Go ahead, type “Beer City USA” into your Google machine. What pops up?
Okay, I’ll save you the trouble:
In a nation that Chicago, Denver, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, Milwaukee and Asheville all call home, how did a town of just under 200,000 in sleepy, inland western Michigan lay claim to such a prestigious moniker?
As an unpaid craft beer blogger, I considered it my duty to get to the bottom of this. And naturally (because who wants to conduct such a momentous investigation alone?), I dragged the rest of my family along for the ride.
36 Hours, 7 Breweries and the Most Glorious Garden and Sculpture Park in the U.S.
Before planning this trip, no one in my family was able to name any Grand Rapids breweries off the top of their head — except for Founders, an industry mainstay. By the end of the beercation, we’d physically imbibed in seven of them, and enjoyed several other craft beers from various Michigan breweries outside the city.
In non-beer activities, we also spent an afternoon at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, which is one of the coolest urban nature refuges I've ever been to (and that includes the acclaimed Garfield Park Conservatory of "Beer Under Glass" fame).
Here’s the rundown, in chronological order of the visits:
New Holland Brewing
Atmosphere: When you step inside, you promptly find yourself face to face with an eight-foot-tall copper-colored metal dragon perched upon two barrels. Very timely, what with the final season of Game of Thrones in full swing at the time. Of all the taprooms we visited, this ticked off the most boxes on my “ideal brewery” checklist: large bar, plenty of seating, spacious outdoor area, extensive menu, and a substantial merch sales area I somehow managed to avoid.
Best Beer: A mouthwatering lunch of white fish sandwich left our stomachs somewhat full, delaying my beer alarm from going off. Maybe that’s why the Taz IPA was simply satisfying, not outstanding (as the first beer on Friday usually is).
Highlight: If we weren’t late to meet my folks at the hotel, I could’ve spent another hour or two playing Giant Jenga and sampling more brews on the spacious patio.
Atmosphere: Initially, we weren’t super gung ho on Founders (as the 15th largest brewery in the U.S., it just seemed more “corporate” than “microbrewery”), but our foolishness was apparent within minutes. This massive indoor-outdoor setup on the edge of downtown Grand Rapids is impressive.
Best Beer: Más Agave: it literally tasted identical to a salty, lime-laden margarita. I don’t know how they did it, I’m not sure I care, I’m just glad we had the chance to sample it.
Highlight: Our heavily bearded, ultra-loquacious server spent so much time bantering with us, I began to suspect he was some sort of local Founders superfan versus an actual employee. I will it say it was our best service in a brewery, probably ever.
Grand Rapids Brewing
Atmosphere: “That was my favorite brewery of all time,” – my father, after we left Grand Rapids Brewing. The rustic setup, shuffleboard table and line of dusty, retro arcade games against the wall reminded him of his favorite bar from college. I loved it as well.
Best Beer: Since it was brewed with loads of Michigan blueberries, I had to try the Blue La Lune — when in Beer City, right? This sour was an explosion of flavor, pretty wacky but refreshing as well.
Highlight: Dominating the shuffleboard table, what else?
City Built Brewing
Atmosphere: More restaurant-focused than your typical brewery scene, but quite nice and well-done for what it was.
Best Beer: After hours of IPAs, sours, stouts, and crazy margarita concoctions, the Alemania Mexican lager really hit the spot.
Highlight: One of our party (not naming names) was starting to snooze at the dinner table, so we had to take off a little early. No shame in that game, it was a long day of beer drinking.
Atmosphere: We could all understand why this taproom generated the most “you have to stop here!” recommendations — it’s absolutely unique. Part former funeral home, part chapel, part bar, part restaurant, dark indoor seating, bright outdoor seating…I’ve never really been anywhere like it.
Best Beer: Big Red Coq. Say it out loud. Great beer name. Tasted delicious, too.
Highlight: If you’ve never played the game “Telestrations,” do yourself a favor and swing by Target to pick it up on the way to your next brewery outing. It had us in stitches.
East West Brewing
Atmosphere: In a word — bizarre. It’s an Indian restaurant with a built-in brewery…or is it a brewery connected to an Indian restaurant? Your guess is as good as mine.
Best Beer: Most of us selected the IPA off the underwhelming menu, to mediocre results.
Highlight: We sat on the patio! And it only rained a little.
Atmosphere: Another unique spot, nestled in the corner of a five-way intersection within a repurposed former gas station. It’s narrow and winding, with seating indoor and out. The garage doors were open as the clouds dissipated to create a picturesque night.
Best Beer: I’ll go with the Fiddlestix IPA (to be honest, everything was starting to taste the same at this point).
Highlight: I’m not normally a fan of ultra-thin pizza, but Harmony has it going on: hot and crunchy and perfectly cooked without the typical excess salt and rivers of grease.
Though they are not breweries, I’d be remiss in failing to mention the three restaurants we popped into: The Søvengård, Butcher’s Union and Hopcat. The beer menus for all three were tremendous, full of homegrown Michigan beers and even some house-brewed offerings. For the full ensemble — food, drink, ambiance, local quirkiness — I’d recommend the The Søvengård to anyone. And not just because I’m a prideful Swede.
In conclusion: it’s easy to understand how Grand Rapids became a sought-after craft beer destination. Though it’s a small city, its breweries run the gamut in terms of style and location, anchoring neighborhoods all over town and specializing in everything from dank imperial IPAs to subtle farmhouse ales.
As far as the “Beer City USA” debate goes…remind me, which city has the highest number of breweries again?