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Welcome to Beer City, Beer City USA

Pint of Beer on a Bar Top

Courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

NNo one quite saw this one coming, but when it did, Grand Rapids made the most of it and became the best craft beer city in the nation.

To celebrate its 15th anniversary in 2012, Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan released Bolt Cutter Barleywine Ale. At 15 percent ABV [alcohol by volume], the beer might have seemed strong enough to cut through steel, but the name had symbolic meaning for founders, co-owners and Grand Rapids natives Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers.

Centennial Room at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids

Founders Brewing Co.

Fortunately, today Founders is the state’s largest brewery and the 15th largest nationwide. By contrast, in 2001, the company was heavily in debt, in arrears on payments and threatened with having the brewery doors padlocked. That’s when Engbers wandered into a hardware store to buy a bolt cutter. He still has it, but luckily, he never had to use it to break into the brewery.

An eleventh-hour guarantee on loans kept the doors open. Engbers said the partners decided to brew bolder beers: “We figured if we were going to go down, at least it would be making beers we liked”— like Dirty Bastard, an 8.5 percent ABV Scotch ale. “That’s the beer that put us on the right path.”

The path was still a gradual one, but it also lit a slow fuse that eventually explosion of craft brewing in what was once called “Furniture City” for the many wood furniture companies in town. That business sector faded in the mid-20th Century, as did the downtown area. But what is now a few decades old revitalization is in full flower.

The designation came about after a 2012 nationwide poll to find the best U.S. craft beer city, and locals responded vigorously.

Grand Rapids Skyline on a Clear Day

Photo by Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock

The furniture most in demand now: barstools, as Grand Rapids happily flaunts its new sobriquet as Beer City USA.

The designation came about after a 2012 nationwide poll to find the best U.S. craft beer city, and locals responded vigorously. Grand Rapids rose to the top. The CVB—Experience Grand Rapids—jumped on and rode the wave.

Other breweries joined the Grand Rapids beer rush, too, some of which began elsewhere in Michigan—New Holland (Holland), Jolly Pumpkin (Dexter), Atwater (Detroit). Others are wholly homegrown: City Built Brewing, Grand Rapids Brewing Co., Harmony Brewing, Creston Brewery and others.

Three Beers on a Bar Top at Cedar Springs Brewing Company

Cedar Springs Brewing Company

The population of Grand Rapids is less than 200,000 but is still the state’s second-largest city. David Ringler opened the doors of the Cedar Springs Brewing Company in 2015. He said, “Since then, there are twice as many breweries in Kent County, twice as many in Michigan, twice as many in the U.S.”

There are eight breweries within walking distance in downtown Grand Rapids, 43 within 15 to 30 minutes from downtown, and 80 regionally, though precision is a moving target: “It’s hard to keep track,” said Jackson Van Dyke, who started the Harmony Brewing Company in 2012 with his two siblings. “It seems like every time I look, there’s another place opening up. Business is good, yes.”

Man Holding Phone with Brewster App

Courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

“Historically brewing is local, and that’s what we’re returning to here in the U.S.,” said Ringler. Local support is strong, but Grand Rapids also gets plenty of love from visitors. Van Dyke said, “The Beer City designation has drawn a ton of tourism. And Experience Grand Rapids has the Brewsaders passport program and app that brings people to town.”

Indeed, it does. Since the program started about three and half years ago, 14,000 people have visited at least eight different breweries on the passport to earn bragging rights and the coveted Brewsader tee. Fully three-quarters of them are not from Grand Rapids. More than 250 have been international visitors, the others from 49 different states. (Any Delawarean thinking of Brewsading here will check off box 50 to the resounding cheers of Experience Grand Rapids.)

The numbers are impressive, but they wouldn’t be if the beer was merely adequate. It’s not.

Exterior of Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids

Photo by Paul Jendrasiak

There are a variety of ways to transport imbibers around town, too, so they needn’t drive, from a pedal-powered pub cruiser to a refashioned trolley car.

The numbers are impressive, but they wouldn’t be if the beer was merely adequate. It’s not. Van Dyke said, “I do think that the beer is Grand Rapids is better than any other place in the world. It may sound arrogant to say it, but if you come here there are so many breweries turning out world class beers.”

There’s also incredible variety. Jolly Pumpkin specializes in wild and sour beers. Cedar Springs concentrates on German-style Weiss beers and lagers. Brewery Vivant recreates the look of a Belgian monastery in a former funeral home chapel and serves up farmhouse-style brews. Harmony does a variation on a New England IPA with its GR IPA—“all of the juice and none of the pulp”—called Luscious Lyon, also a word play on Lucius Lyon, one of the founders of Grand Rapids.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

Courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

It’s a long way from what Ringler remembers from his youth: “Grand Rapids had a rather vanilla reputation, often called Bland Rapids.” At this point, 38th President in his heyday might not even recognize his old hometown. (The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum & Library, adjacent to the burial site for the late President and Betty Ford, is now a prime tourist stop.) “Now all the young people here have a strong and passionate mentality to make something of the place.”

Van Dyke calls it, “A very vibrant scene. We’re all right on Lake Michigan, all using the same pure and delicious water. Whole industries are popping up around us—hop farms and different producers that we can work with since many of us are trying to use local ingredients as much as possible, in our beer and foods.”

Guests Enjoying a Meal at Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids

Brewery Vivant

Exterior of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids

Brewery Vivant

The food scene is accordingly lively as well, with many of the breweries fronting chef-driven kitchens. Brewery Vivant has been voted the best of the brewery restaurants, doing a daily from scratch menu. City Built offers Puerto Rican-inspired foods. Cedar Springs goes in for full Gemütlichkeit with Bavarian specialties, while Harmony has elevated the pizza to gourmet heights.

Harmony will even deliver its pizza and its beer. Although you’d have to be in Grand Rapids for that felicitous touch.

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