On a Sunday afternoon, the Founders Brewing taproom feels like Grand Rapids’ public indoor-outdoor living room: Three generations eat lunch in their church clothes. Bearded dudes pair beer with a board game. Cyclists down post-ride pints on the patio. And at the bar, tourists wend through flights of the 25-plus beers on draft. You’d expect all this in a town that’s twice held the title of Beer City USA for its 40-some area breweries. What’s remarkable today is the diverse drink scene that has blossomed beyond this living room.
Five years ago, no (legal) distilleries had operated in Grand Rapids history. Now there are at least half a dozen. Several outstanding small-batch coffee roasters have launched here, plus cideries, two meaderies and even a teahouse hosting traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.
Madcap Coffee Company. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux.
“There’s so much energy,” says Trevor Corlett, co-founder of Madcap Coffee, a pioneer in third-wave coffee. “‘Underestimated’ is a good word.” He says a mid-size city spurs collaboration and a creative freedom that’s rare in trendier, spendier towns. “It removes any preconceived notions of what we should be.”
For a visitor, that’s a tasty proposition, whatever your beverage of choice. And because this is a smaller city straddling the Grand River, what’s not strollable will rarely be more than a $10 Lyft ride away. Cheers to that!
Madcap has its original spot downtown and one at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market (pictured above). But if you want to linger, visit the Fulton Street shop—an airy temple to the pour-over, in a converted 1930s auto-body shop. Madcap doesn’t take itself too seriously: Each location offers seasonal drinks, “crazy concoctions we’d initially come up with at barista competitions,” says CEO Trevor Corlett. A recent example? The Nicolas Sage, an iced coffee cut with blackberry and sage.
A long road indeed: In 2015, this craft spirits maker became the first distillery to open in Grand Rapids. Long Road’s grain-to-glass philosophy means nearly all ingredients are Michigan-grown, including the botanicals flavoring its award-winning Michigin—juniper, fennel, mint, hops, lemon verbena. Sip cocktails or order food in the distillery’s bar in the West Side neighborhood. The distillers collaborated with Madcap for their Amaro Pazzo, which combines the bittersweet Italian liqueur with a washed Ethiopian coffee bean called Reko. Before heading home, consider buying Long Road’s rich (and nonalcoholic) whisky-barrel-aged maple syrup.
Long Road Distillers. Photo Courtesy of Long Road Distillers.
The first brewery in Grand Rapids opened in the late 1830s, and a half-century later, writer Albert Baxter posited a link between the city’s booming beer culture and a decline of fevers and malarial illnesses in his 1891 History of the City of Grand Rapids. By that standard, today’s city looks healthier than ever. There are about 40 breweries here, and a Beer City Ale Trail maps 82 within 65 miles. But one—Founders, launched in 1997—is the granddaddy you can’t miss. The brewery makes more than half a million barrels of beer annually, covering a dazzling range (some only available in the taproom). Recent hits have included the Cerise, made with Michigan-grown cherries; Solid Gold premium lager; and Más Agave, an imperial lime gose aged in tequila barrels.
Founders Brewing. Photo by Blaine Moats.
Michigan is the nation’s third-largest apple producer, after Washington and New York. And Vander Mill sources 99 percent of its apples in-state, working mostly with small farmers within 15 miles of Grand Rapids. Some two dozen ciders are on tap daily, from dry, almost champagne-like versions to experimental, infused ciders you never imagined existed (pink peppercorn and hibiscus? honey and orange blossom water?). Don’t forget to eat; the food is excellent—and pairs beautifully with the ciders.
“Don’t let anyone tell you there isn’t terroir for apples as much as there is for grapes.” —Paul Vander Heide, co-owner of Vander Mill.
From the outside, it looks like a brick-and-stucco industrial production facility beside a highway. (Because it is.) Inside, Arktos Meadery’s cozy tasting room transports you to another time and place, with decor best described as middle-earth modern: heavy wooden benches and tables, animal pelts and skulls on the walls, ceramic goblets lining the shelves. Arktos’ take on mead, the honey-based brew that may be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, honors local ingredients. Michigan wildflower honey is the base of all their varieties.
This 158-acre jewel combines lovely gardens, international art exhibits and special events. A $115 million, multiyear investment has added a learning center and a rooftop sculpture garden with views of the wetlands.
Meijer Gardens. Photo by John Noltner.
Once a month, visitors are invited into the serene Japanese teahouse at Meijer Gardens for an hour-long chanoyu, a traditional tea ceremony. (Reserve a spot well in advance.) The star is matcha, a finely ground, sun-dried green tea, served in Shigaraki pottery from the teahouse’s permanent collection. The structure itself was built in Japan, disassembled and painstakingly rebuilt here in the Japanese garden created by the acclaimed designer Hoichi Kurisu.
Tea Ceremony at Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. Photo by Peter McDaniel.
Make It a Weekend
You’ll need a couple of days to explore the lively arts scene, presidential history and a new downtown hotel district.
A Walk Through History
Through November 3, 2019, Extraordinary Circumstances shares rare photos from Gerald Ford’s White House photographer, David Hume Kennerly, at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. You can also see Ford’s boyhood home in the walkable Heritage Hill historical district, known for its varied architectural styles.
Five U.S., international and local artists will create public installations at the inaugural Project 1 by ArtPrize experience, September 7–October 27, 2019. The initiative arose when Grand Rapids’ massive ArtPrize competition became a biennial gathering last year.
Sleep and Eats
Five hotels arrived in 2019, including AC Hotel Grand Rapids and Hyatt Place Grand Rapids/Downtown. Between sleep and sips, head to Grand Rapids Downtown Market for a food hall with 20-plus food vendors and two restaurants. Or try one of the city’s best burgers at Butcher’s Union gastropub.