“Cucumbers in the front, juniper berries in the middle and lime zest in the flavor notes,” Ernie Richards, head brewer at HopCat, a happening artisan brewery in downtown Grand Rapids, tells me as I take a sip of his recently created Naughty Nicodemus. It’s one of the four to seven taps he makes every week or so.
“Our beers are constantly rotating and selling out,” continues Richards. “We print our beer menu twice a week.”
Indeed, the menu I have — which was just updated — already has several “no beer for you” stamps over libations that were consumed in the last few days.
But it’s easy to see why. It’s Tuesday around 1 p.m. and the two-story-high room with its hand carved bar, brick walls and tin ceilings is crowded with a diverse group of patrons: parents with young children, young professionals dressed in trendy business black, men who look like they’ve been working on the many nearby construction sites, ladies who lunch and a bus load of tourists from China (yes, China).
HopCat-Grand Rapids (HopCat now has locations around the state including East Lansing and Detroit) opened in 2008 in this mid-19th century building that started off as a wholesale grocery — there’s an antique trade scale in the back for weighing sides of beef.
Since then they’ve garnered such accolades as a BeerAdvocate magazine ranking as the no. 3 beer bar in the world; the no. 2 beer bar in the U.S. by CraftBeer.com and by RateBeer.com as the no. 1 brewpub in the United States in 2012 and 2013.
When Richards, who has a degree in genetics, was completing his senior research project (something about using algae to create lipids for biofuels) he came to the realization that lab work wasn’t for him. So it was bartending at HopCat instead.
The lure of handcrafted brews appealed to his scientific side, and so when a brewing job opened, Richards grabbed it. With the light of a true believer in his eyes, he expounds on the creative process of developing beer recipes.
“Some people try to go with complex flavors that are extreme,” he says. “I sometimes have to question how much skill
that takes. It’s hard to create a subtle balance; it takes a lot of trial and error and understanding your ingredients.”
Richards doesn’t go for the easy score. Making a batch of Naughty Nicodemus means shredding 22 pounds of cucumbers by hand and using juniper berries instead of hops for the right balance. Without the hops, the taste is less bitter, which is great for someone like me who doesn’t enjoy the more popular hop-heavy beers.
After more sampling — Ray Jing, a dry hopped saison with an 8.8 percent alcohol content, and Woodmaster, an Imperial Brown ale with maple syrup and pecans — along with a platter heaped with HopCat’s famed beer battered crack fries (so named because of their addictive quality), we walk to the Grand Rapids Brewing Company just down the block. Unfortunately, three busloads of Chinese visitors have rented the dining room space for a private luncheon.
Not to worry. There are plenty of hand-forged microbrew options in Grand Rapids.
“We were voted Beer City USA several years in a row,” says Stephanie Kotschevar, public relations specialist at Experience Grand Rapids, as she gives me an Ale Trail map featuring over 30 local breweries, as well as cideries and distilleries.
Indeed, breweries and brewers are such a powerhouse here that several years ago they formed Brewers Grove to give back to the city’s parks and public spaces by planting and creating limited release tree themed beers. Sales of the beers go directly to Friends of Grand Rapids Parks Urban Forest Project.
Though I’m doing a walking tour today, the escorted Grand Rapids Beer Tours eliminates the need for driving to reach further away breweries. Several hotels, such as the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown, CityFlatsHotel – Grand Rapids, the JW Marriott Grand Rapids and Prairieside Suites Luxury Bed & Breakfast offer Beer City hotel packages. For those who want to watch brewing in process, check out the tours and classes offered by Schmolz Brewery, Founders Brewing Co. and Brewery Vivant, whose beer menu is inspired by the small, family-owned breweries found in the provincial regions of southern Belgium and northern France. After making the hard decision of where to go next, Kotschevar and I walk to Founders, just a few streets to the west.
An urban blend of wood, metal and glass, the large overhead garage-style doors are open, creating an indoor/outdoor ambiance perfect for this sunny day. Bri Ross, our waitress, is savvy and smart about the large roster of brews on their menu. But first she tells us the backstory.
Founders, now ranked as the no. 3 brewery in the world by the noted RateBeer.com, floundered when it first opened in 1997. Owners Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers had always wanted to run a brewery but made the mistake of trying to please the mass market. Facing bankruptcy, they instead decided to make the style of beer they’d always wanted to drink. Calling their first new brew Dirty Bastard, the name was their battle cry, signifying a break out of the boring beer mode. It turned their business around. If it were spring we could order the Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS), their specialty springtime seasonal beer made with tons of coffee and chocolate and then aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels in the gypsum caves beneath Grand Rapids (who knew there were such things?). The mystique of KBS is such that during the short time when it’s available, people fly into Grand Rapids from all over the world, and finding a hotel room in the downtown is difficult, if not impossible.
“We get people who come from Hawaii, South Korea, you name it,” says Ross, noting that she likes KBS in the morning because of its intense coffee taste.
Luckily, we can get pours of the much sought-after Blushing Monk, one of Founders’ Backstage series made with a huge amount of fresh raspberries and Belgian yeast. It was first released in limited quantities in 2011 and just re-released for summer 2015. Kotschevar also orders her favorite, the seasonal Rübæus, another raspberry-infused beer.
Of course, all this tasting requires some sustenance and so we ask for the house made beer cheese, a yummy blend of smoked Gouda, freshly chopped garlic, cream cheese, Pale ale and Centennial IPA, spinach and red peppers, baked and served with locally made El Matador tortilla chips.
There are still more than two dozen breweries on my map but afternoon is turning into evening and I’ve sampled enough. It’s time for a farm-to-fork dinner at Bistro Bella Vita, where I order Beef Cheek Bourguignon, slowly braised beef in red wine with baby potatoes, farm vegetables and mushrooms in a red wine jus. Kotschevar gets the Prince Edward Island Mussels. Over dinner and another glass of beer we finalize our plans for my next foray into the Grand Rapids beer scene.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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