America has so many great beer cities, like Denver, Millwaukee and Boston -- just to name a few of the tried and true. But after a weekend in Grand Rapids, I second its claim as the top beer town for craft brew enthusiasts.
From the nationally recognized Founders Brewery, to regionally acclaimed brewers like Vivant, this western Michigan gem of a town takes its beer seriously. Last month, seven of us made the three-hour jaunt from Chicago to sample selections at more than five local haunts.
I did some research beforehand and landed us tickets on the Hoptimus Prime -- an incredible deal at only $10 per person for all-night hop-on, hop-off shuttle service around town. Our driver was more than accommodating, helping us map out the top spots to see over a five-hour span. Yes, folks, this evening was a marathon -- not a sprint.
Here are my tips to make the most of a night in Grand Rapids -- and my top pick for beer to try while you're there.
1. You must eat at Brewery Vivant.
Besides being one of the coolest breweries in the city, with fantastically eclectic brews, Vivant boasts a delicious food menu -- including to-die-for frites. As a frites connoisseur myself, I don't dole out this distinction lightly. In terms of ambiance, the space is so unique, reminiscent of a trappist monestary with a huge stained glass window in the main dining room.
When you're there, make sure you try at least two of the beers. My favorite was the Farm Hand, a French-style farmhouse ale, but I honestly think they could turn even me into a stout fan here.
2. Founders Brewing Co. is a great daytime stop -- but totally skippable after sunset.
When we got to town, we wanted to see Founders, but thought it would be best to try out the more obscure breweries first (in case we didn't make it all night). But, when Hoptimus Prime stopped in front of the beautiful -- and busy -- patio at the brewery, we knew we needed to make it back.
Founders became our second-to-last stop on the barhop -- but when we arrived, well after dark, we were disappointed to find the fun daytime crowd had dissipated into a strange group of folks dancing to a mediocre DJ, complete with strobe lights and old-school rap. This place is definitely a must-do during the day, when the patio is open and you can enjoy laid-back beers with a group of friends.
3. If you're looking for the best international beer selection, HopCat is your place.
While Grand Rapids is all about locally brewed beers, HopCat is a must-see for those of us who have a thing for hard-to-find Belgian classics. It's constantly listed as one of America's top beer bars -- the kind of place that makes you want to swirl, smell and sip while talking the finer points of brewing with a knowledgeable barkeep.
We didn't have a chance to eat here, but I have a feeling the food is pretty fantastic, too. And with a central location right in the heart of Grand Rapids, it's the perfect start or end on your brewery tour.
4. The B.O.B. only gets better as the night goes on.
Before we even got to town, we had heard about The B.O.B. The downtown hotspot isn't just a brewery -- it's a consortium of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues all under one, constantly hopping roof. Sadly, after lingering a little too long at Founders, we barely made it there to hear the awesome brass band's encore -- a lively rendition of "Uptown Funk."
You can tell this is the place where everyone from college kids to middle-aged jazz fans come to kick back. Definitely make sure you get there in time to enjoy the weekend entertainment -- it will be a fun night well spent.
5. My favorite beer in town? The Hefeweizen at Elk Brewing.
To be totally honest, Elk Brewing -- a fairly new brewer on the scene -- wasn't exactly my favorite spot on our trip. We got there a little hungry, and looking for more to tide us over than the bar nuts and popcorn available for purchase. But what this brewery may have lacked in ambiance, it certainly made up for in flavor. I absolutely loved my Hefeweizen -- so much I'd call it my favorite brew of the trip. Chris sampled a really unique IPA micro brew, which literally looked like a science project filtered from a beaker in the middle of the bar. It was super tasty.
If you get there early enough, you'll have a good selection of board games to enjoy over a lively conversation with your buddies. Just beware: Don't plan to eat here -- it's solely focused on good beer (and that's okay by me!).