|Dave and Dave, circa 2011.|
Interview with Dave Engbers, co-founder and president of Founders Brewing, conducted November 11, 2016, on behalf of Ashley's.
Founders beers have been part of the Ashley’s lineup since you started distributing in the Ann Arbor area, which must have been in the late 1990s?
Yeah, since 1998 or 1999. We started brewing in November 1997, with the beer getting to market in early 1998. Initially we distributed only in Western Michigan before we looked to expand into Ann Arbor and Detroit in 1999 and then the rest of the state.
Can you talk a little bit about those early years in the beer business? The landscape must have been much different then than what we see now.
My partner Mike [Stevens] and I were just a couple young kids cutting our teeth. We weren’t shy about telling people we were naïve about the industry we were getting into. For example, we knew about the three-tier distribution system, but didn’t really understand the politics of it. Initially our gut reaction was that as long as we made a quality product and put it out in the market at a fair rate, then everyone would support us. But reality woke us up fast.
We didn't realize how many retailers were loyal to certain wholesalers, and unfortunately it wasn't always about the quality of the products but rather the relationship with the retailers. Craft was so new and there weren't enough consumers interested in our brand. The enthusiast community wasn't large enough to impact the larger market.
We were just a couple of nice Midwestern guys, not really aggressive. As a result, we were getting a lot of doors shut in our faces and it didn’t take long before we knew we had to change tactics. Others had these long-term relationships with wholesalers that we didn’t. It wasn’t unusual to find accounts who didn’t buy from our wholesalers because they just didn’t like us.
Distributing beers that were so new and different must have been difficult.
Well, it didn’t take a genius to walk into an account with Bud and Bud Light on tap and figure they probably weren’t interested in us. We’d mostly see those, along with Miller Lite, Guinness, Molson, Labatt, Killian’s, Bass Pale Ale, and maybe this beer called Bell’s might have one tap handle. Ashley’s was an early adopter, but in those days trying to convince an account to buy a keg that cost $125 vs. $47 usually meant getting laughed at.