reach out to new consumers. It would probably mean more volume sold, since people could drink more of them.
But my life is surrounded by this beer scene, so for me craft beer seems huge and poised to take over the world. Sometimes I forget that, in reality, craft beer is still just a tiny percentage of the market. And while nearly everyone I know is way into it, most people still have no clue as to what these 'microbrews' are all about. If craft beer is just a fad, I hope it at least lasts long enough for me to retire here, because I may be getting too old for a career in rock and roll!