For most of the twentieth century, Grand Rapids, Michigan, was known as Furniture City. Yet even after much of the furniture industry left Grand Rapids, that spirit of honest manufacturing work remained. Today, the nickname has changed—Grand Rapids became known as “Beer City USA” after winning an online poll in 2012 in a head-to-head matchup against Asheville, North Carolina—and the voting and nickname are a prime example of the the love that Grand Rapidians and Michiganders have for their local beer scene. Craft beer is big just about everywhere these days, but this corner of southwestern Michigan takes particular pride in what’s now their area’s top export.
Before Prohibition, brewing in Grand Rapids was a thriving enterprise. When Michigan’s state-level prohibition took effect in 1917 (two and a half years before federal prohibition became law), its breweries closed en masse. While Michigan was the first state to ratify the 21st Amendment ending prohibition, that did little to help the city’s brewers. In 1951, Fox Deluxe Brewing Co. (the only remaining brewery in Grand Rapids) moved to Chicago, leaving behind a city without a brewery.
That drought persisted for decades, until Larry Bell (down in sister city Kalamazoo, roughly 45 minutes from Grand Rapids) launched a homebrew store in 1983 and sold his first commercial craft beer in 1985. In Grand Rapids proper, Canal Street Brewing Co. opened its doors for business in 1997.
While the early days of craft beer were no slam dunk for these southwestern Michigan upstarts—Canal Street flirted with bankruptcy in 2001 before changing its name to Founders and doubling down on unusual beers—their longstanding dedication to brewing flavorful beers has now stood the test of time and has seeded at least two additional generations of Michigan breweries who’ve continued to solidify the region’s reputation.
From large-scale production breweries such as Bell’s and Founders to niche producers such as newcomers Speciation Artisan Ales and City Built Brewing, the diversity of scale and focus is evident in the area’s brewing culture. And the widespread popularity of the brewpub model, with a range of cuisines to accompany the range of beers, makes the region particularly attractive to beer tourists. So crack open a can of Bell’s Hopslam or Founders KBS, and follow along for our ultimate tour of the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo craft-beer scene.
Founders Brewing Company, (pictured at top) the cornerstone of modern breweries in Grand Rapids, is as good as any place to start. Their taproom, converted from an old shipping dock, is spacious and offers bar and table seating while their outside biergarten is complete with heaters and open fireplaces for those cold winter days. On tap, they offer their usual year-rounds (think All Day IPA, Rubaeus), current seasonal beers such as PC Pils and Mosaic Promise, and a few one-offs or taproom-only firkins. Don’t sleep on the food—their sandwiches are as ambitious and delicious as their beer—and if merch is your goal, their brewery shop is one of the biggest we’ve ever seen.
Several blocks to the northeast is the original HopCat—one of the world’s top-rated beer bars and now a multi-state chain with thirteen locations as far away as Kansas. It’s a must-visit for beer fans, with a menu that runs from their own house-brand beers to a very large and ever-changing tap and bottle list. The full menu includes great burgers and the ever-popular Crack Fries—beer-battered fries seasoned with black pepper.
Newly opened restaurant/beer hall The Sovengard is across the Grand River on the west side of Grand Rapids and features a wide array of styles on tap with a menu mashup of Scandinavian-cuisine- meets-Midwest-cooking. Their spacious biergarten is great for those warm Michigan summers, and from the biergarten, you can see New Holland’s Knickerbocker Brewpub (above) across the street. Here you can find many of New Holland’s beers on tap along with their own spirits, handcrafted cocktails, and a rustic, seasonal menu.
Head north from there and you’ll find The Mitten Brewing Co. The Victorian-meets-baseball themed brewery was restored from an old firehouse and even includes the original fireman’s pole. Try any one of their great beers but make sure you pair it with one of their gourmet pizzas. From there, continue north to newcomer Greyline Brewing. The brewery might be new, but they’re no strangers to commercial brewing—Founder Nate Walser has brewed for everyone from New Holland to Founders to Perrin. His new venture is modest—a 7-barrel brewhouse with taproom-focused intentions—but the beers are dialed in. If you’re a fan of coffee beers, check out Kona Brown or Steamroller Coffee Stout, but don’t bring a growler to fill—they only offer to-go beer in crowlers.
