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Jim Dykstra's picture

Grand Rapids: A Midwestern Beer Mecca


B.O.B.’s Brewery – Ensconced in another historic building, B.O.B.’s Brewery lies on the first floor of a three-tiered labyrinth of food and drink. The brews are on tap upstairs as well, but head downstairs for the full taproom feel, as well as the cheap all-you-can-eat peanuts or popcorn.

I opted to let the bartender choose my flight and plopped down next to two recently retired couples, who had obviously quite enjoyed the brewery’s offerings and were eager to share their knowledge of the area. They had moved to Grand Rapids over a decade ago and had been coming to B.O.B.’s ever since – displaying their beer-soaked lifetime membership cards for proof.

B.O.B's head brewer John Svoboda is undoubtedly a rock 'n roll fan.

Listening as I worked through the flight, I was surprised at how willing to share Grand Rapidsians (or the locals) were. Although their city and its surrounding area might be considered of America’s best kept secrets (the beaches of Lake Michigan were voted the country’s best, and the streets were some of the cleanest and most traffic-free I’d seen), they urged me to see it all without any hint of the “locals only” attitude one would find in a comparatively hip city.

Beer highlights included Black Zeppelin – an aromatic Black IPA tempered with rye for a nice balance of roast and toast, Full On IPA – its American IPA brother-in-arms, and the rich Kit-Kat-esque Peanut Butter Porter, all created by experienced head brewer John Svoboda.

Founders – Sidling in on a snowy Saturday afternoon, Founders loomed monolithic with its brown brick in sharp relief against the billowing drifts of snow. It couldn’t have been a more welcome sight, and the interior was a drinker’s dream, packed to the gills with an armada of food and drink at the ready. Despite the chill, the crowd had spilled onto the patio, warmed by strategically placed heat pylons, and an array of beers beyond their expansive distribution footprint. Employees in the dozens worked at a feverish clip in an attempt to keep pint glasses full, and after I put in my time in line I received a Frangelic Stout, light in body but full in roasty hazelnut flavor. Winding my way through the crowd, I found a vantage point from which to sip while I drank in the scene – the embodiment of a German beer hall in spirit, but wholeheartedly American.

It wouldn’t have been a complete journey without seeing this Beer Mecca, but it’s worth noting that every other brewery upheld the level of quality in both food and drink, despite being dwarfed in comparison (Founders is the 20th largest brewer in America, including macro).

Grand Rapids is among the proud few cities that can justify a trip on beer alone. You could set out in any cardinal direction and find quality beer in the city, on the outskirts, or in towns adjacent. Kalamazoo, home of Bell’s Brewery, is less than an hour south, and Holland, home of New Holland Brewing Co., is practically a sister town, just half an hour away on the shores of Lake Michigan.

There are dozens of other equally worthy stops – Hideout, Oddside, Perrin, White Flame… The list goes on. And there’s plenty more to come. New Holland is preparing to open another brewery and distillery in the center of town, and in the few weeks since I visited, the city added another brewery – Greyline Brewing Company.

The breweries are very centralized, and once you’ve had your fill they’ll urge you to stroll down the street to the next one, but not before getting your “Brewsader Passport” stamped (get eight stamps for a t-shirt). This initiative by Experience Grand Rapids, which works closely with the city and brewing community, is just another demonstration of how beer-focused Grand Rapids has become. Aside from the sheer number of beer establishments the city hosts, the very culture of the city has become imbued with beer. Local colleges are offering hands-on brewing programs, and its “KBS Week” is something of an unofficial holiday, as would-be whale hunters follow delivery trucks from the brewery to their destinations. The level of the brewing community’s integration into city life represents the best of craft beer – molding passion with positive growth – and it all feeds into one another, a perfect cycle of boozy bliss.

A true "Brewsader" never leaves home without an elk horn-handle stein.

(Photos courtesy B.O.B's Brewery, Experience Grand Rapids)


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