A new You Tube video features a tour of 15 breweries with loads of people giving a toast to the “BeerCity USA” title bestowed upon Grand Rapids earlier this year. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell joined in, although he and city council celebrated with their own press conference a few months ago.
Ashville, North Carolina and Portland, Oregon; those are the cities known for their microbreweries. But Grand Rapids?
“We’ve in the industry put in a lot of time and a lot of effort. We deserve it for sure, yeah,” Steve Smith assured me. You’ve got to love Smith’s title; chief beer geek at HopCat. The bar was named the third “Beer Bar on Planet Earth” by Beer Advocate magazine this year.
Smith has seen interest in microbreweries explode in Grand Rapids in the last 15 years he’s been involved in the industry. Now he’s helped curate a new exhibit dedicated to the history of the frothy beverage and how it helped shape civilization. The exhibit, "Thank You Beer!" opens this weekend at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
Alex Forist co-curated the exhibit with Smith. He says museum staff have been tossing the idea around for a while but the BeerCity title gave them a push.
“It was sort of the icing on the cake; the head on the beer so to say,” Forist said, laughing at his cliché.
Technically Grand Rapids was statistically tied with Ashville as BeerCity 2012 in online voting. But no one here really seems to care.
Smith and Forist says the BeerCity title has attracted tourists on “beer-cations” to the dozens of breweries in Grand Rapids and southwest Michigan.
“Someone might come to wait for 6 hours to get a 6 pack of Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout but say hey, since I’m in Grand Rapids I’ll go tour Vivant and see what they’re doing. Or maybe I’ll go and see what’s on tap at HopCat. So I think Grand Rapids deserves the honor,” Forist said.
The beer exhibit includes a brewing challenge, beer school, plenty of happy hour beer tasting, and a fancy dinner to showcase beer pairings. Local brewpub Founders crafted a special (and pretty tasty) beer, Furniture City Stock Ale, just for the public museum exhibit. There is root beer for the kids and those non-beer-drinkers.
One of the most interesting parts of the exhibit for me was Kevin Foley’s massive beer can collection. A medical doctor by day, Foley has been collecting beer cans for 40 years.
He started when he was 14 years old. When he was walking on some railroad tracks he found a Olde Frothingslosh beer can featuring “like a 300 pound beauty queen” that was “like nothing I’d seen before,” Foley told me.
He’s got steel beer cans that you had to use a can opener on, cans made for the army, lots of cans with ladies in bikinis, generic beer cans. He points out one can – the only one marketed for women. The 8 ounce can of Starzette has a pink orchid on it, advertising low calories. Foley says they came in a “princess pack” of four cans.
He says collecting beer cans is a unique way to view politics and culture throughout the years.
“You can say ‘oh well it’s just a can’ but a lot of them do have history as far as the picture that was put on the front, sometimes the messages that was put on the back,” Foley said.
“If you’re into beer this is the place to be, absolutely,” Foley answered when I asked if he thought Grand Rapids deserved the BeerCity title.
“We’re blessed, for those who love beer, that we’re able to live in this community because the microbreweries are able to meet our needs and quench our thirst and there’s so much variety.
Foley, Forist, and Smith – everyone I spoke with at the museum exhibit agree that the boom of craft brewing isn’t just in Grand Rapids. And Smith inisists, this is not a short-term fad, but a way of life.
“Having a life enhanced by good food, good beverage, it’s something that you don’t let go of,” Smith said.