Earlier this month, my eyes and heart were opened to the wonderful beer scene that exists today in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With over 50 breweries in the greater metro area, it certainly has a claim on the title Beer City U.S.A.
My eureka moment in “GR” came as part of an extension to the annual Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference. The folks at Experience Grand Rapids hosted a group of us on a post-conference, five-brewery tour of their city. I had such a good time on the hosted part that I extended my stay an extra night and partook in a marathon pub crawl with fellow writers Owen Ogletree (Brewtopia) and Don Beistle from Georgia, who are both contributors to Brewing News publications.
While GR is Michigan’s second largest city, it’s pretty much an unknown quantity for those of us who live in other regions of the country. Sure, I knew about Founders, and I’d heard of Perrin Brewing because of its hook up with Oskar Blues, but that was about it. Now, far from being a GR expert, I can at least give you a quick rundown of places I enjoyed visiting in my GR Road Trip.
With the Experience GR folks providing the transportation, our first stop was Perrin Brewing Company in Comstock Park, which is about a 15-minute drive north of downtown Grand Rapids. The first things I noticed there was a pretty standard looking brewery exterior, but inside, the taproom was quite attractive. My excitement level rose as I explored the 25 taps of Perrin beer. All beer selections are explained in detail on a well-organized beer menu. I wish more breweries had these.
I’ll go ahead and say it: You can’t go to Perrin without trying the Poop Your Pants Chocolate Bock or its upscale brother Imperial PYP. Tasting that beer tells you instantly it’s more than just a catchy name. Chocolately it is. I also enjoyed their basic Perrin Black and it’s smooth drinking breadiness. Since I’m a fan of rustic styles, I can also endorse their fruity You Bretta Run and Funk You Berry Much. Both are low ABV brews with lots of flavor. Speaking of low AVBs with flavor, I also enjoyed their No Problems Session IPA, which is a pleasant, easy-drinking summertime beer with a nice hops edge.
You’ll find Perrin is a popular place with a good contemporary food menu and reasonable prices. Their beer-to-go store has all their current releases. You can also fill growlers and purchase branded merchandise, such brewer shirts, T-shirts, hats, and glassware.
New Holland – The Knickerbocker
Next, we drove back toward downtown to New Holland Brewing Company’s The Knickerbocker. Everyone is probably familiar with New Holland beer, but I didn’t know they had an outlet like this in Grand Rapids. New Holland’s main brewery is about 30 miles away in Holland, MI.
The Knickerbocker is a newly built showcase complex (2016) on GR’s West Side that contains 40,000 sq. ft. of brewery, distillery, restaurant, meeting space, and bars. They describe it as Old World craft and flavors with a brand new twist, and it is very modern in its design.
From the dragon that greets you at the door to the popular-styled New Holland brews, The Knickerbocker is cool place to visit. Their food menu stood out, with its locally-sourced ingredients in farm-to-table preparations.
Its state-of-the-art, 10-barrel pub brewery produces a series of unique brews and variants. Plus, all the regular New Holland brews are here too. You’ll be sure to find something that tickles your tongue. Of course, you can always get plenty of Dragon’s Milk Imperial Stout if you’re in doubt about what to order.
Don’t leave The Knickerbocker without sampling some of their distilled spirits, such as Beer Barrel Bourbon and Knickerbocker Gin. This brewery has developed quite a good reputation in distilling too.
Also in GR’s West Side is Harmony Hall, an outlet for Harmony Brewing Company. This attractive second-floor beer hall gives you a European flavor with its rustic Bavarian-style decor. They have an internationally inspired food menu with German, Italian, Polish, Korean, and American influences.
Don’t let the Bavarian-style building fool you, Harmony is a modern American craft brewery with the range of styles you expect:. IPAs, flavored stouts and porters, Belgians, Gose. It’s all here. But since I was thinking Bavaria, I first tried the Erste Lager, and found it well-balanced, clean and tasty. I was also impressed by two India Pale Ales: the all-Michigan-hopped Fiddlestix IPA and the Lovely Day IPA with its Citra hop augmented by lavender and chamomile flowers. These guys can brew.
