Home Featured News How Grand Rapids built its brewing community

How Grand Rapids built its brewing community

The Hopcat, photo by Jason Babcock
The Hopcat, photo by Jason Babcock

By Jerry Jones

Grand Rapids is a city defined by a unique Midwestern style; an unpretentious and fresh view on the world of art, food and drink that continues to bring the city acclaim. Today, Grand Rapids finds its fortunes as tightly interwoven with the rejuvenation of microbreweries as it did 80 years ago with the newly formed commercial furniture market.

Both industries experienced growth due to high public demand, and in both cases, Grand Rapids was there to fill the need. Today we find an explosive cityscape filled with 17 distinct breweries, an up and coming giant of the industry, and the title of “Beer City, USA” two years running.

“If you’re talking about Grand Rapids beer history, the starting point would be The Grand Rapids Brewing Company that opened their doors over 100 years ago,” explains Ben Darcie, beer entrepreneur, teacher and distributor. Darcie, a Grand Rapids native, teaches classes on the art of beer at local breweries. “But Founders was the start of modern craft beer in Grand Rapids.”

GRBC and Founders do represent two very different, yet pivotal turning points in the history of Grand Rapids beer. The beginning of the 20th century marked GR’s first entry to the national stage, as GRBC’s “Silver Lager” invaded taps across America. Yet, 13 years of prohibition took its toll and by the end of the 1930’s, Michigan beer hit a low point it would take decades to recover from.

Founders Brewery, separated from the GRBC by over a hundred years, would be the rejuvenation of Michigan beer.  Opening in 1997, Founders struggled to make a mark at first, declaring bankruptcy twice.

“Founders, while they were up on Monroe, were just surviving.  To the public eye, they were doing fine. The insiders know just how close they came to throwing in the towel,” reveals Chas Thompson, historian and beer engineer for Schmohz Brewery near 28th and Patterson. “Their real turnaround was when they started making weirder beers.”

Founders had indeed changed their production strategy at a pivotal point in American beer.  It coincided with a new great social revival in artisan beers. Using elaborate ingredients and pushing the envelope of what people expected of beer, craft style recipes had always existed on the outskirts as specialized drinks for true enthusiasts.

Now, however, they resurfaced into the mainstream, clashing threateningly with commercial beers that had been standards for decades.

“The weird, wild, creative and strange beers, those are what get press, but they don’t traditionally sell in volume,” Thompson explains. “Commercial beers, or Rank & File as we call them, still keep the lights on. Those are the beers that everyone likes to drink, but aren’t really distinguishable from one another. They are business for your pub, comfortable and familiar beers. Producing those is what allows us to try new and exciting things.”

For Founders, plagued by sub-par beer, it was only when they finally abandoned their attempts to produce the next Rank & File that they found success. It was part luck, part daring and part excellent beer.

Founders’ success and a new social acceptance for craft beers gave fresh opportunities to many newcomers in the Grand Rapids beer scene. Some who were just beginning, and some who had been there all along, quietly making small batches of prize winning beer and waiting for their time to come. It gave many award-winning breweries an opportunity to expose their recipes to a mainstream audience.

Schmohz brewery found success with statewide distribution of its beer. Others found more modest success with local bars serving homemade recipes. Nano and Microbreweries exploded in different pockets of the city. It blanketed Grand Rapids in choices.

“It’s important to note the gradual growth and points in our cities history where we had no breweries at all,” Darcie comments. “The beer craze is still very fresh here.”

Yet the impact it’s had in the last five years alone has been substantial.  Since bottoming out during the market crash of 2008 at 45,000 employees, the cities employment rate has shot up to nearly 80,000 this year; 30 percent higher than our pre-depression average. A large part of that success is owed to the 17 unique breweries that have come to the city.

“The Michigan beer scene has been incredibly aggressive over the last few years,” Darcie explains. “Michigan’s beer scene brought in $2 billion into the economy in 2012. The industry growth has been 20 percent compared to the national average of 12.”

That’s not just from local breweries serving local people. Michigan’s success owes a lot to a new concept in the beer industry that has had a substantial impact on craft breweries: beer tourism.

“Beer tourism is a new word for Grand Rapids that has had an overwhelming effect,” explains Janet Korn, Vice President Of Marketing for Experience Grand Rapids. “Our craft beer is a cultural experience and it’s been fantastic for our economy”.

Why Grand Rapids has become a rallying point for a new craft beer culture is difficult to say. It’s a combination of many elements, including timing, great quality beer and enthusiastic fans. The recipe for a successful beer city is much like the brew it’s named for. It’s a delicate balance of the right ingredients prepared in just the right way with passion and attention to detail. Darcie feels there is, however, one ingredient more important than all.

“We owe our success as a beer city to our attitude,” Darcie tells. “We do not have a competitive beer culture. Our breweries aren’t afraid of the brewery that opened up down the block. They exchange ingredients, ideas. They’ve built a community. It’s that idea that’s kept this community thriving: our beer is not elitist.”

Thompson agrees. He’s a founder of the Grand Rapids Society Of Brewers, an organization that seeks to create a community between different brewers for support and growth.

“The GRSB is an intentionally unorganized group of brewers,” Thompson smiles. “We put it together so that everybody had everybody’s number. So if you were short on grain, or needed advice, you knew the other guys in town.”

That community is what promises the most for Grand Rapids future. Despite the threat of over-saturation as the successful market grows exponentially, Darcie remains confident in the future.

“Our future is growth. Our culture of beer, our collaborative spirit is what has kept us thriving, and will keep us successful. It’s what makes us Beer City, USA.”

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