Beer­ca­tion: Grand Rapids, Michi­gan

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents -

Beer brings peo­ple to­gether in Grand Rapids and Kala­ma­zoo—visit any brew­ery or bar, and it’s easy to strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with the stranger sit­ting next to you. Whether you’re drink­ing beer to make the long, cold winter bear­able, or en­joy­ing a pint on a pa­tio on a warm sum­mer day, these are the spots that have helped this Michi­gan city earn the name “Beer City USA.” Words and pho­tos by Wes Kit­ten FOR MOST OF THE TWEN­TI­ETH

cen­tury, Grand Rapids, Michi­gan, was known as Fur­ni­ture City. Yet even after much of the fur­ni­ture in­dus­try left Grand Rapids, that spirit of hon­est man­u­fac­tur­ing work re­mained. To­day, the nick­name has changed—grand Rapids be­came known as “Beer City USA” after win­ning an on­line poll in 2012 in a head-to-head matchup against Asheville, North Carolina—and the vot­ing and nick­name are a prime ex­am­ple of the the love that Grand Ra­pid­i­ans and Michi­gan­ders have for their lo­cal beer scene. Craft beer is big just about ev­ery­where these days, but this cor­ner of south­west­ern Michi­gan takes par­tic­u­lar pride in what’s now their area’s top ex­port.

Be­fore Pro­hi­bi­tion, brew­ing in Grand Rapids was a thriv­ing en­ter­prise. When Michi­gan’s state-level pro­hi­bi­tion took ef­fect in 1917 (two and a half years be­fore fed­eral pro­hi­bi­tion be­came law), its brew­eries closed en masse. While Michi­gan was the first state to rat­ify the 21st Amend­ment end­ing pro­hi­bi­tion, that did lit­tle to help the city’s brew­ers. In 1951, Fox Deluxe Brew­ing Co. (the only re­main­ing brew­ery in Grand Rapids) moved to Chicago, leav­ing behind a city with­out a brew­ery.

That drought per­sisted for decades, un­til Larry Bell (down in sis­ter city Kala­ma­zoo, roughly 45 minutes from Grand Rapids) launched a home­brew store in 1983 and sold his first com­mer­cial craft beer in 1985. In Grand Rapids proper, Canal Street Brew­ing Co. opened its doors for business in 1997.

While the early days of craft beer were no slam dunk for these south­west­ern Michi­gan up­starts—canal Street flirted with bank­ruptcy in 2001 be­fore chang­ing its name to Founders and dou­bling down on un­usual beers—their long­stand­ing ded­i­ca­tion to brew­ing fla­vor­ful beers has now stood the test of time and has seeded at least two additional gen­er­a­tions of Michi­gan brew­eries who’ve con­tin­ued to so­lid­ify the re­gion’s rep­u­ta­tion.

From large-scale pro­duc­tion brew­eries such as Bell’s and Founders to niche pro­duc­ers such as new­com­ers Spe­ci­a­tion Ar­ti­san Ales and City Built Brew­ing, the di­ver­sity of scale and fo­cus is ev­i­dent in the area’s brew­ing cul­ture. And the wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity of the brew­pub model, with a range of cuisines to ac­com­pany the range of beers, makes the re­gion par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive to beer tourists. So crack open a can of Bell’s Hop­slam or Founders KBS, and fol­low along for our ul­ti­mate tour of the Grand Rapids and Kala­ma­zoo craft-beer scene.

Grand Rapids

Founders Brew­ing Com­pany, the cor­ner­stone of modern brew­eries in Grand Rapids, is as good as any place to start. Their tap­room, con­verted from an old ship­ping dock, is spa­cious and of­fers bar and ta­ble seat­ing while their out­side bier­garten is com­plete with heaters and open fire­places for those cold winter days. On tap, they of­fer their usual year-rounds (think All Day IPA, Rubaeus), cur­rent sea­sonal beers such as PC Pils and Mo­saic Prom­ise, and a few one-offs or tap­room-only firkins. Don’t sleep on the food—their sand­wiches are as am­bi­tious and de­li­cious as their beer—and if merch is your goal, their brew­ery shop is one of the big­gest we’ve ever seen.

