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Craft-brewing boom changes Grand Rapids' culture, economy

May 20, 2013

Perrin IPA is poured at Hopcat in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on February 26, 2013. The city has a strong beer culture and many craft brewers

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. ó Greg Brown "canít claim to be a super connoisseur" of craft beers, but he does like to think he knows more than a little about the subject, and he has been a fan of Michigan brewers such as Founders Brewing and New Holland Brewing for a while now.

Still, the 26-year-old Ferndale, Mich., resident was taken aback in February when he made his first trip to Grand Rapids since he was a child. The purpose was to spend the weekend with his girlfriend, exploring the cityís beer culture and taking in the annual Winter Beer Festival, an outdoor event featuring dozens of Michigan brewers that draws thousands to Fifth Third Ballpark in nearby Comstock Park.

"I knew it was a strong scene. But getting out there, it really gave me a sense of the importance and magnitude," said the community manager at Ignite Social Media in Birmingham. "Everyone is super passionate about it, from the casual drinkers to the diehards to the brewers."

Brown isnít the only one noticing ó or heading west in search of suds. Grand Rapids is enjoying an absolute boom in production, attention and interest in its craft beer scene. People around town even regularly use the phrase "beer tourism."

While itís easy to quantify the growth, the story of Grand Rapidsí beer is as much a cultural shift as a business trend. The cityís reputation and self-image have undergone a noticeable swing, in part because of craft beer. A town that not too long ago might have been perceived as staid is rallying around its brewers.

"I think the craft beer movement has changed Grand Rapids. ... Politicians are waking up to the fact that craft beer is pumping tax dollars into the economy, generating income for the local businesses and so on," said Steve Siciliano, whose Sicilianoís Market on the cityís west side is a mecca for craft-beer buyers and home-brewing enthusiasts. "We did have that reputation of being a very reserved, very conservative area. Grand Rapids is still conservative. But not as much as five years ago."

Founders is the entity most responsible for Grand Rapidsí ascendancy; its bold beers are earning fans nationwide. About six years ago, it was nearly bankrupt. Now itís in a state of almost constant expansion. Co-founder Dave Engbers only needs to look out the windows of the brewery to notice the difference.

"You just start looking at license plates and you see Ohio, Wisconsin, Kentucky. People are driving from all over, coming over here to experience west Michigan breweries," Engbers said. "People come in here, and that means they are spending money. Theyíre getting hotel rooms, experiencing not just the beer scene, but other restaurants and the arts community. To me, itís always amazing how many people go, ĎWow, this is like a big city.í I think sometimes Grand Rapids has a reputation of being a smaller town. Ö Weíve got a vibrant downtown. A lot of cool, sexy people. Thatís how we roll."

The Grand Rapids craft-beer boom is not without larger context. Sales of craft beers ó generally defined as produced by smaller, independent brewers using traditional styles ó are on the rise nationwide, with sales volume up about 15 percent in 2012, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group. And Michigan is recognized as one of the top beer locales in the U.S. The stateís west side, in particular, has been gaining steam for years, with breweries such as Bellís (Kalamazoo / Galesburg), New Holland (Holland) and Shortís (Bellaire) among the leaders.

But Grand Rapidsí social climate isnít changing only because of beer. An entrepreneurial upswing, downtown real estate revival and the emergence of annual events such as ArtPrize are also altering the cityís fabric.

Still, beer seems a special case.

Among the developments:

óThereís its Beer City USA designation, which Grand Rapids tied for with Asheville, N.C., in 2012. Itís essentially just an online poll, but one that draws tens of thousands of votes and heated campaigning.

óNotable brew-rating websites, such as RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com continue to throw accolades in Grand Rapidsí direction. RateBeer recently declared Founders the No. 3 brewery in the world, downtown bar HopCat the No. 1 brewpub in the U.S. and Sicilianoís Market the top beer grocer in the country.

óIn December, Grand Rapids Brewing ó owned by HopCatís Mark Sellers ó opened a huge new brewery in the center of downtown. Nearly instantly, it became a destination spot. Several other breweries opened in 2012, including notable players such as Harmony Brewing, Perrin Brewing (in nearby Alpine Township) and the Mitten Brewing.

óFounders just completed a major expansion of its brewing facility, with expectations of nearly doubling its 2012 sales. Almost simultaneously with that projectís completion, it announced that work has begun on an outdoor beer garden to supplement the already-cavernous beer hall.

