The beer bars, bottle shops and many, many breweries of Grand Rapids rallied hard in the wake of a postponed winter beer fest.
The weather gods handed Grand Rapids, Mich. a real lemon last weekend.
A week’s worth of melting snow and torrential downpours led to city-wide flooding, including the Grand River – which runs next to Fifth Third Ballpark, the site of last weekend’s scheduled Michigan Brewers Guild’s 13th annual Winter Beer Festival. And while rain-out conditions are always a concern at a summer beer festival, a second thought is barely given to the idea of the same happening at a winter outdoor fest.
Except this year.
When threatening floodwaters crept into the festival grounds – with more expected throughout the weekend – the Guild made a “brutal decision” Thursday afternoon to postpone the two-day event to this weekend. The online backlash was predictable, though much of that was driven by poor initial communication by the Guild.
For out-of-towners who make the fest an annual trek (like ourselves), the reality of non-refundable hotel rooms began to sink in Thursday evening. And that’s about the same time that the beer community in Grand Rapids collectively rallied.
Lemons, meet lemonade, Beer City U.S.A.-style.
By the dozens, social media posts were being shared, highlighting the new specials popping up at bars and breweries across the city. $5 off pizza flights at The Mitten Brewing. 50% off can fills at Rockford Brewing. $2 off pints at Gravel Bottom. And more $1 off pints specials than any one drinker could keep up with.
And then we met the Beer City Runner.
For $20 each, our group could be shuttled around the city from noon to midnight, with hourly stops at seven breweries, a distillery and Michigan’s original craft beer bar, HopCat.
Normally, the weekend of the city’s massive beer festival might not make for a productive two days for Beer City Runner owner Chris Myers. But the cancellation meant an opportunity. He created a “Plan B” special – taking $5 off each ride – making our decision even easier. Beer fest or not, we’d be doing a guys’ weekend in Grand Rapids.
Starting our trip at The Mitten (we weren’t passing up that deal on a pizza flight there) we took in the historic baseball themes in an old fire station, while ordering four beer flights to go with our pizza flight. Among the group, Mango Gold – a kettle-soured wheat ale with mango – was our agreed-upon favorite.
As we debated whether to have another round, Myers’ bus was idling outside. He was there at 4:21 p.m., just like the website said, prepared to depart at 4:25 p.m. And like a well-oiled machine, we were off to Elk Brewing. Among the flights there, PB & J’ale’y blonde ale – made with grape juice and peanut butter – left split opinions among our group, with me on the side enjoying it. We were able to squeeze in a second round amid great conversation with fellow visiting Chicagoans before Myers was again idling outside – 5:32 p.m., just as advertised, ready to take us to Brewery Vivant.
The crowds at the ever-popular Belgian brewer – nestled in what once was a stately funeral home – left us with little more than a spot at a back bar, where we basked in the glow of Belgians. We also learned that it pays to ask what’s on their “wood-aged menu,” as Escoffi-berries, their biere de garde aged in red wine barrels with blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, was a welcome surprise on tap.
From there it was on to Founders Brewing – where CBS, KBS and so much more was on tap. It’s tough to turn down the chance to have Canadian Breakfast Stout for $7 a glass and our group certainly didn’t turn away from that deal.
We weren’t quite ready to leave when Myers rolled up an hour later, but that’s part of the appeal to his Beer City Runner – when you find a place you’re enjoying, you can just stay for another hour. Since September 2014, he’s spent his weekends serving as a Beer City ambassador, making out-of-towners feel right at home and displaying the patience of a saint with some of the later revelers.
And we simply didn’t want to leave our next stop, the universally-agreed upon hit of the night, City Built Brewing.
In a welcoming tap room opened just 17 months ago, Edwin Collazo and Dave Petroelje have opted to “blur the line of what a brewery can be.” Hardly typical taproom food, we enjoyed fare from Collazo’s native Puerto Rico, like bori balls and longaniza y lechon, while sampling GR Fjord, a tangerine farmhouse ale, along with Finlandia Black IPA, made with juniper and cardamom.
There were also beers like Beeramisu named after the dessert, and Fluffy Unicorns, a pineapple-vanilla pale ale made with lactose. We had a great conversation with Collazo, as well, who turned us on to another Grand Rapids brewing newcomer, Speciation Artisan Ales. Their sours are not to be overlooked.
We still had three breweries to go on our Beer City Runner circuit when we let Myers know we’d let Uber be our guide from there. We made our way to Greyline Brewing – where former Founders and Perrin brewer Nate Walser is cranking out really impressive beers – before we navigated to New Holland’s dazzling new Knickerbocker for a last stop of the night.
We sampled a lot in our tour of the city. Not nearly as much, of course, as we would have at a fest with more than 150 breweries. And our multiple stops meant we spent a lot more than we would have at a fest, as well.
But the Grand Rapids beer community was ridiculously welcoming and everyone was at last taking the fest’s cancellation in stride.
Grand Rapids made a hell of a lemonade out of that lemon they were handed.
And because ticket-holders like us can’t make it this weekend, it means tickets for the previously-sold-out Saturday session are easy to come by. While part of the fun of this particular fest is the snow and cold, the reality is that after all the city’s been through, a forecast calling for mid-40s and sun this weekend will be a welcome sight.
On Sunday, as is a custom on a trip to the city, we stopped at the incomparable craft beer and homebrewing supply store, Siciliano’s. Turns out it was one of their surprise “Easter egg hunt” days, with tough-to-find beers strategically placed throughout their ample beer selection. Founders KBS and Bell’s Black Note were just some of the scores there. I’m not sure if a similar hunt will be happening this weekend, but if you’re headed up, it’s worth a stop there regardless.