I would have loved to have stayed at Harmony Hall longer, but it was late, so we called it a night and headed to the historic Amway Grand Plaza hotel for some shut-eye.
WOLFGANG’s – The next morning, the group went to Wolfgang’s Restaurant for breakfast. To say their menu has variety is an understatement. What an incredible collection of creative breakfast foods (see it here). I opted for the Jamaican Jerk Chicken Frittata and wasn’t disappointed.
It was 10 A.M. and time for a tasting at Brewery Vivant. If you are a fan of farmhouse styles, you will want to hit this place. The taproom is built inside the chapel of a former funeral home. That sounds a bit creepy, but it is really a great space with its signature stained-glass window in the rear. The brewery is in an adjoining building.
Brewery Vivant’s overall Belgian-inspired tap list was outstanding. Standout beers for me that morning were the House Sour, their signature Big Red Coq American Red Ale, and Escoffier Wild Ale, which is a collaboration with New Belgium Brewing. And don’t pass up their Bourbon-Barrel Brewer’s Reserve series either. The Love Shadow BA Imperial Stout tickled my fancy.
Near the entrance is their well-stocked brewery store. I didn’t buy beer-to-go from most of the GR breweries, but I couldn’t pass up taking some Vivant home.
My final stop with Experience Grand Rapids was the Founders Brewing Company mothership — right in the heart of downtown GR. What an incredible attraction for a city’s business district. I’d definitely want to find reasons to do more business in this downtown.
It’s a showcase operation with a tour that rivals the best, and so does their well-stocked company store. If that’s not enough, the taproom was wicked-crazy-good. It’s one of those breweries that doesn’t really make a mediocre beer (well, maybe one). In the spirit of Lake Wobegon, all its beers are above average.
I won’t go through the list of beers I sampled in the taproom, but with three of us ordering and sharing flights, it was a few. I focused on IPAs and enjoyed their Centennial, Comet, and Bale Finder brews. The coffee-enhanced duo of Sumatra Mountain Brown and Barrel-aged Sumatra Mountain Brown gave me a thrill (or was it the caffeine). The fresh reDANKulous was, well, ridiculously awesome.
PUB CRAWL CONTINUES – I finally pried myself off the Founders bar stool and trekked out to see what the rest of downtown GR beer was all about. For this mission, I joined Don and Owen, who had mapped out a mostly walkable pub crawl to six other breweries.
Our first stop was the original location of HopCat. This RateBeer.com favorite pub is the only HopCat that brews on site. It is certainly a cozy little place with an excellent tap selection. In this regard, it was similar to other HopCat locations I’ve visited in Lexington KY and Ann Arbor.
The different thing here was the little pub brewery in the back of the room. The house brews were credible and I rated their Kennedy’s Mistress Blonde Ale and the Beer Right Meow American IPA as very solid for their styles. While there, I also sampled two Witch’s Hat Brewing Company beers. The tasty Train Hopper IPA and the hoppy Voice of the Turtle Czech Pilsner told me that this is another good Michigan brewery (in South Lyons) that I should look for again.
Grand Rapids Brewing
The original Grand Rapids Brewing Company started up in 1893; this new version began in 2012. The spacious downtown brewpub keeps about 17 taps flowing with a nice list of contemporary American beer styles.
From two ends of the spectrum, I enjoyed their hazy, tropical Hipsters Paradox IPA and their light amber-colored, easy-drinking Social Bot War Pawn English Mild. The tap line up is ever evolving, making this pub a good place for sampling.
The food menu includes burgers, sandwiches, soups and salads, along with popular pub-grub appetizers. I admired their 3 to 6 PM Happy Hour specials with half-price beer.
Continuing north, we made our way to B.O.B.’s Brewery, located in the basement of older brick building with sort of an indoor mall holding several other retail businesses and restaurants. The small-batch brewery was brewing beer, but their taproom wasn’t open on Mondays. Luckily, a second floor bar had many of B.O.B’s beers on tap.
