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What's on tap?
The brewing boom in West Michigan shows no signs of running dry. Grand Rapids is fast approaching a time
when there might be a brewery within walking distance of nearly every neighborhood.

By Jeremy Johnson
Photography by Adam Bird

Now is a great time to be a beer lover in Grand Rapids. The city recently tied with long-standing champion Asheville, N.C., to share the title Beer City USA, as determined by the annual poll curated on by legendary homebrewer and author Charlie Papazian. (In comparison, St. Louis placed a distant third with only 20 percent of the votes Grand Rapids received.) To many, this was seen as an upset for Asheville, which had previously enjoyed the title alone for three years running. To Michiganders, however, the accolade seems well-deserved, timely — and not at all surprising.

Over the last decade, so-called microbreweries have undergone a seismic change in the area. Businesses such as Big Buck Brewery, Robert Thomas Brewing and Grand Rapids Brewing Co. struggled and then failed to find their footing along the 28th Street corridor.

Yet at the same time, a resurgence began downtown and in outlying areas: Founders Brewing Co. outgrew its location in the Brass Works building and planned for expansion and increased distribution. The B.O.B. stepped up its game by hiring Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s head brewmaster. HopCat opened with dozens of taps, serving draught beer from all around the state, as well as unusual, globally produced selections.

These riches of choice begat an attitude change in the general public. Patrons’ tastes evolved alongside brewers’ ability to refine their beers, experiment with different strains of yeast, tinker with (and, ultimately, increase) hop quantity and variety. Suddenly, restaurants began featuring taps from local breweries and some began partnering with brewmasters for special beer dinners. Pairing food with beer? That was almost unheard of back in the ’90s, but now it’s commonplace.

Annual events such as Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beerfest, Founders Fest and Hoptoberfest have helped cement Grand Rapids as a destination for those who enjoy good beer. There’s even a Great Lakes Pub Cruiser you can pedal from venue to venue to find good libations.

The growing popularity of some of the bigger players has inspired other brewers to try their hand at mass distribution. Seemingly every month, a new brewery pops up, espousing LEED certification, organic practices or some other quality of differentiation. It’s exhilarating to see the industry blossom, but how long will it last?

As more and more breweries open, all competing for your dollar, who will be left standing? Even the most stalwart beer aficionado cannot hope to join every mug club in town or stockpile growlers from even a fraction of what’s available.

Still, Grand Rapids is fast approaching a time when there might be a brewery within walking distance of nearly every neighborhood. How cool is that?

Use this article as a guide as you seek out great beer, taking notes and reporting back with your opinion on the different styles you tried.

Don’t be shy! Investigate new beers every chance you get. You may find a new favorite that’ll convince you that Grand Rapids has, indeed, earned the title Beer City USA!

Believe it or not, there are many more nano-breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs in Michigan. For a complete up-to-date list visit — and drop me a line at if you hear of a new brewery opening near you. GR

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