Raise a pint to Grand Rapids’ lesser-known culture: HOPS


Founders Brewing Company serves a variety of its beers in this family-friendly (until 9 p.m.) tap room. (photos by Pamela O’Meara/Review)

Founders serves up a rich, creamy oatmeal stout plus a lighter beer along with a bowl of beer cheese dip and chips.

Brewery Vivant is housed in an old funeral home -- hence the tongue-in-cheek “Vivant” or “Life” name -- with the bar where the former nave would have been.

This red door from the old Grand Rapids Brewery is now on display in the new brewery.

The Grand Rapids Brewery serves Silver Foam beer, which was popular in the early 1900s and recently brought back.

Named tops in the nation, breweries in Grand Rapids, Mich. celebrate with Beer Week.

I wonder if my grandparents are rolling over in their graves since their hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., was recently named “Beer City U.S.A.” and one of the “Top 10 Vacation Cities for Beer Lovers.”

The city recently celebrated with “Cool Brews/Hot Eats,” a 13-day festival of food and beer tastings.

I was born in Grand Rapids and visited annually for most of my life, but always thought of the city’s population as Protestant teetotalers. My Dutch grandparents were members of the conservative Christian Reformed Church, and the city is a center of Christian book publishing. It’s ringed by a number of church-related colleges.

Best brews - who knew?

So I was surprised to hear that in 2012, Grand Rapids tied with Asheville, NC, for the Beer City title thanks to its high-quality craft breweries. The “brew review” site Ratebeer.com, which boasts “hundreds of thousands of members from more than 100 countries” gave the second-largest city in Michigan the nod.

On a recent trip to see my mother and sister, I took a craft beer tour with a friend. Our first stop was Founders Brewing Co., where Janet and I shared a mug of rich, creamy oatmeal stout, and polished off a bowl of chips and beer cheese dip in the tap room before watching the whole beer making process.

Founders is the largest brewery in Grand Rapids and distributes its craft beer in 23 states, including Minnesota. Founders co-owner Dave Engbers said his place is not only the third-highest rated brewery in the world, according to Ratebeer.com, but is also family-friendly up until 9 p.m. After 16 years in operation, Founders now serves -- and employs -- many of the kids who used to come for the free peanuts during family hours.

When I was a child, Grand Rapids’ John Ball Park and Zoo was a favorite destination. So when I saw that the Grand Rapids Brewery has a brown ale named John Ball, I had to sample the toasty, nutty brew. Ditto with Silver Foam, a light-tasting lager that was a staple in 1912 and was reintroduced on its centennial. Memorabilia from the early days decorate the walls.

Next, we checked out HopCat. With 48 taps and 150 bottles on hand, including Michigan specialties and global offerings, HopCat was named the No. 1 craft brew bar in the U. S. by brewrate.com.

Then it was on to the whimsically-named Brewery Vivant, whose bar is housed in an old funeral chapel, complete with arched beams and stained-glass windows. Servers work behind a bar located where the altar would have been.

Take two pints and call me in the morning

It turns out Grand Rapids came by its breweries like many other U.S. towns in the 1800s. Beer-drinking was a tradition brought from Europe, and it was often served to men, women and children with meals. The first brewer in town was Englishman John Pannell in 1836. A few years later, German Christoph Kusterer set up shop.

Kusterer and others advertised their beer as a healthy family drink, which in a way it was, since fresh water from rivers or lakes could be polluted. According to at least anecdotal observation, the number of people with malaria-related shaking ague in 1847 greatly diminished with increased beer drinking.

Many more breweries were established in the next few decades until in 1892, six major ones consolidated into the Grand Rapids Brewing Company to be more competitive. The company began making Silver Foam beer, which became popular around the country. 

Beer production flourished in Grand Rapids when my grandparents were young adults. Then in 1918, two years before nationwide Prohibition was passed, Michigan went dry, and 160 bars closed.

However, home brewing proliferated behind closed doors until Michigan became the first state in 1933 to ratify the 21st Amendment repealing prohibition.

Legal again

Though several downtown breweries opened again, they only lasted a couple of decades before succumbing to competition from huge breweries.

In 1997, a few friends from Holland Michigan’s Hope College, which was established by the Reformed Church of America, ended a 46-year beer drought downtown. With the opening of Founders, Engbers and co-owner Mike Stevens brought back the old brewing traditions. Others soon followed.

“All the breweries of the Hope group are pretty nice beers due to the high standard set by Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo,” Engbers says.

Janet suggests this is part of the same entrepreneurial spirit that brought considerable downtown development by wealthy local philanthropists including the Amway founders, the Meijers family and Steelcase furniture company owners the last two decades. The new crop of entrepreneurs includes a younger generation interested in dining out and drinking craft beer.

“Beer is a social beverage. You can drink responsibly and have a good time,” Engbers adds. In fact, Founders throws a beer fest in June when the street in front is closed off for a celebration of beer and music – a thank you to the city for its support.

Grand Rapids is no longer as conservative as it used to be, Janet tells me.

But I still wonder what my grandparents would think.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7818.

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