IPA is poured at Hopcat in Grand Rapids, Michigan,
on February 26, 2013. The city has a strong beer
culture and many craft brewers
RAPIDS, Mich. — Greg Brown "can’t 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.
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 city’s 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.
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."
isn’t the only one noticing — 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
it’s easy to quantify the growth, the story of Grand
Rapids’ beer is as much a cultural shift as a business
trend. The city’s 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.
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 Siciliano’s Market on the city’s 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
is the entity most responsible for Grand Rapids’
ascendancy; its bold beers are earning fans nationwide.
About six years ago, it was nearly bankrupt. Now it’s 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.
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. They’re getting
hotel rooms, experiencing not just the beer scene, but
other restaurants and the arts community. To me, it’s
always amazing how many people go, ‘Wow, this is like a
big city.’ I think sometimes Grand Rapids has a
reputation of being a smaller town. … We’ve got a
vibrant downtown. A lot of cool, sexy people. That’s how
Grand Rapids craft-beer boom is not without larger
context. Sales of craft beers — generally defined as
produced by smaller, independent brewers using traditional
styles — 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 state’s west
side, in particular, has been gaining steam for years,
with breweries such as Bell’s (Kalamazoo / Galesburg),
New Holland (Holland) and Short’s (Bellaire) among the
Grand Rapids’ social climate isn’t 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 city’s fabric.
beer seems a special case.
its Beer City USA designation, which Grand Rapids tied for
with Asheville, N.C., in 2012. It’s essentially just an
online poll, but one that draws tens of thousands of votes
and heated campaigning.
brew-rating websites, such as RateBeer.com and
BeerAdvocate.com continue to throw accolades in Grand
Rapids’ direction. RateBeer recently declared Founders
the No. 3 brewery in the world, downtown bar HopCat the
No. 1 brewpub in the U.S. and Siciliano’s Market the top
beer grocer in the country.
December, Grand Rapids Brewing — owned by HopCat’s
Mark Sellers — 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.
just completed a major expansion of its brewing facility,
with expectations of nearly doubling its 2012 sales.
Almost simultaneously with that project’s completion, it
announced that work has begun on an outdoor beer garden to
supplement the already-cavernous beer hall.
Winter Beer Festival, thrown by the Michigan Brewers
Guild, sold out its 6,000 tickets in less than a day.
American Homebrewers Association will bring its annual
conference to Grand Rapids in June 2014. It is expected to
draw thousands from around the country.
decipher how a city previously associated with a strong
religious streak and furniture-making became a hip beer
destination, start by looking at Kalamazoo.
the home base of Bell’s Brewery, Michigan’s largest
brewer and an influential player in the craft beer scene
nationwide. Around since the mid-’80s, the maker of Bell’s
Oberon Ale did — and still does — serve as inspiration
for other west Michigan beer makers.
you’ve got one of the best breweries in the world
brewing an hour south of you, either you figure the game
out quick, or you’re not going to be around very
long," said Founders’ Engbers. "So having Bell’s
down there really made us elevate our game."
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 — 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.
whose HopCat and Grand Rapids Brewing are two of the scene’s
other major draws, credits Bell’s and Founders with
providing the thrust.
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. "That’s not the case
on the east side (of the state). … We have a cluster of
people who were trained. And also success breed copycats
of people who want to do something similar. So you’ve
got a lot of breweries now doing crazy, experimental stuff
that is now getting national recognition."
defining feature of the Grand Rapids scene, according to
many involved, is its noncompetitive, collaborative
thing that I think is really amazing about the craft-beer
culture is the fact that it’s all like one family. There
is so much competitiveness out there, as far as
restaurants go. You’ve got your Outbacks and your
Applebee’s 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 other’s
establishments, not to go, ‘This is what they’re doing
wrong; this is what they doing right’ and take ideas, do
this and that. It’s more we just enjoy going there, and
they enjoy coming here."
Grand Rapids Brewing’s Sellers: "We definitely don’t
compete directly. At least, we don’t 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.
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.
giant Meijer, which is headquartered in Grand Rapids, is
in a unique position to ride — and push — the wave. It
has made an emphasis of getting Michigan craft beer on its
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 chain’s
sales. Now they are about 10 percent. Some Michigan
brewers doubled or tripled their Meijer sales in 2012, he
knew it had potential. But what we’ve seen, especially
the acceleration in the last two or three years even, it’s
blown us away," he said. "It’s great. It’s a
great thing for the state; it’s good for all of our
sales. It’s good for our customers."
DeVos, the creator of ArtPrize and the spark behind the
entrepreneurial incubator and seed capital ventures in
Grand Rapids, noted how the city’s ascendance as a
craft-beer destination has mixed with other cultural
all a part of the continued resurgence of downtown and the
wider west Michigan area," he said. "It’s 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 there’s
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