Does “Beer City USA” live up to its title?

MICH 7/13 feature

When a town within driving distance is crowned “Beer City USA” for a second consecutive year, one’s natural inclination is to visit as soon as possible and see if it lives up to its billing. Such was the case over this past holiday weekend when the opportunity arose to spend a day in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Home to a steadily growing number of breweries and bars, and less than 200,000 people, the city has cultivated a craft beer scene that is literally frothing over with a sense of pride and camaraderie. While I wasn’t able to make it to all of the area’s brew hubs, I hit up those that came highly recommended by friends. Here’s the rundown:

Founders Brewing Co. – One of Michigan’s largest beer producers, Founders ranked in the top four breweries in the world by RateBeer.com for the past four years in a row (4th in 2010, 2nd in 2011 and 2012, 3rd in 2013). After drinking the “highly acclaimed” Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) and their many other rich, flavorful beers, it’s no wonder how Founders has achieved its status in the craft beer lexicon. Upon arriving at the taproom, I learned that the exterior is under construction to extend and enhance their patio and gift shop, while adding an outdoor bar (the plan is to have it completed by October). The taproom is spacious with huge windows that allow visitors to peer into the brewery while eating or dining. A few beers stood out for me, including the Pure Michigan Vanilla Stout, Devil Dancer Triple IPA and Barrel-Aged Honey Stuff Wheat Ale and Huggy’s Nuggs IPA.

Brewery Vivant – Less than 10 minutes from Founders, this brewery is not even three years old but is quickly making a name for itself with its French and Belgian-inspired beers. The brewery resides in what used to be a funeral chapel, creating an almost “religious experience” for its visitors. In addition to this unique environment, a spacious patio wraps around the building’s exterior. Standout beers during my visit were the Helter Spelter, a Belgian pale ale that uses spelt (a relative to wheat) and A Beer Called Wanda, a barrel-aged sour ale.

HopCat – Ranked as the #1 brewpub in the U.S. by RateBeer.com and #3 beer bar in the world by BeerAdvocate.com, Hopcat specializes in Michigan beers but also offers an amazing selection of regional and Belgian brews. They also do a phenomenal job of brewing their own beer, including the Pantho Baltic Porter, Wit Vs. Wisdom Witbier and Handy Ranch Man American Pale Ale. After munching on an order of Crack Fries, I had to try their monthly ice cream cookie, which featured banana hefeweizen ice cream sandwiched by two half-inch-thick peanut butter cookies from a local bakery. Wow. HopCat certainly does everything they can to justify their lofty rankings.

The Pyramid Scheme – If amazing craft beer, live music, pinball and great local artwork for sale float your boat, this is the place for you. Pyramid Scheme is a workout for your senses – from the eye-catching decor to the best selection of Short’s beers in the region (I enjoyed their Prolonged Enjoyment IPA and Beard of Zeus pale lager). I’m not much into pinball, but their selection of 21 machines, including The Simpsons, Star Wars, Metallica and X-Men, had me popping quarters like a pinball wizard.

Stella’s Lounge – Across the street from The Pyramid Scheme, this bar is known for its craft beer, 200 whiskeys, 80s video games, rockin’ jukebox and award-winning burgers. I was having major flashbacks as I jumped from Galaga, Donkey Kong and Asteroids to Ms. Pac Man, Q-Bert and Track and Field.

The following day, I ventured west toward the lake to make my way back to Chicago. Along the way, I stopped at a handful of great places:

Vander Mill – I’ve never been one for hard cider, but this place has been opening my eyes over the last few months with its refreshing, light beverages. About a half hour west of Grand Rapids, Vander Mill is located in Spring Lake and looks like a quaint country cafe from the street. I got there soon after it opened and was immediately wowed by the shelves stacked with products made with local fruits (most notably blueberries, cherries and apples). Spreads, jams, BBQ sauces, butters, salsas…it rivaled any market I’ve ever been to. In addition to the usual selection of hard ciders, they had a few rare bottles and taps, along with a wine and a couple of beers they make. Vander Mill also makes their own donuts (I picked up a few cherry and cinnamon), and offers unique breakfast and lunch menus. This is a fantastic place to bring your family and spend a couple hours tasting and shopping.

Odd Side Ales – A mere block from the lake in the beachtown of Grand Haven sits this gem of a tap room. Occupying an old piano factory, Odd Side opened a few years back and has a nice cafe-like space with plenty of seats for big crowds – especially when it hosts live music acts on weekends. The tap list is one of the most impressive I’ve come across, and everything I tried was remarkable. These include the Realignment Raspberry Wheat, Mayan Mocha Stout (made with cinnamon, nutmeg and habanero), Peach Tea Blonde, Firefly Pale Ale (made with papaya and habanero), Citra Pale Ale, Derelicte IPA (nails a perfect balance between hops and pineapple) and Bean Flicker Coffee Blonde. Currently, Simcoe Sensation Session IPA and Citra Pale Ale are available in bottles throughout Michigan with Bean Flicker hitting the shelves in the next week or so. I can’t wait to have an excuse to head back to Grand Haven and check this place out again soon.

Saugatuck Brewing Co. – About 45 minutes south in Douglas sits this popular brewpub. As it is known for its outstanding grub, I made a point to try one of their burgers and was not disappointed. Their IPAs and pale ales were not really for me as they lacked much aroma and hoppiness, but the ESB Amber and Dramanatrix Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout made up for it. A really unique feature is that Saugatuck offers visitors the opportunity to brew their own beer with guidance from their brewers and using the brewery’s equipment. For $250-$300, you get all of the ingredients and to brew for about 4 hours and come back in 2-3 weeks to bottle up to 72 bombers (22oz) of your beer. I wish more breweries were able to offer this.

Karma Vista Vineyards and Winery – I know this isn’t a wine site, but I’d be remiss if I failed to include this stop in my post. Part of the Southwestern Michigan Wine Trail, this winery is located in Coloma and has always been my favorite to visit. Perched atop a picturesque hillside vineyard, Karma Vista is owned by Joe and Sue Herman – two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. From reds and whites to dessert and sparkling wines, everything is delicious and named with a fun musical twist. My personal favorites are the Watusi Red, Devil’s Head Red, Peace, Love & Bubbles, Valvin Muscat and Razz M’Tazz. Their tasting room offers six choices for $5 and amazing views in each direction of their sprawling vineyard.

My plan is to make it back up to Grand Rapids in the fall to finish my tour of Beer City USA and report back on a handful of other breweries and bars. Stay tuned…

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