Sev­eral blocks to the north­east is the orig­i­nal Hop­cat—one of the world’s top-rated beer bars and now a multi-state chain with thir­teen lo­ca­tions as far away as Kansas. It’s a must-visit for beer fans, with a menu that runs from their own house-brand beers to a very large and ever-chang­ing tap and bot­tle list. The full menu in­cludes great burg­ers and the ever-pop­u­lar Crack Fries—beer-bat­tered fries sea­soned with black pep­per.

Newly opened restau­rant/beer hall The Soven­gard is across the Grand River on the west side of Grand Rapids and fea­tures a wide ar­ray of styles on tap with a menu mashup of Scan­di­na­vian-cui­sine-meets-mid­west-cook­ing. Their spa­cious bier­garten is great for those warm Michi­gan sum­mers, and from the bier­garten, you can see New Holland’s Knicker­bocker Brew­pub across the street. Here you can find many of New Holland’s beers on tap along with their own spir­its, hand­crafted cock­tails, and a rus­tic, sea­sonal menu.

Head north from there and you’ll find The Mit­ten Brew­ing Co. The Vic­to­rian-meets-base­ball themed brew­ery was re­stored from an old fire­house and even in­cludes the orig­i­nal fireman’s pole. Try any one of their great beers but make sure you pair it with one of their gourmet piz­zas. From there, con­tinue north to new­comer Grey­line Brew­ing. The brew­ery might be new, but they’re no strangers to com­mer­cial brew­ing—founder Nate Walser has brewed for ev­ery­one from New Holland to Founders to Per­rin. His new ven­ture is mod­est—a 7-bar­rel brew­house with tap­room-fo­cused in­ten­tions—but the beers are di­aled in. If you’re a fan of cof­fee beers, check out Kona Brown or Steam­roller Cof­fee Stout, but don’t bring a growler to fill—they only of­fer to-go beer in crowlers.

Head­ing back across the Grand River, your next stop should be at Cre­ston Brew­ery, another new­comer with a lo­cal fo­cus and a wide-rang­ing menu of styles. Try the Fox Deluxe IPA, Earl Grey ESB, or Olmec—a stout brewed with ca­cao nibs, cof­fee, and pasilla and an­cho pep­pers that’s like Mex­i­can cho­co­late in a glass. Their di­verse menu of dif­fer­ent world fla­vors fo­cuses on hand­held sharables (try the em­panadas) and classy com­fort food, and if it isn’t spicy enough for you, their house-made hot sauces will kick it up a notch.

Down the street from Cre­ston is Gray­don’s Cross­ing, which of­fers forty-six taps—al­most all from Michi­gan brew­eries—and food rang­ing from tra­di­tional pub of­fer­ings such as fish ‘n’ chips to fu­sion dishes like the Bangladesh Bur­rito.

Grand Rapid’s new­est brew­ery is next on the list—city Built Brew­ing. Their dis­tinctly culi­nary ap­proach to beer fla­vors is a bit of a de­par­ture from other brew­eries in the area—if it’s avail­able, try their Amore Es­tivo, a lemon-basil sai­son, or Flower Power, a pale ale brewed with green tea and chamomile. The menu holds its own with Puerto Ri­can– in­spired small plates. Next, head to clas­sic neigh­bor­hood pub, Lo­gan’s Al­ley. Their tap se­lec­tion fo­cuses on some of the best beer that Michi­gan has to of­fer, and they have an in­side track on rare re­leases a lot of other places don’t get. If the great tap se­lec­tion isn’t enough for you, browse their bot­tle list of more than 175 beers.

Head­ing south, plan to spend time in the re­fur­bished his­toric fu­neral home that is now Brew­ery Vi­vant. One step through the door will make the me­dieval monas­tic theme im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent—from the stone work and chan­de­liers to the com­mu­nal wooden ta­bles and stained glass, the south­ern Bel­gian and north­ern French

in­flu­ence is ap­par­ent. Duck Con­fit Na­chos are a pop­u­lar fa­vorite—try with some of their main­stays such as Farm Hand, a French farm­house ale, or Tri­om­phe, a Bel­gian IPA. For some­thing more ad­ven­tur­ous, there’s al­ways a wood-aged beer and a firkin to choose from.

Jour­ney down the street to Har­mony Brew­ing Com­pany. Ex­plore the ever-chang­ing ta­plist and pair your se­lec­tions with one of the fan­tas­tic wood-fired piz­zas they have to of­fer. If you’re look­ing to get around and you don’t have a des­ig­nated driver, check out Beer City Run­ner. They of­fer ser­vice be­tween most of the places men­tioned so far.