óThe Winter Beer Festival, thrown by the Michigan Brewers Guild, sold out its 6,000 tickets in less than a day.

óThe American Homebrewers Association will bring its annual conference to Grand Rapids in June 2014. It is expected to draw thousands from around the country.

To decipher how a city previously associated with a strong religious streak and furniture-making became a hip beer destination, start by looking at Kalamazoo.

Thatís the home base of Bellís Brewery, Michiganís largest brewer and an influential player in the craft beer scene nationwide. Around since the mid-í80s, the maker of Bellís Oberon Ale did ó and still does ó serve as inspiration for other west Michigan beer makers.

"When youíve got one of the best breweries in the world brewing an hour south of you, either you figure the game out quick, or youíre not going to be around very long," said Foundersí Engbers. "So having Bellís down there really made us elevate our game."

At one point about six years ago, Founders really needed to elevate. After about a decade in business, it was nearing bankruptcy in 2007 when it introduced a high-alcohol, high-flavor Scotch Ale it dubbed Dirty Bastard. An instant hit, it led Founders to alter its philosophy and begin producing a line of "bigger, bolder, more aggressive" beers ó a strategy that led to other mainstays, such as Centennial IPA and Breakfast Stout, and "adding more tanks, adding more tanks, adding more tanks," Engbers said.

Sellers, whose HopCat and Grand Rapids Brewing are two of the sceneís other major draws, credits Bellís and Founders with providing the thrust.

"Because of those two, the west Michigan beer scene is booming, because there is a cluster of people that are in the brewing scene," he said. "Thatís not the case on the east side (of the state). Ö We have a cluster of people who were trained. And also success breed copycats of people who want to do something similar. So youíve got a lot of breweries now doing crazy, experimental stuff that is now getting national recognition."

A defining feature of the Grand Rapids scene, according to many involved, is its noncompetitive, collaborative nature.

"One thing that I think is really amazing about the craft-beer culture is the fact that itís all like one family. There is so much competitiveness out there, as far as restaurants go. Youíve got your Outbacks and your Applebeeís and all of these places that seem to be ... in competition, and they seem to be trying to take business from each other, and can be a little bit ruthless at times," said Shawn Blonk, general manager of Grand Rapids Brewing. "The difference in this culture is we work with (Brewery) Vivant, we have great relationships with Founders. ... We all go to each otherís establishments, not to go, ĎThis is what theyíre doing wrong; this is what they doing rightí and take ideas, do this and that. Itís more we just enjoy going there, and they enjoy coming here."

Adds Grand Rapids Brewingís Sellers: "We definitely donít compete directly. At least, we donít think of it like that." Lyndsay Israel, general manager of the Mitten Brewing, a smaller-scale brewery that has a baseball theme, confirmed the notion: "Everyone is supportive of the others," she said.

Siciliano said he noticed a boost of civic pride when the RateBeer designations were announced earlier this year, followed by local media coverage. "It was like their team won the Super Bowl. ... They were so proud of it," he said.

Retail giant Meijer, which is headquartered in Grand Rapids, is in a unique position to ride ó and push ó the wave. It has made an emphasis of getting Michigan craft beer on its shelves.

"We actively helped it along. We were kind of riding it together with them," said Meijer senior buyer beer, Doug Bylski. He said that five years ago, Michigan craft beers accounted for less than half a percent of the chainís sales. Now they are about 10 percent. Some Michigan brewers doubled or tripled their Meijer sales in 2012, he said.

"I knew it had potential. But what weíve seen, especially the acceleration in the last two or three years even, itís blown us away," he said. "Itís great. Itís a great thing for the state; itís good for all of our sales. Itís good for our customers."

Rick DeVos, the creator of ArtPrize and the spark behind the entrepreneurial incubator and seed capital ventures in Grand Rapids, noted how the cityís ascendance as a craft-beer destination has mixed with other cultural changes there.

"Thatís all a part of the continued resurgence of downtown and the wider west Michigan area," he said. "Itís an exciting thing, another example of people figuring things out, trying things out and doing them in their own way, and that is what creates a unique place. I think thereís a ways to go on that (Beer City phenomenon) in terms of how it continues to build the identity of the region and continues to enhance the attractiveness of it to a bunch of folks."

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Associated Press