The guys made fun of my pink-colored Hoptics Gose, but I liked it a lot. Other nice selections were the Crimson King Amber and Full On IPA.
The Atwater Brewing Company‘s main location is in Detroit, but they have a downtown GR brewpub making beer. We sampled a dozen of them, some of which were likely brewed in Detroit.
For me, the better ones were GR Pail Ale, which was supposed to harken back to the days when you walked over to the local brewery and filled your pail with beer, Queen Mother English Brown Ale, and Decadent Dark Chocolate Ale.
After a short Uber ride, our next stop was a highlight. The Mitten Brewing Company was one of those cozy neighborhood breweries that packs the house, even on a Monday evening. We found their beer was good across all the styles we tried. And I loved the Michigan mitten-shaped flight serving boards.
The place has a bit of a baseball theme going, so its clever Put Me In Kölsch fit right in. It’s hard to find good American-made beers in that style, but this one was solid. And the beer just got better from there. Highlights for me included their Platinum Sombrero Vienna Lager, India Pale Kölsch, Mitten Pale Ale, Relief Session IPA, and West Coast Swing Amber. Overall, these guys batted a hot .400.
Even though they were slammed with business, The Mitten bartenders were attentive and friendly. The other patrons also loved telling us about their favorite beers. Though I did not try one, the pizzas looked and smelled awesome as they crossed the bar beside me. I’d definitely go back and try one.
Our final brewpub stop of the day was Creston Brewery. Earlier in the day, we’d heard mixed reviews, so we weren’t sure what to expect.
As usual, we took seats at the bar and ordered flights. One by one, we tasted the beers. Passing each taster glass around and taking a sip, we heard ourselves remarking, “This is really good. Oh, this is really good.” Suffice it to say the beer was tremendous.
Some the ones I rated most highly were Spottieottiedopaliscious Imperial IPA, Bokonon IPA, Polar Bear Golden Ale, and Creston Pilz Pilsner. But, honestly, all the 8 or so beers we tried were good ones. In this small-batch brewery, beer selection changes pretty much weekly, so whatever your find on tap, give it a try.
They describe their food as a “multicultural array of delicious foods wrapped in tortillas, tucked into taco shells, and stuffed into empanadas.” That was pretty much on target. The three of us enjoyed our dinners, which all had a bit of Latin America flair. We thought the prices were very inexpensive for the quality and quantity received. Entrees top out around $18, and many items are much less.
Leaving Creston, we ended our pub crawl and headed back to the hotel. The next day, Owen and Don were driving up to Traverse City for two more days of pub crawling there, while I was headed to Kalamazoo for a visit with Bell’s Brewery before going back to West Virginia.
Sure, there were plenty more GR breweries that I would have liked to have tried. Those will have to wait until my next visit.
Beer City Brewsader Passport
The best way to start your Grand Rapids beercation is to pick up a Brewsader Passport®. This passport booklet contains descriptions and location info for 32 participating GR breweries. Each brewery will stamp your passport during your visit. Collect eight passport stamps and turn in your passport for a free Beer City Brewsader T-shirt. Pretty cool, eh.
Another helpful tool is the Grand Rapids Beer City Ale Trail brochure. It’s a map that lists over 50 brewery locations in the greater Grand Rapids metro area. It also shows the cideries,meaderies, and distilleries.
Both the passport and the brochure are available from Experience Grand Rapids at ExperineceGR.com.
Thanks to Experience Grand Rapids
I can’t close this post without passing along a big thank you to Experience Grand Rapids who organized this tour of Beer City. Our group leader Stephanie Kotschevar was as good a host as one could ever ask for. She did an outstanding job for her city. Activities such as this are helping the craft beer industry realize its potential of being a real force in the local economy.
If you write about beer, consider joining us in Loudoun County, Virginia, next summer for the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference. It’s sure to be another good one.