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Grand Rapids: Top Shelf Beer and Food

August 09, 2017

By Pat Evans, August 09, 2017

Grand Rapids is often tossed aside as a “backwater flyover country” and for many years, it was.

The Western Michigan hub has blossomed and distanced itself from the dying rust belt community so many Midwestern cities have become. Grand Rapids has emerged from the shadows of Detroit, led by a diverse economy ranging from the Medical Mile of research facilities and hospitals to technology. And, of course, beer.

Founders Brewing Company has practically become the shining illustration of the renaissance in Grand Rapids and helped spur dozens of area breweries and assisting in the transformation of the food and cocktail cultures.

The Grand Rapids metro area crossed the 1 million population mark just a few years ago, but the downtown core is cozy, walkable and packed with a weekend’s worth of activities. With more time, quick 30 minute jaunts out to Holland or Muskegon, both in the metro area, would make sense for beer travelers. There are at least a dozen breweries just outside the city limits worth venturing to, such as Rockford Brewing Company, Cedar Springs Brewing Company, and Perrin Brewing Company.

Still, a great drinking weekend can be had in Grand Rapids in 48 hours without leaving the city limits.

Bryan Esler PhotoHotel, motel, Airbnb: you can't go wrong, but you can go better.

Day One

Hotel

Perhaps one of the best aspects of traveling to Grand Rapids is the pricing and with local wages still comparatively low, cost of living is as well. Today, Grand Rapids offers many amenities of more cosmopolitan cities for a fraction of the cost and hotels are no different.

With two four-Diamond hotels in the center of downtown, JW Marriott and Amway Grand Plaza, often offering two-Diamond-like rates, you can pamper yourself without breaking the bank. Snag an upper floor room at either and you’re guaranteed one of the best views of the cities as few buildings reach high enough to block the horizon.

Both hotels also offer in-building dining and bar options, from a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and the Lumber Baron at the Amway to six.one.six in the JW.

A more economical option would be the boutique hotel CityFlatsHotel, which is nestled in a downtown retail and office strip, or perhaps AirBnB is more in line with your budget. 

Good Beer HuntingThe Sovengard is serving up top-shelf culinary creativity and beer.

Bridge Street

As part of Grand Rapids development, a few distinct entertainment neighborhoods have established themselves over the past four years. The newest such district is Bridge Street. Long called the best side by residents, the west side of Grand Rapids long was a place few ventured if they didn’t call it home. Now, backed by loads of investment, the main thoroughfare of the west side of the Grand River is shifting the center of gravity in the city.  

A fifteen minute walk from the hotels, the first stop should be The Sovengard. It’s a restaurant demonstrating the strides Grand Rapids has taken in the past several years in terms of culinary creativity. It couldn’t have existed more than a year ago. Nestled into the basement of a more than century-old building, the Midwestern take on Scandinavian cuisine is pushing the boundaries of West Michigan cuisine in many ways, plus it has one of the best beverage programs among restaurants in town.  

The Sovengard recently tapped the first ever beer by the city’s first all-wild and sour beer producer, Speciation Artisan Ales, but the draft and packaged list includes a nice mix of local, national, and international brands ranging in styles. The cocktail list follows the same method, often mixing Michigan made-spirits with international brands with imaginative recipes. Try A Walk in the Woods, made with locally-produced, award-winning Long Road Distillers Aquavit.

Following dinner and a few drinks, walk next door to the recently completed and massive Grand Rapids location of New Holland Brewing Company, called The Knickerbocker. The enormous facility boasts multiple areas to settle down and have a few beers from the regional producer which has radically altered its direction in the past several years, including a reinvention and modernization of its signature IPA, Mad Hatter.

In the future, Bridge Street will also include a proposed Jolly Pumpkin taproom and a bourbon bar with 100 selections, but for now either head a tad further west to Harmony Hall or hop across the street from The Knickerbocker for another solid tap list and whiskey selections from Butcher’s Union.  

The morning cup sets the tone for the day. Start it with joe from the company providing coffee to Founders.”

Day Two

Ferris Coffee & Nut

A short walk from any downtown lodging, the more than 90-year-old coffee company opened up a downtown café in the historic Trust Building, which exemplifies its transformation from a commodity coffee roaster to specialty coffee company the past decade.

The morning cup sets the tone for the day. Start it with joe from the company providing coffee to Founders for its well-known beers like Breakfast Stout and its stronger brother KBS.

Downtown Market

Even on a trip about booze, sometimes you have to get some food involved.

Built in 2012 as a downtown southside redevelopment anchor, the Downtown Market is a bit bourgeois for the area, but offers a fun culinary experience.

Sample meats and cheeses alongside an alcoholic beverage at Aperitivo or seafood from a former Seattle fish vendor at Fish Mongers, which also recently opened up a butcher shop in the slot next door. The city’s premier bakery, Field & Fire, opened along with the market and blossomed into a restaurant menu staple.

Detroit restaurants Slows BBQ and Social Kitchen and Bar opened Grand Rapids locations at the market and half a dozen other vendors are serving up food.

