While most people likely associate the title of “Beer City” to present-day Grand Rapids, it turns out the city has quite a long history with craft brewing.
That was one of the main takeaways author Patrick Evans had in researching his new book, Grand Rapids Beer: An Intoxicating History of River City Brewing, which was published Jan. 26 by The History Press.
“We consider ourselves to be Beer City now, but back then it really, really was,” said Evans, an East Grand Rapids native who splits his time as a reporter for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and at The Mitten Brewing Company, where he’s the director of content and a sales representative. “I think (craft beer is) proving more and more that it’s a viable economy currently, but it was back then.”
As an example, he points to the original iteration of Grand Rapids Brewing Co., which formed in 1892 with the merger of six local breweries and at its peak brewed about 250,000 barrels of beer, mostly traditional German styles. Compare that to Founders Brewing Company, which brewed a little more than 200,000 barrels in 2014.
“Grand Rapids Brewing Company was bigger than Founders is, which is incredible,” Evans said. “Everybody thinks Founders is a giant thing — and it is — but to know that we had something in the history of Grand Rapids that was bigger than that is incredible.”
Just as interesting, he said, were the two dozen or so sizable breweries that “came and went” throughout the city’s history, particularly in the period prior to 1920 and the Prohibition Era.
“Most of them were doing 5,000-plus barrels a year. At The Mitten, we did 600 barrels last year,” he said. “It’s amazing the size of these operations when the city wasn’t as big. It’s crazy.”
Evans also drew a parallel between one of the city’s first brewers, Christoph Kusterer, and brewing magnate Adolphus Busch. Both men were keen businessmen who invested heavily in ancillary industries that ultimately helped grow their companies. However, Kusterer died in his 50s in a freak ferry accident on Lake Michigan, leaving Evans wondering what he could have achieved had he lived longer. Kusterer’s sons took over the business that eventually became Grand Rapids Brewing.
“You read in the histories and they all speak of him at a very high level. He was one of the most prominent business dudes in Grand Rapids,” he said. “Who knows, maybe there could have been an Anheuser-Busch here.”
In Grand Rapids Beer, Evans details the history of brewing and breweries from the mid-1800s through the present day in the tri-cities area including Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon. The publishing company approached Evans to write the book in December 2013. While he had a good handle on the present-day brewing scene in Grand Rapids having covered the industry as a reporter and observing its growth firsthand, he found himself conducting historical research at the Grand Rapids Public Library and the Grand Rapids Public Museum over an eight-month period.
Luckily, much of the groundwork had been laid with the museum’s “Thank You, BEER!” exhibition that debuted in 2012, he said.
“(The exhibition) showed everybody that there was a bit of a brewing history here. But digging through it, it’s incredible the history we had,” Evans said.
Moreover, it’s a history that continues to evolve, as Evans found out after he sent the book to the publisher in August. Between the time the text was approved and when the book was released in January, for example, Founders Brewing Co. announced it sold a 30-percent stake of the company to a Spanish firm, Mahou San Miguel, to help support its aggressive expansion plans to reach 600,000 barrels of production within a few years.
“What’s funny is the current stuff is basically out-of-date because the industry is growing so fast,” he said.
With his first book under his belt, Evans said he hopes to continue working on publishing projects. He’s currently working on a project with former Michigan State University football player and classmate TJ Duckett.
“(The Grand Rapids Beer book) was a fun project to work on,” Evans said. “It … made me fall further in love with Grand Rapids, and beer is a large reason why I love Grand Rapids in the first place.”
Grand Rapids Beer: An Intoxicating History of River City Brewing
Publisher: The History Press, American Palate Series (Jan. 26, 2015)
Cost: $19.99, on sale at Schuler Books, Barnes & Noble and online retailers
Author Patrick Evans will give a talk and sign copies of Grand Rapids Beer starting at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 24 at Schuler Books, 2660 28th St. SE, in Grand Rapids. See schulerbooks.com for more details.
• Two returning events, Cool Brews. Hot Eats. and Grand Rapids Beer Week 2015, will kick off a long list of beer-related events for February. Experience Grand Rapids’ Cool Brews. Hot Eats. returns from Feb. 16-28. The events take place at more than 50 local restaurants and breweries and feature craft beer-food pairings, including using local beer as an ingredient in the dishes. Meanwhile, Grand Rapids Beer Week runs simultaneously and will showcase the latest beers and innovations from the city’s growing list of craft breweries.
• If you haven’t yet reserved your tickets for the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival, you’re in luck. Tickets are still available for the new Friday session that runs from 3-7 p.m. Feb. 27 at Fifth Third Ballpark. Saturday’s event sold out. Cost is $45 for a ticket, which includes 15 tokens. Visit mibeer.com to buy tickets. The festival will feature more than 800 craft beers from more than 90 Michigan breweries, as well as local music, ice sculpture and carving demonstrations, fire pits and food.
• Those lucky enough to score tickets for the Saturday session of the Winter Beer Festival may want to ease into an afternoon of drinking Michigan craft beer by attending the Brewer’s Big Breakfast at Brewery Vivant. It’s being described as an “epic beer breakfast to fill the tank” and runs from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. on Feb. 28 at Brewery Vivant’s pub, located at 925 Cherry Street SE in Grand Rapids. Don’t miss beermosas and bacon. For more information, visit breweryvivant.com.