Heading back across the Grand River, your next stop should be at Creston Brewery, another newcomer with a local focus and a wide-ranging menu of styles. Try the Fox Deluxe IPA, Earl Grey ESB, or Olmec—a stout brewed with cacao nibs, coffee, and pasilla and ancho peppers that’s like Mexican chocolate in a glass. Their diverse menu of different world flavors focuses on handheld sharables (try the empanadas) and classy comfort food, and if it isn’t spicy enough for you, their house-made hot sauces will kick it up a notch.
Down the street from Creston is Graydon’s Crossing, which offers forty-six taps—almost all from Michigan breweries—and food ranging from traditional pub offerings such as fish ‘n’ chips to fusion dishes like the Bangladesh Burrito.
Grand Rapid’s newest brewery is next on the list—City Built Brewing. Their distinctly culinary approach to beer flavors is a bit of a departure from other breweries in the area—if it’s available, try their Amore Estivo, a lemon-basil saison, or Flower Power, a pale ale brewed with green tea and chamomile. The menu holds its own with Puerto Rican–inspired small plates. Next, head to classic neighborhood pub, Logan’s Alley. Their tap selection focuses on some of the best beer that Michigan has to offer, and they have an inside track on rare releases a lot of other places don’t get. If the great tap selection isn’t enough for you, browse their bottle list of more than 175 beers.
Heading south, plan to spend time in the refurbished historic funeral home that is now Brewery Vivant (above). One step through the door will make the medieval monastic theme immediately apparent—from the stone work and chandeliers to the communal wooden tables and stained glass, the southern Belgian and northern French nfluence is apparent. Duck Confit Nachos are a popular favorite—try with some of their mainstays such as Farm Hand, a French farmhouse ale, or Triomphe, a Belgian IPA. For something more adventurous, there’s always a wood-aged beer and a firkin to choose from.
Journey down the street to Harmony Brewing Company. Explore the ever-changing taplist and pair your selections with one of the fantastic wood-fired pizzas they have to offer. If you’re looking to get around and you don’t have a designated driver, check out Beer City Runner. They offer service between most of the places mentioned so far.
The next stop, just outside of Grand Rapids in Hudsonville, is Pike 51 Brewing Co. (above) and it’s well worth the drive. Their brewer, Jeff Williams, was one of the first in the Grand Rapids area making sour beers, and if you’re lucky you’ll find one on tap. Outside of sour beers, try The Kush IPA, Sabotage Coffee Stout, or one of their barrel-aged beers. When you leave Pike 51, if you’re still looking for sour beer, head over to Speciation Artisan Ales. Speciation is a mixed-culture fermentation brewery focusing on sour, wild, and farmhouse ales. While this is not a brewery with a taproom that you can visit, there’s a good chance there’s a bar in the area with one of their beers on tap. If you happen to be in Grand Rapids on the second Saturday of the month, you can pick up bottles from the brewery via an online reservation that takes place the week before—keep an eye on their website for release details.
If you’re in search of bottle shops, there are several choices in the area. Horrocks Market Tavern, (above) inside Horrocks Market, has a great selection with all the new releases and a draft area as well. Fill a growler or enjoy a glass while you peruse their beer selection or wander the rest of the market. Rishi’s International Beverage has earned quite a reputation for their service—if you’re having trouble choosing something, tell Rishi what you like, and he’ll find the right beer for you.
On the north side of town, Riverside Liquors may have that hidden gem you’re looking for. Next door is Riverside Lounge, a space with fifty taps so you can try something before you buy that 6-pack or take home that tap-only beer in a crowler. Finally, don’t miss Siciliano’s huge selection of bottles. If you’re a homebrewer, head next door and check out their extensive selection of supplies—many professional brewers in Grand Rapids got their start by shopping at this very store.
