Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series. This part details the resurgence of Grand Rapids brewing.
GRAND RAPIDS — Following Prohibition, more than 700 breweries opened up in the United States. That number dwindled to fewer than 100 in 1980, a far cry from the 2000 that were scattered across the nation at the turn of century.
However, there were no Grand Rapids breweries since 1951, when Fox Deluxe closed. Virtually all that stood in Michigan were Frankenmuth Brewing Co. and Stroh’s prior to Larry Bell starting Bell’s Brewery Inc. in 1985.
Then, in the mid-90s, there was a mini-movement in Grand Rapids, that started with the opening of a reincarnated Grand Rapids Brewing Co.
“I know they (opened first) because I incorporated Grand Rapids Brewing Co. a few years before,” said Mike Stevens, president of Founders Brewing Co. “Then we opened.”
Following Founders’ opening in its original location on Monroe, and operating under the name Canal Street Brewing Co., with labels adorned with pictures of original Grand Rapids brewers.
For the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Thank You, BEER! exhibit, Founders brewed a commemorative beer, Furniture City Stock Ale.
“We thought it’d be a fun thing for us to do in respect of the brewers of yesteryear,” Founders Vice President Dave Engbers said. “It epitomizes the beers they brewed; malt forward, hops reduced, it’s a nice easy drinking beer.”
The first try
Soon after the new GRBC and Founders opened up, several more breweries opened in Grand Rapids in the late 90s, including Arena Brewing Co., Robert Thomas and Big Buck Brewery, among others.
That doesn’t include other area breweries that are now major players in the Michigan beer industry such as Arcadia Ales and New Holland Brewing Co. Still, Engbers said all the above fell into a pitfall of the early craft beer renaissance, making “well-crafted, unremarkable beers.”
“They weren’t horrible, but we were trying to make something that had wide acceptance,” Engbers said. “Everybody was making pales, wheats and ambers. But they didn’t standout, people weren’t looking for them.
“People were demanding more from a beer and it took us until the brink of bankruptcy to figure that out.”
Although Founders figured it out, and has taken its knowledge to great heights, many of the late 90s breweries weren’t able to make it long.
The lack of bold beers coupled with the practically nonexistent customers left most of the breweries hurting.
“When I look at our middle years, we were growing, but the demand for craft beer was not what it has come to be the last few years,” Stevens said. “It was relatively quiet on consumer sentiment. It was an industry you could keep your doors open if you were focused and making good product, but it’s not like now, where the growth rates are double digits.”
The tipping point
Stevens and Engbers suggested the craft beer popularity explosion right about 2008 was because of a tipping point of consumer palates and interest in craft beer.
But the pair also suggested another tipping point might be on the horizon, and could result in a similar fizzle to startups like in the late 90s.
“That’s the biggest fear right now, that we’re going to fall into that same pattern of a bunch of startups,” Engbers said, “a bunch of people who, quite frankly, don’t belong in the industry. Most people who are established are kind of waiting for that, next two to three years we’re going to start to see fallout.
That’s not to say the pipe will have dried up, there’s still plenty of room in the market for Michigan craft beer. The market share stands at about 4 percent, and the Michigan Brewers Guild has a goal of 10 percent, a modest proposition as some states stand at 20 percent of locally-produced craft beer.
Stevens said the high-quality breweries of the last decade or so have trained beer drinkers’ palates to expect more from their beverages.
“There will be room for them because the market share will probably double in the next five years,” he said. “But it’s not the wild west of the 90s where you could make a hit or miss product. Now it’s a little different, because you’re jumping into a working industry, you’re jumping in at a point you can’t afford to sink, we jumped in and it was guaranteed you were going to sink.”
Comin’ round the corner
With brewery numbers in the United States recently surpassing the pre-Prohibition totals, Grand Rapids — and Michigan — craft breweries also are about to come full circle.
Frankenmuth Brewery is reestablishing itself as a quality brewery following a devastating tornado in 1996. Frankenmuth Brewery first opened in 1862, making it one of the oldest breweries in operation today — in a sense.
In a recent exclusive MittenBrew tour of Bell’s, Laura Bell showed us the soon to be used Stroh’s barrels for a brew.
Stroh’s Brewing Co. began brewing beer in Detroit in 1850, but ceased production in Detroit on Feb. 8, 1985, mere months before Larry Bell sold his first beer. When Bell’s releases the beer brewed in the Stroh’s barrels in Michigan, it truly will be full circle in the industry.
The Grand Rapids Brewing Co. also is making its full circle journey complete, with its third reincarnation.
Mark Sellers, and his Barfly Ventures LLC., are set to open the brewery this fall on Ionia.
The new GRBC replicated the original’s logo from a calendar in the Grand Rapids museums archives and also will brew Silver Foam, the popular beer that was last sold in 1918 — with a slightly different recipe.
Although a lot of the aspects of the new brewery will have a historic twang to it, Sellers said it won’t be the exact same, just enough to bring back a classic feel.
Sellers also owns HopCat, which helped bring Grand Rapids the BeerCity USA title, as one of the best beer bars in the world.
Between HopCat, Founders and the incredible beer culture in Grand Rapids, craft beer continues to fuel a Michigan beer fire that is spreading nationwide.
And with the huge new collection from brewers in Grand Rapids and around the area, Forist said if the museum wanted to do another exhibit in 100 years, it’d be a whole lot easier.