By Dianna Stampfler
Some may think that the designation of “Beer City USA” is something new for Grand Rapids – the state’s second largest city. But beer has actually been brewing here since the late 1830s. Today, the Kent County region boasts about 40 breweries, with about a dozen currently in the greater downtown area.
Established in 1996, Founders Brewing Company has become the city’s largest such operation and was even named the “World’s 3rd Best Brewery” by RateBeer.com (2013). Its current location on Grandville Avenue SW is an energetic venue with expansive indoor and outdoor spaces, live music, savory handcrafted sandwiches and a well-stocked retail shop. Popular brews like Centennial IPA, All Day IPA, Breakfast Stout, Red’s Rye and Solid Gold, among many others year-round and seasonal beers, are found on tap here as well as at retail outlets throughout the state and beyond.
When City Built Brewing opened in 2017 on the corner of north Monroe Avenue and Mason Street, it brought a Puerto Rican flare and elevated the culinary offerings to the neighborhood. Pork Belly or Beef Cheek tacos, Bori Balls (rice croquettas), Yuca Fries (seasoned hand-cut cassava root) and the distinctive and addictive “Spokes” (fried and flavored wheat duros – a crunchy Mexican snack food) are served alongside a diverse beer list including Alemania, a Mexican lager; Melisandre, a Red IPA brewed with Mackinaw Hops; and Cacophony Society, a triple barrel aged imperial stout at more than 12% ABV (alcohol-by-volume).
“The vibrancy that comes with this scene has helped carve a reputation that Grand Rapids can deliver on its promise of being a world-class craft beverage destination,” says Doug Small, President and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids – the local visitor bureau marketing organization.
While breweries have a long-standing history in Grand Rapids, distilleries are a new and welcome addition to the city’s craft beverage culture.
Long Road Distillers on West Leonard Street was actually the first distillery to operate in the city in 2015. Using herbs, grains, fruits and other ingredients sourced from around Michigan, their award-winning spirits including Aquavit – named “Best in Show” in 2017 by the American Craft Spirits Association, Michigin – using wild juniper harvested from Beaver Island, and Nocino – a unique green walnut liqueur, as well as a full menu of vodka, gin, rum, whiskey and fruit liqueurs. Three of their signature cocktails – The Polish Falcon, Teta’s Lemonade and Long Road GnT – are also available at the tasting room in four-pack, 12-ounce cans.
Detroit-based Two James Spirits recently opened a Grand Rapids location on Michigan Street (“The Medical Mile”), attached to 7 Monks Tap Room. Belly up to the 18-foot bar and sample Grass Widow Whiskey – a resurrected pre-Prohibition recipe, Old Cockney Gin – including a barrel reserve, Catcher’s Rye Whiskey – crafted with 100 percent Michigan rye grown from seed, or 28 Islands Vodka – named for the islands in the Detroit River where rumrunners stashed their booze while bootlegging it to Canada. Curious and courageous drinkers should give the Nain Rouge Absinthe Verte a try, made using real wormwood and 16 different botanicals. In traditional presentation, the Absinthe Fountain features a shot of the “Green Fairy” in a glass blended with a water drip over mint and a single Demerara (raw cane sugar) cube.
In late 2020, Wise Men Distillery of Kentwood – named “Top 10 Best Up and Coming Distilleries in the U.S.” by USA Today – opened its second tasting room in McKay Tower, bordered by Pearl Street and Monroe Center. At a mere 638-square feet, this downtown location focuses on signature handcrafted cocktails in an intimate setting. Using house-made simple syrups, the mixologists serve up cocktails like a Fog Cutter, Grandpa’s Porch or Thyme for a Drink, as well as classics like Manhattans and Old Fashions.
Those looking for more information about the “Beer City Ale Trail” and the “Beer City Brewsader®” program, should visit ExperienceGR.com. For additional information about Michigan’s craft beer and spirit culture, visit MiBeer.com or MiCraftSpirits.com.
Downtown Breweries & Distilleries
The B.O.B.’s Brewery
Grand Rapids Brewing
The Mitten Brewing
New Holland Brewing Company’s The Knickerbocker