Over the past few years, Founders All Day IPA has become ubiquitous at weekend tailgates, backyard BBQs, and outdoor adventures. This low alcohol session beer is now the brewery’s most successful product, accounting for over 50% of their sales, but this wasn’t always the case. Prior to the release of All Day, Founders wasn’t known for making light, sessionable beers. Quite the contrary, they were one of the thought leaders in the big beer movement – we’re talking big alcohol and big flavor. So how did one of America’s most famous craft breweries come to create the most successful session beer to date, the beer that defines the category? This is the oral history of All Day IPA, told by Founders themselves.
Mike Stevens: Dave Engbers and I founded the brewery together back in ’96.
Dave Engbers: Yep, and now Mike is CEO and I’m President and my job is to tell you whatever Mike wants to hear. Haha. We also have Jeremy Kosmicki with us, he’s our brewmaster, having joined us back in the early 2000’s.
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VinePair: All Day IPA has become the market leader among session beers. It’s everywhere, from the 15-pack cases to taps across the country. How did it all start? How did you go from making higher alcohol beers, big IPA’s like everyone else in the craft beer world, to making a session beer, arguably the best session beer on the market? When you guys started thinking of making this type of beer, no one even knew what a session beer was.
Mike: True to our form, our slogan is ‘Brewed for us’ and, if you can believe it, Jeremy was working on this recipe 5 years ago, before any session ale category even existed. There were lighter beers out there, but this phenomenon of a session ale category wasn’t yet talked about. I think the reason we had such success is because we truly weren’t chasing a fad, we were on the front end of creating the fad. We made a quality beer that we wanted to drink.
Jeremy Kosmicki: It started back in our taprooms when we stopped making our normal lager and wanted to keep something light on tap for the Bud Light drinkers who were hanging out with their craft beer friends. It started as something called Extra Pale and then became Solid Gold and to be honest, these were pretty bland light beers. We thought, why not take this concept of making a light, easy drinking beer and put some dry hops in there and make something that we actually want to drink. Something that has flavor.
Mike: I think it’s kind of funny that All Day has been so successful because we really cut our teeth on big beers, huge ABV’s. I’d say when you look back on Founders’ history, going back to the late ‘90s, we were definitely considered one of the pioneers of the extreme beer movement. It was our playground. Jeremy was kicking out phenomenal beers one after another. We loved that world, but as time goes by, you start to realize that you can’t really drink 8-10-12% beers all the time. We all grew up drinking really full-flavored, high quality beers that Founders produced so the challenge became whether or not it was possible for us to make a Founders style, full-flavor, exceptional craft beer that is also under 5% ABV.
Dave: Yeah, and we started having kids. We wanted something that had all of the flavor of a Founders beer but that still allowed you to keep up with everything.
Mike: Though the conception of All Day came out of our own wants and needs, a couple years down the road, as we were putting this recipe out into the taproom and starting that conversation, we started to realize that there were other people thinking like we were. We definitely began to notice some of our core fans, saying, “That’s awesome, finally a kick-ass beer that tastes good, but I can drink more than four or five of these.”
Jeremy: But it didn’t hit immediately. We worked on that recipe for a couple of years and it started out as something light with very few hops and then we gradually started working on some different hops varieties – we’d put each iteration of the beer in the taproom and we’d get feedback. When we finally came up with the recipe that stuck, it was eye opening, it was enlightening, and it was definitely new. We knew that was it – it was time to get it out into the market.
Dave: We tried so many different recipes that it would’ve been easy for us to pull the trigger even a year before, but we all felt that we owed it to the beer, that it had to be absolutely perfect – finding the right hop profile, the right malt bill and ensuring perfect body were really the biggest challenges. But naming it was also a pain in the ass.
Mike: It seems fairly obvious, but it was a hard road to get to.
Dave: The truth is, the beer started out as Extra Pale or Solid Gold, and then we started calling it Endurance. It was Endurance for almost a year.
Jeremy: Then it turned into Sweet Repute.
Dave: We finally settled on calling it “Endurance—All Day IPA.” All Day IPA was really just a descriptor. But then we had this trademark issue with a contract brewery in Boston and we just kind of washed our hands of it and said, ok, we’re just gonna call it “All Day IPA.”
Mike: Yeah, so we settled on All Day and our design firm came up with that cool label, which I think lends itself to what this beer is all about—an active lifestyle.
Dave: And then we put it out there. I think the first thing we saw was that a lot of our friends in the brewing industry were blown away by it. A lot of other brewers in the industry started looking for a beer that had all the flavor, but was lower in ABV. When other brewers that we really respect were giving us so many accolades, to me, that meant that we really nailed it.
Mike: We were in development five years ago, before the word ‘session ale’ even existed. By the time we released it, this buzz started to surface, this conversation of lighter, full-flavored craft beers. So we took our time creating this thing, but by the time it was ready to see center stage, it was already starting to be talked about. So we just let it run right at the right time.
But when we first released it, we still didn’t truly understand what we had and what it would be, and we only had limited hops available, so we decided to just test markets in four states. We did that and it was a huge success, selling out almost immediately, so the following year we contracted more hops, which then allowed us to take the beer to our whole network. But even today, we can’t fully keep up with demand. It was crazy; almost right away it started to take off and it quickly eclipsed our #1 brand, Centennial.
Dave: Pretty soon we realized that the beer had a market geared towards an active lifestyle, so we knew we had to get it into a can to reach the kayakers, the hikers, and the mountain bikers.
And then, creating the 15-pack opened up a whole new avenue for us as well. With All Day, we use the word “crushable” because it really is so crushable. You can put a bunch of these things down and still be a fairly responsible person, so a 15-pack made sense.
Mike: The beer hits an underserved market, it really does, and that’s why I think the beer instantly grew at such a fast rate. And right now, we’re pretty comfortable with just All Day serving that market for us. I mean obviously you never know, we might make another session beer at some point, but right now there are no plans. I think one thing we’re always cautious of is not to chase fads, but rather to be very authentic and genuine about what you do. We’ve always brewed beer that way. For us to go do anything differently would just be untrue to our character.
Dave: Now it’s pretty much all I drink on what I would consider a regular basis. Sure, there are opportunities for a nice Backwoods Bastard or a KBS, but in general All Day is my everyday beer.
Jeremy: 90% of the liquid I consume is All Day IPA. We created this beer out of a necessity for ourselves. You know, we are in an industry where part of the job is drinking beer. Sometimes it starts early in the day and you’ve got stuff to do, and we all love hops, we love IPAs. Centennial beer was my favorite IPA, but at 7.2%, that just caught up with us. We needed to get things done, we really needed that sessionable beer—that beer that you can really drink casually and socially and maintain your productivity.
Dave: I think the thing that maybe took us by surprise the most with All Day was that it was really created for hard-core craft beer enthusiasts, but it has also bridged the gap for people who are new to the category. It’s pretty approachable.
Mike: I think you’re going to continue to see high gravity beers, but an important part of what we do in the industry is to continue the path of creativity. I think any one of us drinks differently depending on the occasion, and that’s what we found with these sessionable beers. It’s an occasion that a craft beer drinker doesn’t want to give up for cheap domestic beers. Now that there’s an avenue to create good beers that are in the 4-5% range, it gives all of us that occasion to have lighter beers with full flavor.
This story has been edited and condensed for clarity.