North of Grand Rapids
Head north of Grand Rapids to the small town of Cedar Springs and visit Cedar Springs Brewing Company. In the spirit of Kristoph Küsterer, a mid-1800s pioneer of German-style beers who influenced generations of western Michigan brewers, you’ll find many traditional Bavarian beers that bear his name—Küsterer Original Weißbier is as authentic a German hefeweizen as you’ll find in the United States, and Küsterer Munich Dunkel is warming and dry. Their menu is a mix of traditional German food and fresh pub fare—the Bavarian Brauhaus Breze, a delicious jumbo pretzel, is a good start to any meal.
Head south and stop at Rockford Brewing Company in Rockford, Michigan. This small-town brewery treads in familiar but well-made styles, and their menu of traditional pub selections gets a nice kick from an unexpected Korean influence. On your way back to Grand Rapids, stop at Perrin Brewing Company for a wide range of beers—session strength to high ABV barrel-aged monsters. And for a different take on a barrel-aged beer, try Lil Griz, a sub 7 percent bourbon barrel–aged imperial brown that’s full of flavor.
About 45 minutes south of Grand Rapids lies Kalamazoo, home to longtime craft brewer, Bell’s Brewery, which has been open for just shy of 32 years. Their Eccentric Café (above) is a great place to enjoy their beers, located next door to their original brewery, which they still use for small and experimental batches. In the Café, you’ll find a full menu and more than forty different tap options—yes, forty. The taps offer the usual Bell’s lineup along with a great selection of Café-only choices. The Bell’s General Store is located on the same block and offers beer in bottles to go, merchandise, and homebrewing supplies. Tours are available for a quick glimpse behind the scenes, or if large-scale production is more your speed, then check out the main brewery on the outskirts of Kalamazoo (below). At more than a quarter mile long, the production brewery offers a lot to see—from the 800-barrel fermentors visible from outside the facility to the small hops field that Bell’s cultivates for small batches to experiment with different hops varieties.
Back in Kalamazoo, across from Bell’s General Store, is HopCat’s Kalamazoo location, in case you didn’t get enough Crack Fries up in Grand Rapids. A block down the street is the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange, with twenty-eight taps and beer from Michigan brewers as well as such brewers as Avery, Ballast Point, Lagunitas, and Clown Shoes. Here, The Market opens at 6:00 p.m. every day, and beer prices fluctuate every 15 minutes depending on demand. This is based on real-time sales, so the more people buy, the more the price goes up. The less people buy, the more the price drops. Randomly, throughout the night, there are market “crashes” where beer prices drop to their minimum for 5 minutes.
On the other side of town, One Well Brewing (above) is a great spot for playing board games while drinking great beer. Try the Sweet Water Street, a porter brewed with donuts and coffee, or the Xalapa, a blonde ale brewed with jalapeños that has all the flavor and none of the spice. One Well is also an ideal spot for families; children aren’t just tolerated but encouraged with activities and games just for them.
If you happen to be in Grand Rapids during the summer, visiting the shore of Lake Michigan is a must. Along the lakeshore, you’ll discover more great breweries that cater to the laid-back lifestyle. In Saugatuck, the eponymously-named Saugatuck Brewing Company offers some tasty pints. Heading north to Holland, you’ll find the now-sprawling New Holland Brewing Company, the cozy nanobrewery Our Brewing Company, and local-friendly Big Lake Brewing. Continue north to Grand Haven to the quirky Odd Side Ales, comfortable Grand Armory Brewing, and crisp Vander Mill Cider Mill. Then on to the comfy pub-style taproom of Pigeon Hill Brewing Company. During your journey along Lake Michigan, take some time and head to one of the many beaches on the lakeshore. More and more breweries offer cans or crowlers that pair perfectly with a quiet afternoon on the lake.
There’s much more to see, and this only scratches the surface of the beer scene in West Michigan, so add a few more days to your trip to soak it all in. You can travel far and wide and not find another city or region that embraces craft-beer culture, from top to bottom, like that of Michigan. And whether you visit in the cold and snowy winters or during the mildly fantastic summers, you’re sure to have an amazing beercation.
PHOTOS: WES KITTEN
Podcast Episode 17: Jolly Pumpkin Founder Ron Jeffries Joins John Holl
Ron Jeffries the founder of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales sits down with Senior Editor John Holl for a wide ranging discussion on the nature of sour and wild, recipe development, and what brewers and drinkers should be doing to take care of their health.