The next stop, just out­side of Grand Rapids in Hud­sonville, is Pike 51 Brew­ing Co., and it’s well worth the drive. Their brewer, Jeff Wil­liams, was one of the first in the Grand Rapids area mak­ing sour beers, and if you’re lucky you’ll find one on tap. Out­side of sour beers, try The Kush IPA, Sab­o­tage Cof­fee Stout, or one of their bar­rel-aged beers. When you leave Pike 51, if you’re still look­ing for sour beer, head over to Spe­ci­a­tion Ar­ti­san Ales. Spe­ci­a­tion is a mixed-cul­ture fer­men­ta­tion brew­ery fo­cus­ing on sour, wild, and farm­house ales. While this is not a brew­ery with a tap­room that you can visit, there’s a good chance there’s a bar in the area with one of their beers on tap. If you hap­pen to be in Grand Rapids on the sec­ond Satur­day of the month, you can pick up bot­tles from the brew­ery via an on­line reser­va­tion that takes place the week be­fore—keep an eye on their web­site for re­lease de­tails.

If you’re in search of bot­tle shops, there are sev­eral choices in the area. Hor­rocks Mar­ket Tav­ern, in­side Hor­rocks Mar­ket, has a great se­lec­tion with all the new re­leases and a draft area as well. Fill a growler or en­joy a glass while you pe­ruse their beer se­lec­tion or wan­der the rest of the mar­ket. Rishi’s In­ter­na­tional Bev­er­age has earned quite a rep­u­ta­tion for their ser­vice—if you’re hav­ing trou­ble choos­ing some­thing, tell Rishi what you like, and he’ll find the right beer for you.

On the north side of town, River­side Liquors may have that hid­den gem you’re look­ing for. Next door is River­side Lounge, a space with fifty taps so you can try some­thing be­fore you buy that 6-pack or take home that tap-only beer in a crowler. Fi­nally, don’t miss Si­cil­iano’s huge se­lec­tion of bot­tles. If you’re a home­brewer, head next door and check out their ex­ten­sive se­lec­tion of sup­plies—many pro­fes­sional brew­ers in Grand Rapids got their start by shop­ping at this very store.

North of Grand Rapids

Head north of Grand Rapids to the small town of Cedar Springs and visit Cedar Springs Brew­ing Com­pany. In the spirit of Kristoph Küsterer, a mid-1800s pi­o­neer of Ger­man-style beers who in­flu­enced gen­er­a­tions of western Michi­gan brew­ers, you’ll find many tra­di­tional Bavar­ian beers that bear his name—küsterer Orig­i­nal Weiß­bier is as authen­tic a Ger­man hefeweizen as you’ll find in the United States, and Küsterer Munich Dunkel is warm­ing and dry. Their menu is a mix of tra­di­tional Ger­man food and fresh pub fare—the Bavar­ian Brauhaus Breze, a de­li­cious jumbo pret­zel, is a good start to any meal.

Head south and stop at Rock­ford Brew­ing Com­pany in Rock­ford, Michi­gan. This small-town brew­ery treads in fa­mil­iar but well-made styles, and their menu of tra­di­tional pub se­lec­tions gets a nice kick from an un­ex­pected Korean in­flu­ence. On your way back to Grand Rapids, stop at Per­rin Brew­ing Com­pany for a wide range of beers—ses­sion strength to high ABV bar­rel-aged mon­sters. And for a dif­fer­ent take on a bar­rel-aged beer, try Lil Griz, a sub 7 per­cent bour­bon bar­rel–aged im­pe­rial brown that’s full of fla­vor.


About 45 minutes south of Grand Rapids lies Kala­ma­zoo, home to long­time craft brewer, Bell’s Brew­ery, which has been open for just shy of 32 years. Their Ec­cen­tric Café is a great place to en­joy their beers, lo­cated next door to their orig­i­nal brew­ery, which they still use for small and ex­per­i­men­tal batches. In the Café, you’ll find a full menu and more than forty dif­fer­ent tap op­tions—yes, forty. The taps of­fer the usual Bell’s lineup along with a great se­lec­tion of Café-only choices. The Bell’s Gen­eral Store is lo­cated on the same block and of­fers beer in bot­tles to go, mer­chan­dise, and home­brew­ing sup­plies. Tours are avail­able for a quick glimpse behind the scenes, or if large-scale pro­duc­tion is more your speed, then check out the main brew­ery on the out­skirts of Kala­ma­zoo. At more than a quar­ter mile long, the pro­duc­tion brew­ery of­fers a lot to see—from the 800-bar­rel fer­men­tors vis­i­ble from out­side the fa­cil­ity to the small hops field that Bell’s cul­ti­vates for small batches to ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent hops va­ri­eties.

