5:45 PM EDT, August 12, 2012
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — What does the third-best beer bar in the world look like? It looks like a lot of other bars.
HopCat, stationed on a corner in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., has a long, curving wood bar packed with drinkers, beer placards on the ceiling and two televisions airing cartoons and ultimate fighting, though it's rock 'n' roll that blasts from the speakers above. It has 48 taps that spurt beers made as far away as Norway (or Japan or Germany or Belgium) and as close as the brewing system in back.
It also features a chalkboard declaring, "Voted: Best beer city in the U.S." Really? Grand Rapids?
I ordered a double India pale ale from Leinenkugel and asked the bartender, a shaggy guy in his 20s in a backward baseball cap, the source of such beery praise.
"I don't know," he said. "I saw it on Facebook or something."
Well, there you go.
But the claim — it was actually the product of the online "Beer City USA" poll — is hardly preposterous. With a population of 188,000, Michigan's second-largest city boasts breweries that include the world-renowned (Founders); a brew pub specializing in Belgian styles (Brewery Vivant); a tucked-away local haunt (The Hideout); and, of course, HopCat, the third-best beer bar in the world as judged by readers of BeerAdvocate magazine.
It's richer still when willing to ramble outside of the city's borders. Within 100 miles are breweries that include White Flame (Hudsonville, 15 miles), New Holland (Holland, 30 miles), Bell's (Kalamazoo, 50 miles) and Dark Horse (Marshall, 90 miles), and one of the region's best cider producers, Vander Mill (Spring Lake, 30 miles).
It makes Grand Rapids, about 180 miles northeast of Chicago, a popular spot for beer tourism. And during two days of exploring, we came across several others engaged in a similar pursuit.
Even before checking in at our downtown hotel, we got started on a Saturday afternoon at one of the places most exciting to beer fans, Brewery Vivant (925 Cherry St. SE, 616-719-1604, breweryvivant.com), which is housed in a former funeral home often mistaken for an old church due to its steeple, arched doorways and vaulted ceiling.
Every good beer-driven vacation deserves at least one brewery tour (one is usually enough), and we picked this one, primarily because it was the only one available in town (Founders, surprisingly, doesn't offer tours). Though the $5 ticket would get us plenty of samples and 10 percent off beer on the way out, the woman selling tickets encouraged us to buy one each before the tour.
"You get samples, but sometimes it's just nice to have a full beer in your hand too," she said.
I opted for Triomphe, a crisp, refreshing Belgian India pale ale with a light bite, and carried it to a line with 25 people waiting outside the glass doors leading to the brewery, shiny tanks beckoning on the other side. When our guide opened the door and signaled us to follow, small snifters of hazy, golden beer were lined up in two rows, along with glass pitchers of two darker beers.
"Hello, beautiful," a guy in a Minnesota Twins cap said.
Our guide, a bearded man in a backward baseball cap and a hoodie — the craft-beer uniform — spent half an hour leading all of us about 200 feet through the tiny brewery that distributes only in Michigan (and soon Chicago). We got tastes of three beers: a golden ale; a lovely light-bodied, slightly sour brown ale called Solitude; and that IPA I had already ordered (and gladly drank again).
Vivant's beer was too good to leave after the tour, so we lingered outside in the beer garden at a community table. Beside us sat a young family, including an infant placed in a car seat on the table, and her 4-year-old pigtailed sister who happily guzzled milk while we drank things far better. I hopped from a sour pepper beer to the barrel-aged Triomphe to the milk stout.
After all that, we were ready to eat. The parents at our table counseled us to The Green Well (924 Cherry St. SE, 616-808-3566, thegreenwell.com), a beer-friendly restaurant across the street, for two reasons: delicious food and it is the only place in the state serving Dripalicious, a beer made by Short's, one of Michigan's most-beloved breweries.
The low-key, family-friendly bistro's beer menu was thick, highlighted by Michigan breweries such as Arcadia, Dark Horse, Right Brain and Greenbush. I ordered Dripalicious, a deft blend of Short's' pale and brown ales, and, at a moderate 5.2 percent alcohol, it melds well with food. We got the macaroni and cheese for which the restaurant is known. The dish executes the difficult trick of being cheesy and flavorful without being gooey. We also had the veggie burrito with pork, added at our server's suggestion. For dessert I had a Big Red Coq, a seasonal Vivant beer the brewery was out of. (Obviously it's named for a large red rooster, but people often order by just pointing to the menu.)
Probably needless to say, we were done for the night.
Sunday began late morning at Harmony Brewing Co. (1551 Lake Drive SE, 616-233-0063), a brewery and pizzeria that opened in January.
Family-friendly and comfortable, natural light floods the handsome dining room full of reclaimed wood. More important, the pizza was top-notch (especially The Good Earth, a memorable blend of caramelized onion and Jarlsberg cheese, among other nonmeat ingredients) and the beer menu was full of clever, surprising summer brews.
We ordered a flight that included novelties such as cranberry wheat (tart, not sweet) and a camomile green tea ale (bright, earthy and drinkable). The beers were wonderfully clean and the attention to detail obvious, as it should be at such a small scale.
Harmony is such a low-key, anything-goes kind of place that the bartender offered a brief, impromptu tour of the brewing operation to the folks at the bar, including a man in a yellow tank top who proclaimed, "There's too much blood in my alcohol system."
Instead, we headed on to one of our favorite spots of the weekend, The Hideout (3113 Plaza Drive NE, 616-361-9658).
Craft beer has become so hip, so new and so now that a place like The Hideout presents a welcome oddity. It has the look and feel of a former spa — drains in the tile floor and a pool out back full of sand and grass — because it is housed in a former spa.
Seven miles from downtown and sitting at the end of a dead-end road, it also requires effort to show up, which makes it a local-heavy spot. And at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, the first few locals were streaming in to drink from the 10 taps, including four gray-haired gentlemen who gather every weekend for their "men's meeting."
The laid-back nature of the place spurred me to creativity, and I asked the bartender to mix the hazelnut stout on nitro (a method of carbonation that makes the beer creamier) and the rye ale. She raised an eyebrow before gladly doing so. It was delicious.
I followed it with a black and tan composed of the hazelnut stout and an IPA. Score No. 2. Drinking at home is fun, and drinking in a bar is fun, but drinking in a brew pub allows for invention.
On we went to Founders (235 Grandville Ave. SW, 616-776-1195, foundersbrewing.com), which is the big daddy of Grand Rapids brewing, both in terms of production and popularity (say the words "Canadian Breakfast Stout" and watch a beer nerd's eyes roll back).
It's housed in a wide former warehouse with a wall of windows and skylights above the long, sloping wood bar. It was packed, but we carved out a couple of seats at the bar.
I immediately went high-octane, ordering the one barrel-aged beer on draft; it was a savory rye stout aged in rye whiskey barrels. After that came one recommended by the bartender: a mix of Founders' Curmudgeon, a rich, malty ale, and the Double Trouble double IPA. Sure enough, it was a wonderful flavor punch for a weekend of beer touring that was winding down.
We wound up the weekend at the place we were arguably most excited to go to: the third-best bar in the world. And indeed, HopCat (25 Ionia Ave. SW, 616-451-4677, hopcatgr.com) evokes many of the nation's great beer bars. But in Grand Rapids, that volume and selection sings because you're in a city of 188,000.
I ordered that double IPA from Leinenkugel and steered my companion to a beer she had never tried, but anyone with an interest in beer needs to the marvelously balanced, moderately sour Rodenbach Grand Cru on draft. "Good man," my bartender said.
Let me tell you: a compliment from the bartender at the third-best beer bar in the world goes far.
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