The Rapidian

Why Grand Rapids is BeerCity

With voting for the BeerCity, USA 2013 title coming to a close, writer Jake Cagle explains why--win or lose--Grand Rapids will still be the Beer City.
A flight of beer.

A flight of beer. /Courtesy of Bryan Esler

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Crowds gather at Winter Beer Fest 2013.

Crowds gather at Winter Beer Fest 2013. /Courtesy of Bryan Esler

Founders Brewing Company taproom.

Founders Brewing Company taproom. /Courtesy of Steven Depolo

No matter what, Grand Rapids is Beer City, USA. Period, end of story. Even if- for some godforsaken reason- the title changes hands in 2013, the truth is obvious to anyone who has grabbed a drink in Grand Rapids in the past few years: this is a city that is all about its beer.

The BeerCity title, bequeathed to Grand Rapids after winning an online poll in 2012, has meant more to the town than anyone could have imagined, boosting civic pride in ways that might have seemed absurd merely a decade ago. Not only is the craft beer industry booming, but a surprising number of the general population has turned into knowledgeable, active beer lovers, and the city itself has embraced “beer tourism.” Beer has become an important part of Grand Rapids’ cultural identity.

So, what has GR done to cement its title as the penultimate BeerCity? Quite a bit. If sheer numbers were all it took to win the designation, the city would rank as one of the top contenders. It’s nearly impossible to throw a stone without hitting a craft brewery within the city limits, not to mention the number of great brewers on the outskirts of town.

If the title was measured in quality, the argument would be settled swiftly. Founders Brewing Company is widely regarded as one of the country’s best breweries, and on top of that, GR also boasts up-and-comer Brewery Vivant, who is gaining lots of fans on the beer scene. But ultimately, Grand Rapids reigns supreme because of the city’s wholehearted adoption of the title, from the city hall to bars and restaurants right down to the general beer drinking public, it’s on the tip everyone’s tongue: Grand Rapids is BeerCity.

When many people think of Grand Rapids, they don’t picture a city full of beer drinkers. Known for its conservatism, the city has spent the past 10 years quietly growing its downtown, building a core of young residents and stockpiling a large cache of great beer destinations. Today, if you belly up to the bar at any local watering hole, chances are the guy or girl next to you could express even a moderate familiarity with craft beer. Take me for instance: even though I have in the past preferred cheap swill, the more time I spend in Grand Rapids, the more I have come to learn and appreciate great beer. Once only able to tell the difference between Bud Light and PBR, I now know pale ales, IPAs, stouts, porters and much more.

It’s not just something in the water that makes Grand Rapidians so crazy about beer—Grand Rapids actively promotes their beer education. Where else would you see the Public Museum host an exhibit called “Thank You, BEER!”? (Ok, maybe Milwaukee.) And it’s not just that. Various establishments host beer events throughout the year- things like beer tastings, tap takeovers, festivals dedicated to beer and even beer classes- which pull crowds and have the added benefit of being educational.

Perhaps the penultimate show of Grand Rapids love of beer is the Michigan Brewers Guild’s Winter Beer Fest. Breweries from all over the state haul some of their best kegs over to Fifth Third Ballpark just north of town to pour for 6,000 beer lovers crazy enough to stand outside in the cold and snow and drink beer all day. In the week leading up to Winter Beer Fest, Grand Rapids is crazy with beer events. This year, I found myself bouncing from bar to bar, pushing through big crowds and trying to sample all the great brews out of town beer makers brought for the special occasion.

Here in GR, we’re all about the beer. Sure, we have some of the best breweries in town. Give us a chance, we’ll talk your ear off about them. But we’ll also listen to you talk up your town, too. Love Bell’s? Me too! Jolly Pumpkin is where it’s at, you say? I couldn’t agree more. And that’s what makes Grand Rapids great—we love all great beer, without prejudice. We’re just lucky we don’t have to leave town to get a ton of great examples of the craft. Even our brewers don’t discriminate. They’ve been more than happy to collaborate together on a number of different projects, marking such special occasions as last year’s BeerCity win. When it comes down to it, everyone here just wants a great pint.

So win or lose, Grand Rapids will retain its title. Even if the internet—fickle beast that it is—decides to crown someone else, we’ll still be here, sipping on some of the best beer on the planet, discussing what we can do to make this city even better for those who love craft beer.

If you're reading this before May 10 at 11:59 p.m. Mountain Time, go vote here!

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