Back in Kala­ma­zoo, across from Bell’s Gen­eral Store, is Hop­cat’s Kala­ma­zoo lo­ca­tion, in case you didn’t get enough Crack Fries up in Grand Rapids. A block down the street is the Kala­ma­zoo Beer Ex­change, with twenty-eight taps and beer from Michi­gan brew­ers as well as such brew­ers as Avery, Bal­last Point, La­gu­ni­tas, and Clown Shoes. Here, The Mar­ket opens at 6:00 p.m. ev­ery day, and beer prices fluc­tu­ate ev­ery 15 minutes de­pend­ing on de­mand. This is based on real-time sales, so the more peo­ple buy, the more the price goes up. The less peo­ple buy, the more the price drops. Ran­domly, through­out the night, there are mar­ket “crashes” where beer prices drop to their min­i­mum for 5 minutes.

On the other side of town, One Well Brew­ing is a great spot for play­ing board games while drink­ing great beer. Try the Sweet Wa­ter Street, a porter brewed with donuts and cof­fee, or the Xalapa, a blonde ale brewed with jalapeños that has all the fla­vor and none of the spice. One Well is also an ideal spot for fam­i­lies; chil­dren aren’t just tol­er­ated but en­cour­aged with ac­tiv­i­ties and games just for them.


If you hap­pen to be in Grand Rapids dur­ing the sum­mer, vis­it­ing the shore of Lake Michi­gan is a must. Along the lakeshore, you’ll dis­cover more great brew­eries that cater to the laid-back life­style. In Sau­gatuck, the epony­mously-named Sau­gatuck Brew­ing Com­pany of­fers some tasty pints. Head­ing north to Holland, you’ll find the now-sprawl­ing New Holland Brew­ing Com­pany, the cozy nanobrew­ery Our Brew­ing Com­pany, and lo­cal-friendly Big Lake Brew­ing. Con­tinue north to Grand Haven to the quirky Odd Side Ales, com­fort­able Grand Ar­mory Brew­ing, and crisp Van­der Mill Cider Mill. Then on to the comfy pub-style tap­room of Pi­geon Hill Brew­ing Com­pany. Dur­ing your jour­ney along Lake Michi­gan, take some time and head to one of the many beaches on the lakeshore. More and more brew­eries of­fer cans or crowlers that pair per­fectly with a quiet af­ter­noon on the lake. There’s much more to see, and this only scratches the sur­face of the beer scene in West Michi­gan, so add a few more days to your trip to soak it all in. You can travel far and wide and not find another city or re­gion that em­braces craft-beer cul­ture, from top to bot­tom, like that of Michi­gan. And whether you visit in the cold and snowy win­ters or dur­ing the mildly fan­tas­tic sum­mers, you’re sure to have an amaz­ing beer­ca­tion.

Clock­wise from top » Brew­ery Vi­vant of­fers beer with a monas­tic flair; Grey­line Brew­ing’s sleek modern decor is a great place to en­joy their ac­com­plished beer; Cre­ston Brew­ing of­fers a food menu that matches the di­ver­sity of their beer menu; Founders Brew­mas­ter Jeremy Kos­micki wel­comes you to their ex­pan­sive pub and tap­room.

From top » The Brauhaus Breze at Cedar Springs Brew­ing Com­pany is a great ac­com­pa­ni­ment for their award-win­ning Ger­man-style beers; if they’re avail­able, or­der a sour beer from Pike 51 Brew­ing; Spe­ci­a­tion Ar­ti­san Ales doesn’t have a tap­room, but keep an eye out for their bot­tle re­leases the sec­ond Satur­day of ev­ery month; Hor­rock’s Mar­ket Tav­ern will pour you a pint to drink while you shop.

Clock­wise from left » The Bell’s Brew­ery Ec­cen­tric Café of­fers forty taps of Bell’s main­stays and cafe ex­clu­sives; the fer­men­ta­tion cel­lar at Bell’s is strictly business; One Well Brew­ing of­fers a fam­ily-friendly en­vi­ron­ment with off­beat beers.

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