Grand Rapids is the new BeerCity USA 2012.
The poll closed early Monday morning with a “statistical tie” between the West Michigan city and three-time winner Asheville, N.C.
“It’s always surprising when you win something like that,” said Jason Spaulding, owner of Brewery Vivant in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids. “I’m not totally surprised — I think Grand Rapids is a great beer city.”
The annual poll is conducted by homebrew godfather Charlie Papazian, who showed the final tally as an exact tie, based on a three percent “margin of anomalies.” Both cities received 17,849 of 55,926 votes, or 32 percent each.
“People around here are pretty excited,” Spaulding said. “Our town takes a lot of pride in local beer. Michigan doesn’t get a lot of respect for beer yet, I think we are starting to.”
In the nearby outlying areas are New Holland Brewing Co., White Flame Brewing Company, Jaden James Brewery, Saugatuck Brewing Company, Michigan Beer Cellar, Old Boys Brew House, Odd Side Ales and Vander Mill.
“We are making some great beer here,” Spaulding said. “I think it’s great people are recognizing that.”
Aside from the breweries, Spaulding pointed to a large homebrewing community in Grand Rapids, including the Primetime Brewers group and local homebrew stores Siciliano’s and O’Connor’s. He also said having a beer bar like HopCat — voted third best beer bar in the world — adds to the beer-friendly culture.
Founders Brewing Co. may have single-handedly put Grand Rapids on the ballot, according to Spaulding. No matter where he travels, people always know about Founders.
“Whenever I mention Founders, people freak out — ‘Oh you’re the same town as Founders. How awesome is that.’ We have a good, friendly brewing community here.”
So friendly that Founders helped wash kegs the first month Vivant was open in December 2010. Founders owner Dave Engbers is passionate about his brewery, but he gives all the credit back to the people.
“I think (Grand Rapids won) because of the phenomenal beer enthusiasts we have in Michigan,” Engbers said. “The people came out and spoke. We’ve had great dialogue with some of the folks down in Asheville, another thriving metropolitan beer community.”
Co-founder and vice president of marketing for Founders, Engbers called the BeerCity USA crown a testament to West Michigan’s “thriving brewing industry.” He is not naive to that fact that Founders attracts a large draw to Grand Rapids, pointing to its being the second-highest rated brewery in the world by RateBeer for two straight years.
“We’re doing what we love,” Engbers said. “The fact that other people are jumping on board is just a testament to the industry.”
Like Spaulding, Engbers credits other leaders such as Mark Sellers of HopCat for helping educate the beer culture and other brewers quietly doing their part at places like Hideout and Schmohz.
“I really think there’s just a great beer culture here in West Michigan,” Engbers said.
Spaulding said the culture is a supportive one, or “non-competitive,” as some might term it.
“We’re doing stuff that is different enough that we are not overlapping,” Spaulding said.
Spaulding pointed to two other factors in Grand Rapids title as BeerCity USA, one being the number of restaurants with Michigan beers on tap.
“If you come visit Grand Rapids — even if you don’t make it to a brewery —all the restaurants have our beer,” Spaulding said. “You come to our town, you’re going be surrounded by local beer. That’s a take away when they come visit us.”
Finally, Spaulding credits the Michigan Brewers Guild’s annual Winter Beer Festival for putting Grand Rapids on the map.
“We saw people who traveled from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana. I met someone who came from Texas just to go to this Winter Beer Festival,” Spaulding said.
The nominating process for Beer City USA was April 15-21. In all, 31 cities made the final poll, which opened May 1 and ended early Monday morning. Winning isn’t everything, but both Engbers and Spaulding agreed it puts Grand Rapids on the map.
“More people are going to know about Grand Rapids now,” Spaulding said. “I think we can take it next year — it’s a friendly rivalry.”
Both brewery owners expressed excitement to meet Asheville brewers at future events.
“It’s really great for West Michigan to get some recognition for the great beer community it is,” Engbers said.