Grand Rapids now boasts 17 area breweries (and counting) and more than 20 when including Holland and Grand Haven. Courtesy Thinkstock
Although Grand Rapids has many identities, its love affair with craft beer recently made it the most visible. Last week, Grand Rapids captured Examiner.com’s Beer City USA poll with more than 50 percent of the vote, and more than 11,000 votes ahead of second-place finisher Kalamazoo.
Last year, Grand Rapids shared the title with four-time winner Asheville, N.C.
“What we’re seeing is nothing new; it’s pride in our community,” said Dave Engbers, Founders Brewing Co. co-founder and vice president of brand and education. “But it’s really putting a face to West Michigan.”
With most industry trends heavily influenced by the coasts, the Midwest often is overlooked, Brewery Vivant owner Jason Spaulding said.
“Something like this can bring attention to the beer being made in the region,” Spaulding said. “It gives us a bit of a voice. Beer isn’t a new industry to Michigan, and we make some of the best beer in the U.S.”
Although Engbers said initially he worried the inclusion on the ballot of Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor — which placed fourth, behind Asheville — might split the votes, it actually showed the nation how excited the state is about its craft beer.
The title brings attention to the extent of the beer culture brewing in the Grand Rapids area.
Founders already is a nationally known brand that is expanding to international markets, but the industry is flourishing around it, with 17 area breweries and counting — more than 20 if you include Holland and Grand Haven.
“Our beer is the conduit that brings people in, and then they see what is happening in the community,” Engbers said.
Mayor George Heartwell joined brewers on a bus tour around town urging residents to vote, and loves what beer has to offer the city.
“We can talk about the economic development potential,” Heartwell said. “But what’s most important is what it says about Grand Rapids. It shows we’re a young, creative population. It’s a hip place and says, ‘This is where you ought to be, or this is where you should stay.’”
Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell promoted his city’s efforts in the poll, as well, and has echoed Heartwell’s sentiments about beer being an economic player.
The pair recently were on radio together, with Hopewell offering to come to Grand Rapids to buy Heartwell a Founders beer, and Heartwell offering to go to Kalamazoo to buy Hopewell a Bell’s brew. They then decided to call the area “Beer Region USA,” Heartwell said.
Word is out about the beer culture in Grand Rapids. HopCat is a world-renowned beer bar with accolades ranging from being named No. 3 beer bar in the world by Beer Advocate to RateBeer’s rating it the No. 1 brewpub in the country. RateBeer also ranked Founders the No. 3 brewery in the world and Siciliano’s Market the No. 1 beer grocer in the nation.
Siciliano’s also serves as a supply center for a growing number of local home brewers, who are happy about the American Homebrewers Association coming to Grand Rapids for its national convention in 2014.
With so many breweries popping up, some may fear the quality of local craft beer will be diluted by entrepreneurs looking to take quick advantage of a hot industry. But Engbers said there could just as well be a positive aspect to the increase. “It might be a catalyst for brewers to be more stringent,” he said. “As brewers, we just have to make the best beer we can.”
Aside from Grand Rapids, another winner in the Beer City poll is Michigan.
Pure Michigan announced its release of a Midwest radio ad celebrating the state’s craft beer scene. The ad, narrated by actor Tim Allen, will feature various Michigan brews. Pure Michigan also paired with Founders to name a “Michigan beer.” Vanilla Stout won and will be released in July.
The Holland-Kalamazoo-Grand Rapids triangle allows for easy visits to three of the state’s largest breweries — four when Arcadia opens its new facility in Kalamazoo. That helps make West Michigan a hub of beer activity, said Fred Bueltmann, partner and “beervangelist” at New Holland Brewing Co.
“We’re not done,” Bueltmann said. “If you look at different metrics, like craft beer sold in Michigan compared to the national average, we still have a ways to grow. This is not a beer community that shot up overnight.”
Grand Rapids also has become an attractive second market for some breweries. Bell’s Brewery will open a location at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, and New Holland has announced its intentions to open a brewery downtown.
“There are a few reasons you’d locate to Grand Rapids,” Bueltmann said. “It’s a great market with forward-thinking consumers.”
It still has a way to go to compare to Asheville, where prominent West Coast breweries Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues have located their East Coast production facilities. Asheville had won or shared the Beer City title since 2009, but accepted its fate this year.
“There are lots of beer cities in this country and Grand Rapids is one of them,” Asheville’s Wedge Brewery owner Tim Schaller told the Black Mountain Press.
“They make great beer. For people who drink the beer here, we know how good we are. We don’t have to prove it anymore.”
Asheville has a Beer City festival in June, and Founders received an invitation to participate.
“They have taken full advantage of being Beer City USA,” Engbers said, adding that the production facilities locating in Asheville likely were helped along with tax incentives.
The Examiner.com poll has come under fire for its process of naming Beer City USA, with several historic hotbeds of brewing, including Milwaukee, St. Louis, Portland, Ore., and San Diego having been overlooked.
“Is it a scientific approach? Certainly no,” Spaulding said. “It engages enthusiasm, and that’s pretty awesome. That’s what I get excited about is people in Grand Rapids who are excited about craft beer.”