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.
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 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.
“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 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 “beer tourism.”
It’s easy to quantify the growth, but 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.
“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 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 ago.”
Founders is the entity most responsible for Grand Rapids’ ascendancy; its bold beers are earning fans nationwide. It was nearly bankrupt about six years ago, but 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.
“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. 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 we roll.”
The 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 United States. 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 leaders.
But Grand Rapids’ social climate isn’t changing only because of beer. An entrepreneurial upswing, downtown revival and the emergence of annual events such as ArtPrize are also altering the city’s fabric.
Stepping up the game
To decipher how a city once associated with a strong religious streak and furniture-making became a hip beer destination, start by looking at Kalamazoo.
That’s 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 has served as inspiration for other west Michigan beer makers.
“When 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.
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 — 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 scene’s other major draws, credits Bell’s 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. “That’s not the case on the east side [of the state]. … We have a cluster of people who were trained. And also success [breeds] 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.”
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 it’s all like one family,” said Shawn Blonk, general manager of Grand Rapids Brewing. “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.”
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 — and push — the wave. It has made an emphasis of getting Michigan craft beer on its shelves.
“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 one-half of 1 percent of the chain’s 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 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.”
Rick 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 changes there.
“That’s 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.”