Beer City USA. That's quite a title. And this year it belongs to Grand Rapids. Again.
Last year the title was shared with Asheville, NC. In 2013, however, Grand Rapids won it outright and decisively, clobbering the next closest vote-getter and West Michigan neighbor, Kalamazoo, for the honors with more than double the votes.
But really, it should come as no surprise. The city is home to a large number of breweries that offer an enormous variety of unique, quality brews, as well as a population who appreciates both the tasty options, as well as the culture of the industry itself. That's why Grand Rapids not only struts its stuff while adorning the Beer City USA crown, but also enjoys recognition as one of the top beer meccas in the entire world.
It definitely doesn't hurt to have an anchor in the industry like Founders Brewing Co., which is consistently ranked as one of the best breweries on the planet. Coming in at No. 4 on USA Today's "Top 15 craft beer breweries in the USA" and No. 3 on ratebeer.com's "Best Brewers In The World 2013," Founders continues to show the rest of the world exactly how you churn out beer that people just plain love.
"We were the fastest growing brewery in the world last year," said Dave Engbers, Founders' vice president and co-founder. "The great thing is that we're not just increasing our volume; we're seeing our brand grow in existing markets."
Founders beer is now enjoyed throughout the country, where it is currently available in 25 states and the District of Columbia. And as the company continues to grow, so too has their facilities to meet the demand, with a $26 million expansion project that is nearing completion.
"Our focus is trying to fill the orders as we continue to grow as a company," Engbers said. "Our brand is really taking off, and it's our responsibility to meet those demands, and that means expanding our building and capabilities."
In addition to production facilities expansion, Founders is also expanding its offerings to Grand Rapids by way of a new beer garden, educational facility and a larger taproom.
"We're anxious to get the taproom reopened and get everyone in to see all the improvements," Engbers said. "It's all coming together. We want everyone to understand why we have so much dust and debris and all the struggles people have had with parking and getting into the taproom."
And what's the secret to Founders' success? It's the same as it's always been: making good beer.
"You have to remain true to who you are and what you do," Engbers said. "We'll never compromise our product or brand to gain efficiencies."
That's where the beer industry is going, as is apparent not only in the absolute explosive success of the craft brew business, now a $10 billion a year industry in the United States, but also the decline in sales of their domestic rivals.
"The beer industry is doing everything we had hoped and prayed it would do," Engbers said.
But maybe it's not so much what the industry is doing as much as it is a simple matter of the players actually giving people what they really want. As consumers continue to step further away from the predictably mediocre swill that has dominated the market for years, microbreweries are filling that gap with uniquely delectable choices.
Just ask Jarred Sper, co-owner of Perrin Brewing Co. in Comstock Park, who not only understands this concept, but embraces it. That's why you'll see Perrin venturing not only into the sour ale market in the near future, but some ultra-specific flavors as well, like a malted milk ball beer they've had in the works.
"We want to do things a little bit different in terms of focusing on the niche part of the industry," Sper said. "We've got some amazing brewers that are doing some amazing and funky things. We want to give the brewers a lot of latitude and get people to taste something they haven't tasted or experienced before. If we can kind of push the envelope a bit, that's what we want to do."
The shift in consumer demand is why you'll see breweries like Brewery Vivant host events like the Wood Aged Beer Festival, where the brewery celebrates "artfully crafted barrel aged beer all day long." During this Oct. 5 event, Vivant will have 20 different varieties of bourbon barrel, wine barrel and sour beers to delight the palates of its patrons.
This focus on flavor is even spilling over into venues that have been historically dominated by domestics, like Mitten Brewing Co., which offers its hand-crafted microbrews in a vintage baseball bar setting with baseball-themed names and televisions tuned in to any number of sporting events. The Mitten is even finding its way into the stadiums.
"We were on tap at the West Michigan Whitecaps all season with our Triple Crown Brown and hopefully will expand into a new stadium next season," said Bar Manager Pat Evans. "The demand for beer is [also] packing our taproom most nights and we recently announced our expansion into the upstairs, which should be completed sometime in early 2014."
Michele Sellers, who, along with husband Mark, began Barfly Ventures LLC in 2008, stands firmly behind the belief that what people want is beer with actual substance, complexity and awesomeness.
"It's not about cheap buzz anymore. It's about enjoying what you're drinking," said Sellers, who counts Stella's Lounge, McFadden's Saloon, Grand Rapids Brewing Co. and HopCat as part of Barfly. "I think it's similar to the small plate, farm-to-table movement. People want to know what went into what they're consuming, who made it, how they made it, and why they made it the way they did."
This approach couldn't be more apparent with the recently reopened Grand Rapids Brewing Co., which now operates as Michigan's only USDA-certified organic brewery. GRBC truly embraces an all-natural method to brewing, as well as a focus on sustainability, with less than four percent of waste ever finding its way to a landfill. GRBC also tries to use Michigan-grown and produced ingredients whenever possible.
"We get a lot of hops from right here in Michigan from the Michigan Hop Alliance, an organization dedicated to sustainable, organic hop farming," Sellers said. "[It] keeps the money in our state's economy. A nice bonus."
According to Sellers, this local support is really at the heart of what makes craft beer so successful in Grand Rapids. And not only is it important to those that enjoy the tasty product of what supporting locally can accomplish, it's vital to the brewers as well.
"We have found that the beer culture in Grand Rapids is inclusive and very fraternal," Sellers said. "The phrase 'A rising tide lifts all ships' applies in that what's good for one of us is good for craft beer in general and good for the rest of us as well."