Most people seemed confused whenever I mentioned Grand Rapids, Michigan as our vacation destination this year. They could understand a holiday at the seashore or in the mountains or going traveling abroad. A mid-sized Midwestern city specializing in consumer manufacturing seemed considerably less intuitive to them. Then I revealed the true reason, its great concentration of amazing breweries. Slowly over time I’ve added cities that beverage connoisseurs considered the best beer destinations in the United States, places like Asheville, Bend, San Diego and the Puget Sound. Grand Rapids became my latest acquisition.
I realized that only a small sliver of the Twelve Mile Circle audience shared this passion. Readers should feel free to wait a couple of days until the next article if that’s the case. I also sprinkled a few interesting nuggets completely unrelated to brewing into the kettle for those who wanted to stick around anyway.
One cannot mention Grand Rapids breweries without referencing Founders (map). I could not underestimate the positive contributions Founders brought to the city since its inception barely twenty years ago. Many credited this single brewery with sparking a broad revitalization that transcended its entire social fabric.
Thirty years ago, most people in the area of Grand Rapids, Michigan, steered clear of its desolate downtown. Back then, residents lived in the outlying residential neighborhoods, a suburban sprawl supported by endless strip malls and IHOPs… And at the center of what’s now known to many as "Beer City, USA" is Founders Brewing Company… it has almost singlehandedly established its culture.
I couldn’t vouch for what Grand Rapids used to be like, although I certainly saw that the current scene had a lot to offer beyond the large number of breweries that came to follow. We rented a house for the week in a quiet residential neighborhood constructed at the turn of the last century, east of downtown. We walked nearly everywhere, or grabbed an Uber when we felt lazy, visiting many popular sites within Grand Rapids including a number of its breweries.
Great Lakes Brewing
We stopped overnight in Cleveland, Ohio on the drive up to Michigan. That let us visit another titan of craft brewing, Great Lakes (map). It dated to 1988, practically ancient for that wave of breweries that rose to challenge the Budweisers, Millers and Coors of this world. One of my friends in the industry told me to look for the bullet hole. Bullet hole? Right. The vintage 1860’s Tiger Mahogany bar at Great Lakes supposedly had a bullet hole in it. I noticed someone marked it with an appropriate flag once I arrived in person. BANG. Funny.
Great Lakes brewed a well-regarded Vienna Lager called Eliot Ness, named for the prohibition agent who battled Chicago’s mobsters in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. He led the Untouchables, a nickname earned because they supposedly could not be bribed by gangster Al Capone. However the labeling of the beer wasn’t intended as an ironic statement about a crusader battling bootleggers.
Ness came to Cleveland after prohibition ended in 1933 and later became the city’s Safety Director where he rooted-out public corruption for several years. He often sat at the same bar that became part of Great Lake’s brewpub decades later. That’s why the brewery named a beer for him. Great Lakes claimed that the bullet hole may have come from Ness himself. Meanwhile the Cleveland Police Museum said that "Ness was known to rarely carry a weapon" It might not even be a bullet hole for all I knew. Still, it made for a good legend.
The story of Ness took a sad turn. He succeeded too young and couldn’t maintain it. He lived only 54 years, becoming a hard drinker with a string of failed jobs and marriages.
Less than an hour south of Grand Rapids, in Kalamazoo, stood an even earlier icon of craft brewing. Bell’s Brewery (map) opened all the way back in 1985. Bell’s named its flagship American IPA, Two Hearted Ale. Aficionados considered Two Hearted Ale "world class" and the second best beer in the nation according to Zymurgy, the publication of the American Homebrewers Association.
I never pondered the unusual name before. Two Hearted Ale derived from "the Two Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula." This was a short river draining into Lake Superior and known for its exceptional recreational fishing. A young Ernest Hemingway borrowed the name for a two-part short story he wrote in 1925, "Big Two-Hearted River." At least one source claimed that the name of the beer drew inspiration from Hemingway’s story.
Bell's Two Hearted Ale by William Clifford on Flickr (cc)
It’s a tale about change and acceptance, about dealing with ones own experiences and making the best of them. The fish on the bottle references a part of the story where our hero is struggling with a big fish only to have it get away. Later on he catches two medium size fish and learns to be content with just that.
I managed to structure a search query that sidestepped Bell’s and Hemingway to uncover the river’s etymology. The United States Geological Survey published "The origin of certain place names in the United States." In Volume 8, Issue 197 (1902) the USGS said, "Two Hearted river in Michigan. An erroneous translation of the Indian name Nizhodesibi ‘twin river’." Now we know.
New Holland Brewing
We also visited New Holland Brewing (map) in Holland, Michigan about a half-hour southwest of Grand Rapids. I’ll have more to say about this town in a future installment so I’ll keep it brief here. My wife considered its Dragon’s Milk bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout as one of her favorites for the last several years. Obviously she also greatly enjoyed the Reserve version aged with raspberries and lemon zest on draught at the brewpub the day we visited.
I Got the T-Shirt
Grand Rapids understood the economic value of beer tourism and offered a passport program. Anyone who visited 8 of the 23 area breweries that existed during the summer of 2016 earned a free Beer City Brewsader T-shirt. I got my passport stamped at the 8 closest breweries and earned a shirt. I did something similar during my visit to Bend, Oregon, too. These challenges meshed well with my compulsive need to count things.
Overall we visited 14 breweries during our journey:
- B.O.B’s Brewery (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Bell’s Brewery (Kalamazoo, MI)
- Brewery Vivant (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Draught Horse Brewery (Lyon Twp., MI)
- ELK Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Fat Head’s Brewery (Cleveland, OH)
- Founders Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Grand Rapids Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Great Lakes Brewing (Cleveland, OH)
- Harmony Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- HopCat (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Mitten Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- New Holland Brewing (Holland, MI)
- Smokehouse Brewing (Columbus, OH)
I think I should emphasize — as I have in the past — that responsible behavior underpinned this quest. While we tried a lot of breweries, we spread it over a ten-day period and stuck to samplers, those small taste-sized glasses. In total we had the equivalent of maybe one or two beers at each location, often combined with a meal. It was about the quality not the quantity.
What beer city should we visit next?
Articles in the Michigan Journey Series:
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr