The hype surrounding Grand Rapids casts a length that stretches counties long. It is the Cool City. It has the Hot Eats. And have you heard? It has Beer. I read so on a billboard.
While there’s reason to celebrate the city’s continued growth, the endless foisting of Grand Rapids as “Beer City USA” does slip into self-congratulation. In our navel-gazing, it’s easy to lose sight of those on the perimeter brewing amazing stuff. The operations are more humble than the Founder’s or Knickerbocker megaplexes, but there’s something welcomingly old-school about a brewery whose ambitions don’t extend beyond the taproom. Instead, there’s focus on building community and creating an environment that locals can embrace.
Revue gathered a panel to give some unsung breweries in Ada and Lowell a fair shake. Just a hop skip down I-96 or Fulton and you’ll find a whole trove of new breweries to discover.
Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery
452 Ada Dr. SE, Ada
The most logical place to start is the bottom. Thankfully at Gravel Bottom, the beers are the tops.
Opening in 2013 as equal parts craft brewery and supply shop, Gravel Bottom provided Adanites with both a watering hole and a platform for aspiring homebrewers to test their mettle. I remember brewing a smoked porter out of a soup pot that ended up on their draft lines a couple months later. I should stick to writing, but many homebrews they’ve showcased could’ve gone pro.
Following the great Ada boom, Gravel Bottom outgrew the shanty and upgraded into modern digs. The taproom is rustic with a sheen. They’ve since dropped the supply portion but the homebrewing spirit remains in tact.
The first beer I dove into was the Great John, a boozy 10-percent ABV Imperial Red IPA and an overwhelming malt bomb. It’s the sort of Imperial brewers made before they got busy chasing the hazy train. Rich caramel balanced by bitter and sweet, I wish this style of IPA was still en vogue.
When it comes to trendier styles though, they’re no slouch either. The MI Blu, a fruited sour with lactose and graham cracker, tasted like a campground smackdown between PB&J and S’more.
Go there for: IPAs for days. During our visit, half the lines were filled with hop-forward offerings. Hardly monotonous though. Each example highlights a different shade on the hop color wheel. Also, the quesadilla on naan was the Indian/Mexican fusion I never knew I needed, and now can’t live without.
New Union Brewery
400 W Main St., Lowell
The advent of craft beer may seem like a modern phenomenon, but brewers were busting out quality recipes back in the days of horse and buggy too. New Union pays homage in name to its forebearer, Union Brewing, a Grand Rapids original formed in 1862. In those days, there were three beers to pick: lager beer, cream ale and stock ale. Fortunately, New Union has more for our palates now.
And by more, we mean more. The draft list is sectioned between beer, radlers, beermosas, wine, ciders (from Painted Turtle), and hand-crafted root beer. They even have a birch beer made from birch bark for you tree sap fans out there.
In spite of these alternatives, we’re here to judge beer. The Supremo Bean Imperial Dark Roast Porter sounded KBS-esque, so I ordered one to see how it stacked up. Supremely well — more mellow and smooth than some other barrel-aged tongue-coaters. The barrel-aged tripel more than impressed too, with a 13.4-percent ABV that would pair nicely with a cigar and a nap.
The bar itself is luxe, with a backsplash covered in gold panels that made me think high-end bank. The fermenters are front and center too. It’s not hard to understand why New Union was recognized as Lowell’s most promising new business in 2017. They came out the gates swinging.
Go there for: A cold one. They have a separate ice-frosted tap tower that dispenses beer so cold, it’ll wash away your 9 to 5 anguish in a couple sips.
Big Boiler Brewing
318 E Main St., Lowell
A literal stone’s throw from New Union, Big Boiler Brewing was an obvious next stop on the tour. As Lowell’s second craft beer destination, one begins to wonder how much longer the town can remain a secret.
I got a flight of four — a kolsch, a pale, an IPA and a stout — and I’m pleased to report each was super solid. Maybe that’s the takeaway from this tour. Maybe we’re getting to the point where we can appreciate beer again for its nuance, not its novelty.
Maybe I just need another beer.
This brewery’s history is present too, with the big boiler itself watching over the taproom like an ancient guardian alongside the new gods: huge stainless steel brew tanks. The juxtaposition continues with framed photos of historical Lowell opposite big-screen TVs showing sports at the bar. More and more, Lowell is a town of old and new, and Big Boiler is the incarnation of that.
Go there for: A killer happy hour. $5 for the best chips and beer cheese, plus deep discounts on drafts.
211 E Main St., Lowell
When we asked our Big Boiler waitress for a bar recommendation she tried steering us back to New Union. Nuh-uh. We may be city slickers but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the comforts of a good hole in the wall. Kindly, she pointed us across the street to Sneaker’s.
Sneaker’s is the sort of bar where everybody knows your name. Sneaker’s soup of the day was “hobo.” Sneaker’s smelled a little bit like a sneaker. That said, being all beer’d out, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere better. The gin pours were strong and the bartender was sweet.
No Rumple Minze in stock but after barrelling through an afternoon of flights, that was probably for the best. Thank you for having us Lowell.
Go there for: Anonymity. What happens in Lowell, stays in Lowell.