Bryan Esler PhotoGotta go to Founders, maybe even have to get a sandwich.

Founders Brewing

A stop to Grand Rapids wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Founders taproom.

Even in the winter, you can enjoy the patio thanks to the giant fire pits. The interior has two main bar areas to sample beers, ranging from the common now synonymous All Day IPA and Dirty Bastard to eclectic one-offs it’d be hard to imagine Founders producing nationwide, like fruited goses.

Still, many of its taproom-only beers have gone on to evolve and become packaged distribution beers, like PC Pils – a crisp pilsner hopped like an IPA, canned and poised to grow like All Day.

If you skipped food at Downtown Market, Founders sandwiches are among the best in the city and mostly named to coincide with the beers.

Hopcat

Nearby on Ionia Avenue, any visitor in town for beer should stop at the original HopCat.

It has turned into a major beer bar chain, but HopCat’s early Grand Rapids location was unique and helped bolster the early Grand Rapids craft scene. Today, HopCat’s vibe is no different and still offers a great selection of Michigan beers on tap and an expansive array of worldwide beers in bottles as well as some stellar in-house brews.

The chain now has more than 14 locations throughout the Midwest with private equity backing its massive expansion plans, which will take it to Florida later this year.

Just as with Founders, without HopCat, Grand Rapids beer wouldn’t be the same.

Bryan Esler PhotoGet your sour on at Vivant.

Cherry Street

The culinary heart of Grand Rapids is in the district of East Hills on Cherry Street. A very short Uber or taxi from downtown, the Midtown block is anchored by Brewery Vivant, a Belgian and French inspired operation making some of the best beers in town.

The brewery’s neighborhood is most important to owners Jason and Kris Spaulding, so it will never distribute much beyond its current footprint of a few Great Lakes states and production of approximately 5,000 barrels, but Vivant recently launched a sour program which is kicking out some fascinating beers aged in various barrels and foeders and building upon its annual Wood Aged Beer Festival.

Brewery Vivant’s kitchen is also doing some fine work, serving up succulent items like roasted bone marrow, escargot, and duck confit nachos. The pub’s burger is likely the best in Grand Rapids.

If Vivant’s food isn’t appetizing, a top-notch sushi restaurant, Maru, is attached and across the parking lot is three-time Grand Rapids Magazine Restaurant of the Year winner Grove, whose sister restaurant Green Well Gastro Pub is across the street as well for a more casual experience.

Following dinner, stride on down to the Pickwick and straddle up to the oldest tavern in Grand Rapids, which has three beers on tap: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Foster’s and Killian’s, or grab an Anchor Steam or High Life bottle.

Bryan Esler PhotoForego the night cap. Get a MadCap in the morning if you did, though.

Day Three

Madcap Coffee

To wrap up a quick weekend trip to Grand Rapids, start the morning with more coffee. Smart move. Grand Rapids coffee, like the city’s cocktails and beer, has blossomed in recent years and this industry was spurred by Madcap Coffee, which is often discussed among the best roasters in the country.

There’s three Madcap locations with one at the center of downtown on Monroe Center, in the Downtown Market and at its roasting facility on Fulton Street.

When Madcap first opened in 2008, the café felt out of place in Grand Rapids, but its ubiquitous feeling and familiarity for residents now helps signify just how far the city has come.

Meijer Gardens

A main reason the New York Times cited Grand Rapids as one of the 52 Places to Travel in 2016, the 158-acre Meijer Gardens is worth a Sunday morning stroll.

The world-class sculpture park was graced upon Grand Rapids thanks to local billionaire Fred Meijer and it now includes pieces throughout its sprawling campus by renowned artists and an exhibition by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and political activist, this year.

Bryan Esler PhotoIf it's nice out, the sculpture garden, and this Calder, are worth the walk.

Vander Mill Cider

On the way back downtown from Meijer Gardens, swing into Vander Mill Cider’s production facility and restaurant, which has helped turn people in Grand Rapids, and plenty of other Midwest locales, onto cider.

Into sweeter ciders or like them drier? Vander Mill has you covered and offers up some enticing food items as well.

Leonard Street

A second corridor on the west side of the city growing into a destination in itself, Leonard Street’s development was kicked off in 2012 by a small brewery popping up in a 19th century firehouse.

Mitten Brewing Company is a charming baseball-themed brewery which mixes sports bar with a casual brewery atmosphere in historic architecture. Known for its pizza, the Mitten’s beers are among the best in the city following a slow start, including an English mild ale called Triple Crown Brown, which took home a 2016 World Beer Cup silver medal.

Next door, Long Road Distillers began pushing out locally produced grain-to-glass spirits in 2015 and has won a cabinet full of awards for its products, including several international best in shows for its aquavit.

Kitty-corner from the Mitten and across the street from Long Road is Two Scotts Barbeque, where two guys named Scott have meshed several styles of BBQ into a “Michigan” style.

Chances are owners from all three of the Leonard Street businesses will be onsite and willing to chat if run into, offering a great send off to a stay in Grand Rapids.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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