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Jim Dykstra's picture

Grand Rapids: A Midwestern Beer Mecca

Grand Rapids is experiencing a mini-renaissance relatively unknown to the outsider. A veritable explosion of education and industry has led to vibrant, varied city life, and best of all, an astounding range of craft breweries.

The 40+ brewing and drinking establishments in and around the city are enough to keep a dedicated drinker busy for weeks, and while the breweries and their owners are kaleidoscopic in personality, they are unified in the mission to make Grand Rapids an epicenter for craft beer. It seems that the city has achieved its goal, beating out powerhouse cities like Denver, Portland and Asheville in numerous national polls for the title of “Best Beer Scene” in America.

Perhaps it’s the Midwestern spirit, or simply that the fraternal nature of beer has seeped into society at large, but Grand Rapids seems to function as one big friendly, beercentric ecosystem in a manner that seems uniquely brotherly.

“The brewers in the area are always communicating, working with each other, and offering technical support and advice,” says The Mitten Brewing Company’s Robert “Wob” Wanhatalo. “That sense of community keeps us all moving forward for the greater cause that is the Grand Rapids brewing scene.”

Sure there’s competition, but it’s friendly, with the goal of raising the bar for quality and consistency. While I couldn’t visit them all, every brewery I managed to visit in 48 hours demonstrated a high level of technical proficiency and the willingness to experiment. Grand Rapids is alive with the glory of beer.

The Mitten – My journey began at The Mitten, a delightfully cozy baseball-themed brewery built in 2012 in what was once Grand Rapids’ “Firehouse No. 9.” Much of the 120-year old edifice was preserved, including original brick walls, firemen’s lockers and part of the fire pole. While no longer available for rapid inter-floor transit, the pole remains quite danceable. The urge to do so became more tempting as head brewer Robert “Wob” Wanhatalo walked me through beer and pizza flights which were highly appealing in both flavor and nomenclature.

The Mitten also scores points for having the most collectable business cards in beer.

I felt compelled to start with the Put Me In, Kolsch!, due to its unabashed use of wordplay. It was perfectly representative of the style and The Mitten’s intersecting passions of beer and baseball, and paired beautifully with their Westerdog, a pizza made with all-beef franks, bean chili, and other ballpark staples.

Wob and his fellow brewers are humble, but their ability to pull off a wide range of unforgiving styles (their Marzen-style lager, cream ale and Wee Heavy come to mind) speaks for itself. The taproom was packed, and with their new 20-bbl production facility, there are talks of canning and having Mitten Milk Stout on tap at Comerica Park (home of the Tigers). It seems The Mitten’s future is in good, gloved hands.

Brewery Vivant – Stained glass behind the bar casts a heavenly glow upon the taproom, and a feeling of reverence permeates the air, partially due to its location in what used to be a funeral chapel. But what once used to draw mourners now attracts those celebrating life with finely tuned Belgo-American brews. Given the brewing style, the beer often gains second life as well, with many brews bottle-conditioned, and a firkin on tap.

“Our brewing inspiration comes from the family breweries dotting the French and Belgian countryside. Rustic biere de gardes, saisons, farmhouse ales – these are what excite our palates,” said Kate Avery, Brewery Vivant’s “Abbess of Beer.”

The earthy focus extends to the 20-barrel brewery’s design, as it holds the title for the world’s first LEED Certified microbrewery (Leadership in Environmental Efficiency and Design), which will soon be able to put out up to 8000 bbls a year.

Standouts from the flight included the thunderously dank Treebucket Belgian-style DIPA, Peruvious, a pale ale with pink peppercorns for a zesty finish, and Fussy Dutchman, a slightly soured Brett Beer aged in red wine barrels. An honorable mention goes out to the malty “Big Red Coq,” which pours a ruby hue and contains a surprising amount of Citra hops.

“Brewery Vivant promotes living the good life by brewing farmhouse-inspired beer, serving a from-scratch menu and building a sustainable community one beer at a time,” said Avery. “Relaxing at a table with friends, old and new, over a beer and a good meal – that's the Belgian Tradition. We're focused on that experience.”

(Middle photo courtesy Experience Grand Rapids, bottom courtesy Brewery Vivant)


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