Why Grand Rapids is the craft beverage capital of the U.S.

Grand Rapids is a craft beverage mecca — Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids has the well-earned nickname “Beer City USA” (its first brewery was established in 1836), but this Midwestern city’s penchant for craft beverage extends far beyond the brew. Michigan’s second largest city has one of the fastest growing economies in the country, with a steady influx of young professionals and entrepreneurs fueling this thirst for all things craft.

From the brewery that helped put Grand Rapids on the craft beer map to kombucha brewed with sound therapy techniques, there’s something to drink no matter your tastes. Here are 10 of the city’s can’t-miss craft beverage producers.

Founders Brewing Co.

The taproom at Founders Brewing Co.The taproom at Founders Brewing Co. — Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

You can’t talk about craft beverages in Grand Rapids without mentioning Founders. Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers brewed their first beers under the Founders label in 1997, right as America’s first microbrewing boom took a turn toward bust, with beer sales in decline.

On the verge of bankruptcy in 2001, the pair decided to sell their filter and start making more experimental beers they loved. Their first bourbon barrel-aged beer debuted later that year, and the rest is history.

Since then, Founders has been ranked among the best breweries in the world and has helped kick off the barrel-aged beer and session IPA trends in the U.S. Their spacious Grand Rapids taproom, where visitors can sample brews available nowhere else, overlooks the classic brewhouse.

Madcap Coffee

Nitro cold brew from Madcap CoffeeNitro cold brew from Madcap Coffee — Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

You won’t find any sugared-up, whipped cream-topped Frappuccinos at this Grand Rapids coffee institution. The folks behind the Michigan roaster taste more than 3,000 coffees each year in search of the perfect combination of taste, expression and consistency.

Choose from fresh roasted coffees for coffee regions around the globe, brewed how you like. The Madcap menu also includes a wide selection of herbal teas, infused by the baristas to the second, as well as seasonal specialty drinks.

Madcap has even partnered with Long Road Distillers – the next libation haven on our list – to produce a coffee amaro made with Madcap’s Ethiopian Reko beans.

Long Road Distillers

Michigan cherry liqueur from Long RoadMichigan cherry liqueur from Long Road — Photo courtesy of Long Road Distillers

This Grand Rapids distillery has twice been named the best craft specialty spirits distillery in the nation (in 2017 and 2018) in the 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards, and it only takes a couple of sips to see why.

Co-founders Kyle Van Strien and Jon O’Connor opened Long Road as the first distillery in Grand Rapids’ history. Each spirit is distilled onsite using ingredients sourced in West Michigan. Their aquavit has been named Best in Show by the American Craft Spirits Association.

Other standouts include a bright and tart Michigan cherry liqueur made from Michigan-grown Montmorency cherries and a Michigan apple brandy distilled from Michigan apples and The Peoples Cider Co. (also on our list) cider.

Long Road Distillers’ West Side distillery and tasting room serves farm-to-table fare to go along with spirit flights or cocktails. Don’t miss the fried biscuits with jalapeño honey, green onion and pimento cheese.

Brewery Vivant

Brewery Vivant beer, served with a vegan lemon barBrewery Vivant beer, served with a vegan lemon bar — Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

One of Grand Rapids’ most beloved brewpubs (named one of America’s 10 best brewpubs twice in a row) is also the world’s first LEED-certified microbrewery. Housed in a refurbished funeral home in the East Hills of Grand Rapids, Brewery Vivant specializes in Belgian and French-style beers brewed with locally sourced ingredients.

Stepping inside the space feels like entering a Belgian monastery, complete with a stained glass window above the bar. Visitors will find over a dozen small batch beers on tap, including local favorites like Farm Hand and Big Red Coq, paired with scratch-made French and Belgian favorites (escargot, Belgian frites, coq au vin) and local specialties (beer cheese, duck confit nachos).

Vander Mill

Ciders from Vander MillCiders from Vander Mill — Photo courtesy of Terry Johnston

Paul and Amanda Vander Heide started Vander Mill as a small cider mill in 2006. Today, the hard ciders made from pressed Michigan apples can be found in nine states. The ciders are never pasteurized, nor are preservatives introduced.

The Grand Rapids taproom pours nearly two dozen different ciders, ranging from traditional dry and semi-sweet hard ciders to heritage ciders, hopped ciders, barrel-aged ciders and even ciders on nitro.

The apple theme extends to the food menu (where everything is made in-house), with items like cider donut holes and apple pecan cobbler.

Butcher’s Union

This hip West Side restaurant has a simple tagline, “Meat and Whiskey.” The whiskey list here features more than 200 varieties, with both bourbons and Scotch whiskies well represented. Local libations from Long Road Distillers and New Holland Brewery & Distillery make an appearance alongside top-shelf staples.

The cocktail menu is decidedly whiskey-centric as well, with multiple varieties of Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. A Whiskey Flight of the Week introduces diners to new spirits.

The “meat” portion of the menu is loaded with goodies, like roasted pork belly, bacon-wrapped meatloaf and Monte Cristo fried chicken.

Sacred Springs Kombucha

As it has in much of the U.S., the kombucha craze has swept through Grand Rapids in recent years, and the maker of choice around town is Sacred Springs.

Born from a partnership between a classically trained musician and a sound therapist, Sacred Springs organic kombucha gets “infused” with the notes D and A, thought to be building blocks of metaphysical ingredients. Other tones get overlaid depending on the flavor.

You don’t have to be a believer in such metaphysical principals to enjoy a lightly fizzy glass on draft in Sacred Springs’ Grand Rapids taproom, where flavors might include smoked green tea, jasmine, vanilla mushroom or apple cinnamon.

Arktos Meadery

The history of fermenting honey dates back more than 9,000 years. While Arktos Meadery joined the game a bit more recently (in 2014), the company is already beginning to make its mark on the Grand Rapids beverage scene.

The meadery is planning to open a newer, bigger facility and taproom on the popular Bridge Street in 2020. This will allow Arktos to introduce even more people to their meads, such as Queen Bee, made with Michigan wildflower honey aged in custom oak, or Enchanted Horse cyser, made with honeycrisp apple cider and local wildflower honey.

Native Species Winery / Speciation Artisan Ales

Ale from SpeciationAle from Speciation — Photo courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

This urban winery specializes in crafting wines from Michigan-grown grapes crushed by foot and wildly fermented with minimal intervention. The wines are sealed in bottles before fermentation is complete, creating a naturally spritzy finished product.

The winery was born from another Grand Rapids trendsetter, this time in the realm of suds. Speciation Artisan Ales, founded in 2016, has already earned a name for its wild fermented beer.

Wine and beer lovers can sip these creations in Speciation’s cozy taproom. Visitors are welcome to bring their own food, or order a Nordic-style hot dog made from locally raised lamb and beef.

The Peoples Cider Co.

This West Side cidery began in the kitchen of Jason Lummen’s one-bedroom Heartside apartment in 2002. And he remains the owner, bartender and cider maker behind The Peoples Cider Co., which has grown into a new tasting room on Leonard.

Where most ciders are finished in a matter of weeks, Jason’s ciders take about five months to produce, including a minimum of six weeks in oak barrels. Apples come from Hill Brothers Orchards in West Michigan’s Fruit Ridge and hops from the head brewer at The Mitten Brewing Company just down the street.

So far, options include a flagship dry draft cider, a heavy-hitting whiskey barrel-aged cider, a dry-hopped mead and a cider flavored with Michigan cherries.

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