I furrowed my brow and tapped my lips with my index finger as my eyes scanned the chalkboard. A clean-shaven man with dimples flashed a knowing smile at me, like he’d seen my type a thousand times. “I can help you decide. What kind of beer do you like?” Assuming he had mistaken me for a novice, I moved my finger from my lips to the air in front of my face. “Oh, no, this is not my first rodeo,” I assured him. I knew all the beers on the list. There were just too many good choices, and I couldn’t pick one.
Grand Rapids is Beer City, USA. That's the title that was given to us two years in a row by Beer Advocate. When they stopped holding that public-voting contest, we were still the reigning champions, so we've adopted it as our own for now until the end of the time. And with 14 breweries within city limits, I think it's a rather fitting title.
It’s been interesting to see Grand Rapids transform into a tourist hub for beer lovers from all over. Founders, once a small intimate taproom, is now a sprawling setup with three bars and a massive outdoor beer garden. There is no day or time when you can count on it being empty. It is always full with locals and visitors alike.
Photo credit: Experience GR
I’ve never been a fan of crowds, but for Founders, I make an exception. On a nice summer day when I just want a beer and I can stand out on the patio listening to music and watching people, I don’t mind parking a mile away or waiting in line for a drink. Founders is my happy place.
Even with the crowds, Founders stays surprisingly quiet and laid-back. It still feels like the neighborhood bar. A lot of the bartenders have been serving there for years, so it makes you feel like you know the people there, even if you don’t really. Inside, the taproom is expansive and the ceilings are tall, so even when it’s full of people, it still feels open.
When going to Founders, you know you’re getting the best quality of everything. The beer is always good and it’s always varied. Founders provides a list of regulars but there’s always something new written up on the chalkboard for me to try. The food is delicious. Their sandwiches are huge and unique, but a lot of times I splurge on the hot crab dip because it’s gooey and comforting. And the atmosphere, as I’ve said already, just can’t be beat. There’s no better place to kick back and relax than at Founders.
But Grand Rapids is Beer City, so I can’t give all the credit to one place when there are so many other top-notch craft breweries to explore.
Another favorite of mine is Brewery Vivant in Eastown, which specializes in the Belgian tradition of brewing. The first time I visited Vivant was on my 29th birthday. When my husband suggested we go to a pub for my birthday dinner, I was somewhat disappointed that he didn’t think of something a little more fancy or special. But Vivant quickly won me over with its atmosphere, its food, and its one-and-only Farmhand Ale. It turned out being one of my favorite birthday dinners ever. Vivant is still our go-to location for special occasions.
The taproom used to be a 100-year-old funeral chapel. The original church lights and the large stained-glass window retain the character of the original purpose, as do pew-like benches which form booths along the wall. With my troubled Catholic background, drinking in church sounds like a dream come true. Large wooden tables fill the middle of the room, encouraging strangers to eat and drink in close proximity to each other.
Photo credit: Grand Rapids To-Do
We recently patroned Vivant on a lovely summer evening, and discovered that they have added a beautiful covered patio as well. We got the beer cheese with pretzels and the duck nachos, our standard go-tos. I really enjoy their excellent fries that come with a delectable aioli for dipping.
Another great local brewpub is Harmony Brewing, but my reasons for loving this bar are more sentimental and personal. Don't get me wrong--they have amazing pizzas and they brew some great beer. They have a great outdoors seating area, just like the others. But what I love about this pub is the time I’ve spent here with friends having deep and drunken discussions about life and love. Whenever I enter her doors, these memories wash over me and I feel at home.
Photo credit: Rapid Growth Media
And that’s what a good bar should be--a place where you feel like you’re home. It’s a feeling I get at all these pubs. When people come from out of town for our world-class beer, I welcome them in like I'd welcome someone into my home. Whenever I hear someone who sounds like an out-of-towner, I lean over and say, "Do you need some suggestions? I'm a local." I love to brag about my city, and the breweries are the best places to find avid listeners.