Wednesday, 04 April 2018 15:35

Beer City USA: How Grand Rapids embraced its title to become a destination for craft beer

Written by  REVUE Marketing Staff
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When the online polls closed and the votes were tallied in May 2012, the final count surprised many craft beer enthusiasts:

Asheville, NC: 17,849 votes
Grand Rapids, MI: 17,849 votes

While most people hate ties, Grand Rapids embraced one — and built its reputation as a craft beer powerhouse.

When Grand Rapids tied Asheville, North Carolina in a 2012 online poll to determine the best beer city in the country, lots of local beer enthusiasts cheered. A few raised an eyebrow.

Created in 2009 by author and homebrewer Charlie Papazian, the Beer City USA poll was a non-scientific poll on a Huffpost-type website that crowdsourced content to generate readers and clicks. The Beer City poll allowed — and even encouraged — communities to rally around their local craft-beer scene and vote for it to win the largely ceremonial title. Some dismissed it as a popularity contest.   

Media around the country soon began publishing the results of the poll, raising questions about how this little city — known more for furniture and conservative politics — tied with one of the communities with a long-standing reputation as a craft-beer powerhouse. Asheville earned its props with a variety of unique and funky craft breweries and a beer culture that matched, but it had also lured several larger craft brewers from the western U.S. to set up operations there.

Before 2012, only two cities had won the readers’ poll in previous years: Asheville and Portland, Oregon. After its initial tie in 2012, Grand Rapids ramped up community support for the 2013 poll, winning the vote in a landslide. Asheville actually finished third, behind Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, showcasing to beer enthusiasts the strength of West Michigan’s growing craft beer market.

In 2014, poll creator Papazian shelved the survey, saying it had served its purpose. While Grand Rapids would not have the opportunity for a three-peat in the annual poll, it could rightfully hang onto the claim that it was still the rightful holder of the Beer City USA title.       

Some beer enthusiasts still roll their eyes today when the Beer City USA moniker gets mentioned. Even so, the most cynical among them acknowledge that the title and buzz it generated for West Michigan was the small shove Grand Rapids and the surrounding region needed to become one of the most important players in the craft beer industry.

By the early 2010s, Grand Rapids had reached a teetering point with craft beer. The popularity of bold, quality small-batch beer production had just begun taking off nationwide and local mainstays like Founders and Brewery Vivant were beginning to grow in popularity. Yet, the city lacked the unifying force behind the craft beer movement that characterizes life here today.

These days, the residents of Grand Rapids are deeply proud of the Beer City USA moniker and tout the title as a badge of honor. The award proved to be a galvanizing force, creating an entire craft beverage ecosystem throughout the city.

Garage-bound homebrewers, middle-aged professionals looking to make a career change, restaurateurs and former financiers all threw their collective weight behind the craft brewing movement.

Now, the spirit of craft beer has pushed beyond the taprooms and brew houses of Grand Rapids, spawning an entire cottage industry of businesses supporting craft beer.

Specialized craft beer marketing services and photographers like Steph Harding have devoted the majority of their time to cataloging the growth of craft beer throughout West Michigan. Two West Michigan law firms, Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC, and Warner, Norcross & Judd LLP have both launched dedicated practices geared toward the craft beer industry in recent years.

Even small manufacturing companies have entered into the industry, making various components for homebrewers and craft-beer production. This doesn’t even begin to take into account the numerous artisans who craft the tables, chairs, bar tops and other furniture to fill the tap rooms of craft breweries and beer bars, the proliferation of homebrewers in the area, and countless other businesses that have sprung up in service of beer. The craft beer movement in Grand Rapids help spur a more widespread dedication to craft. As craft breweries rapidly gained popularity, an entire wave of distilleries, cideries and meaderies followed in its wake.

As the popularity of craft brewing in Grand Rapids spread, so too did the breweries. Once primarily cloistered in the downtown area, craft brewers are now often the tip of the spear when it comes to neighborhood revitalization. Opening in the summer of 2016, Creston Brewery anchored a large portion of the revitalization of the Creston neighborhood. Likewise, The Mitten Brewing Co. was one of the first new businesses to open up along Leonard Street on the city’s iconic West Side neighborhood.

Taprooms have also flourished in the city. Both 7 Monks and Craft Beer Cellar opened up their doors in early 2017 to an outpouring of positive press and thirsty visitors.

The momentum created by the craft-beer boom in Grand Rapids also spilled over into nearby communities. Breweries including Cedar Springs Brewing Company, Rockford Brewing Company and the lakeshore’s Grand Armory have pushed the geographic boundaries of Beer City USA far outside the city limits, creating an entire region devoted to craft beer.

To get a sense of the craft beer movement’s growth over the past five years, look at the numbers:

When Grand Rapids claimed the undisputed title as Beer City USA in 2013, the city contained 17 breweries. Now, there are approximately 37 breweries and brewpubs in the immediate city and 80 throughout West Michigan.

IMG 7124 group at ice barWinter Beer Fest at Fifth Third Ballpark Photo: Marty Dunham, Michigan Brewers Guild.

Statewide, Michigan craft breweries produced enough beer in 2016 to provide every drinking-age adult with 3.7 gallons of suds and have contributed nearly $2.1 billion in economic impact. Experts predict these figures will continue to rise as new craft breweries enter the market.

As much as craft brewers and stakeholders have worked to grow the craft beer industry within Grand Rapids, they’ve worked equally as hard to promote the region outside the state. State and local tourism agencies have adopted the Beer City USA title and used it to generate a national buzz about Grand Rapids and the surrounding region.

Craft beer lovers travel from far and wide to attend annual events such as the Winter Beer Festival, Founders Fest, and Beer Month GR, hosted by Experience GR. The events have consistently drawn large crowds to the area to celebrate all things beer. Grand Rapids’ status as a craft beer destination has also been bolstered by the notoriety generated by some of the national heavyweights that call the city and surrounding region home.

Once on the verge of bankruptcy, Founders Brewing Company now ranks among the top ten largest craft breweries in the nation in production. Founders’ beer, produced here in Grand Rapids, is consistently found on store shelves across the globe. The Grand Rapids-based brewery recently built a second production facility on the city’s South side and has expanded its taproom on Grandville Avenue numerous times after moving there in 2007.

Other local craft breweries have partnered with iconic names in the industry to help export their craft beer far outside the region. In 2015, Comstock Park-based Perrin Brewing Company was acquired by the owners of Oskar Blues, a longstanding craft brewery based in Colorado. A year later, New Holland Brewing Company inked a partnership with Pabst Brewing Company to expand its distribution and sales throughout the country.

Before the Beer City USA title, Grand Rapids had a growing downtown focused mostly around the Van Andel Arena and the Amway Grand Hotel. During working hours, it resembled a somewhat bustling city, but quickly emptied out in the evenings as people flocked home to the bedroom communities surrounding the area.

Now, it’s commonplace to see people packed into breweries, restaurants and other establishments far into the evening. The whole atmosphere of the city has shifted toward that of growth, and taking in the views while walking the streets reflect that. It would be presumptuous to assume that craft beer ushered in all the growth Grand Rapids has experienced in the past few years. But, it would be equally inaccurate to say it hasn’t helped.

Instead of a place on the map, Grand Rapids has turned into a hotspot, attracting people, businesses and national attention to its borders. And, maybe not-so-coincidentally, the city is also more steeped in craft beer than ever before.

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