In Best of the West, opinions are a form of currency. And let’s be upfront about this: For the second year running, a large majority of voters spent theirs at Founders Brewing Co.
The Grand Rapids brewery has built its foundation on a handful of solid, universally accessible beers recognized around the world. Where would Founders be without the 15 packs of All Day IPA, which this year seized first place for Best IPA from Bell’s Two Hearted? In fact, where would West Michigan’s tubing trips and beach days be without those same 15 packs?
And Breakfast Stout won Best Stout for a reason. We’ve all turned to it as a safe haven at some point or another — finding comfort in the rich chocolate, coffee and oats; finding warmth in the blood-pumping 8.3-percent ABV. Meanwhile, KBS has reached a sort of legendary beer-of-fables status at this point.
We could go on this way for so many of the categories — yes, Arktos took best Meadery. And yup, Vander Mill is still the reigning cider champ. It’s all well deserved, but it’s nothing exactly new, so let’s talk about what is.
For one thing, it’s nice to see Gray Skies Distillery gaining more recognition. The young distillery, nestled away in a land of warehouses and dive bars on Grand Rapids’ north side, has been producing top-notch spirits from the start. The Spiced Rum lingers in my mind at all times, its bold vanilla-forward flavor (balanced with cinnamon, citrus and peppercorn) always casting a shadow over nearly every other rum I’ve tried. And the cocktails in the taproom amaze, putting the spirits in the spotlight where they should be.
But of course, we have no dearth of love for Long Road Distillers and its new kitchen, ever-expanding cocktail menu and award-winning Aquavit, which is an experience — a dilly, caraway-forward, rye bread-esque experience — in and of itself. Luckily, there is room enough in this town for both of them.
The real dark horse this year, however, has been Rockford Brewing Co. Apparently, adding an incredible kitchen is what it takes to really make a name for oneself — the brewery edged into third place for best Stout with Sheehan’s Irish Stout, a smooth and creamy dry stout. Meanwhile, the Hoplust IPA earned an Honorable Mention for best IPA with its West Coast flavors: tropical, citrus and hoppy as hell without the bitterness.
And who would’ve thought a brewery — Harmony Brewing Co., to be specific — would produce the third best Bloody Mary in town?
If we really want to talk about something new, though, let’s do exactly that. Creston Brewery took first place for New Brewery, and we can see why. The beer has been solid from the get-go at this first brewery in its eponymous neighborhood. Creston doesn’t brew to a style, but rather to flavor, and the unique beer menu emphasizes that — it’s just something you have to see for yourself. And the food menu changes often, but you can find a wide variety of mostly Mexican-inspired cuisine, from Pork Belly Enchiladas to Beef Barbacoa Burritos.
City Built Brewing Co. opened pretty darn recently in Grand Rapids’ north side and is serving up similarly south-of-the-border cuisine, except this is the real deal. Cofounder Edwin Collazo brought his family’s Puerto Rican flavors to the kitchen, while he and Dave Petroelje brought their beer mastery to the brewhouse. The large, modern taproom and experimental beer (i.e. Flower Power, a green tea chamomile pale ale) have kept the brewery busy since opening after many, many months of setbacks.
As for Speciation Artisan Ales, I almost hesitate to let out this already not-so-well-kept secret. The Comstock Park brewery has a unique system, only releasing a few beers exactly once a month, with no taproom to speak of. If you don’t go on release day, distribution is extremely limited, so these incredible beers are valuable. Whether you love sour beers or not, Speciation is a must-try, being masters in the field — you might just be made a believer.
COCKTAILS: Principle Food & Drink
Finding a good cocktail in West Michigan is getting easier and easier these days, but finding a masterful cocktail is another story. Principle Food & Drink in Kalamazoo takes the craft to another level, putting incredible thought and research into every cocktail. Principle owner Casey Longton told me once that his staff puts hours and hours into educating themselves, and it shows. There’s a good chance you won’t know half of the ingredients in your cocktail — making it difficult for me to highlight one here — and that’s OK. They’ll teach you. The “New American” restaurant takes heavy inspiration from old classics, cocktails created decades ago, and then puts interesting, complex twists on them. Do try one for yourself. 230 S. Kalamazoo Mall, Kalamazoo —by Josh Veal
BREWERY: Cedar Springs Brewing Co.
At Revue, we love IPAs and stouts as much as the next person, but we also often find ourselves craving a taste of traditional Old World German styles like weißbier, pilsner, märzen and doppelbock. Luckily, Cedar Springs Brewing Co. has us covered with its Küsterer brand of award-winning libations that are brewed to style, as they were intended. (They also brew American styles if you’d rather not live and die by the Reinheitsgebot.) The brewery features an inviting space with a Bavarian beer hall vibe, a nod to old Grand Rapids with panels from the former Schnitzelbank restaurant, and covered outdoor seating. Trust us: You’ll want to pair your Küsterer Original Weißbier with Bavarian-style food like Jägerschnitzel or Leberkäse, but the entire menu — which also includes traditional American fare — is worth a look. (The Brussels sprouts are divine.) 95 N. Main St., Cedar Springs —by Joe Boomgaard
CRAFT BEER SELECTION: Riverside Lounge
Riverside Lounge features 50 taps of all craft beer and cider, with a heavy emphasis on products from Michigan. The newly-opened speakeasy-style lounge makes it easy for customers wanting to take beer to go, as it will sell almost every available draft beer in a 32-ounce can filled to order. Additionally, the owners have hand-selected an ever-growing selection of hundreds of spirits, including limited craft-made bourbons and whiskeys.
Being situated adjacent to Riverside Liquors allows customers to go next door and buy the beverage they sampled at the lounge, or vice versa — customers can test drive that expensive bottle of Scotch or bourbon barrel-aged stout before they commit to buying a whole package. Riverside also posts its taps in real time online via Digital Pour, so you can see if they have that rare beer you’ve been craving as well as whether it’s currently pouring or on-deck.
Go there for the relaxed atmosphere, a handcrafted cocktail or a pint of craft beer, particularly if you’re interested in exploring something new. 5430 Northland Dr. NE, Grand Rapids —by Joe Boomgaard
NEW BREWERY: The OpenRoad Brewery
Wayland has never been considered a mecca for craft beer. In fact, most people have probably never been through Wayland’s quaint downtown, even though it’s just a couple of miles off U.S. 131 between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. And that’s a shame, because you’d be missing out on the chance to sample some wonderful craft beer at The OpenRoad Brewery, which has been open for about a year. Top choices include Citradesiac, an American-style pale ale made with all citra hops for a citrusy flavor that’s smooth and avoids becoming bitter, or Road Rage, a balanced double IPA that’s incredibly smooth for 8 percent ABV. When you get your motor running and head out on the highway, make a stop at The OpenRoad for a flavor adventure. 128 S. Main St., Wayland —by Joe Boomgaard