GRAND RAPIDS — It wasn’t even close.
After tying for the title of BeerCity USA in 2012, Grand Rapids won outright in 2013. Collecting 27,005 votes, the defending champs beat out runner-up Kalamazoo by over 15,000 votes. Last year’s co-champion, Asheville, NC, placed third, with Ann Arbor rounding out the top four.
In 2012, Grand Rapids’ victory occurred almost by accident. The city wasn’t even in the running until it won a write-in nomination. This year was no accident.
“It was a landslide — because of a coordinated effort,” said Mark Sellers, whose BarFly Ventures owns four Grand Rapids bars, including HopCat and the Grand Rapids Brewing Co.
HopCat was one of the few locations to promote the vote last year. Sellers knew a victory would mean national recognition for his city and even more traffic at his and other downtown businesses.
It turns out he was right.
“We have a lot of people now that come in from other states,” Sellers said.
He has met scores of beer tourists from the Midwest, and even some from Asheville who wanted to see what the other BeerCity had to offer.
Last year’s success encouraged a stronger, more concerted effort this year. Breweries and bars citywide worked to get out the vote. Websites and social media groups joined the campaign. The City of Grand Rapids itself got involved, and CBS Outdoor even donated some billboards.
Ultimately, city pride made the difference, according to HopCat’s assistant general manager Allison Minton: “We went in with a vengeance. We weren’t going to share with anyone.”
Minton, a Grand Rapids resident for nearly a decade, said that Grand Rapids hasn’t always been a beer city. She has witnessed a marked change in the culture over the past few years: as the city became more environmentally and locally conscious, the appreciation for hand-crafted products like craft beer grew. Because of that change, she said, Grand Rapids has become “an epicenter of beer.”
Sellers agreed that Grand Rapids has grown into a full-fledged beer city only in the last five years. Breweries have multiplied in Grand Rapids in that time, and locals’ knowledge of microbrewing has grown as well. Homebrewing is also enjoying a heyday in West Michigan, and this trend has added more beer to the mix and generated more educated and enthusiastic consumers.
Beer producers and consumers alike will be celebrating in the coming week. Next Monday, a citywide toast is planned for 6:16 p.m. (in honor of Grand Rapids’ 616 area code) at area breweries and brewpubs, with many locations offering generous discounts.
As in 2012, Sellers will be offering celebratory $1.50 pints. Starting at 6:00 p.m. next Monday, all four of his bars — HopCat, Grand Rapids Brewing Co., McFadden’s and Stella’s Lounge — will offer the discount, and hordes of people are expected. For those who want to avoid long lines, Sellers recommended trying McFadden’s or Stella’s.
But many Grand Rapidians are already celebrating. Some, like Buck McDougall, had planned on having a few beers anyway. McDougall was enjoying his usual Mug Club Monday pints at the Grand Rapids Brewing Co., but he was cognizant of his hometown’s victory and clearly proud of the city.
McDougall had voted online and kept up with the contest, and he heard the news about as early as anyone else. Born and raised in Grand Rapids, he has watched the city transform from a one-brewery town to a beer mecca. When asked what made Grand Rapids a true beer city, he pointed to the explosion of breweries in the past few years. A true enthusiast, McDougall couldn’t name a favorite. “I love them all,” he said.
At another table, a few patrons celebrated more intentionally. Kelli Cain of mibeers.com and Kelli Williams of mommaneedsabeer.com (along with her husband, Greg) played a direct role in Grand Rapids’ victory by using their websites to campaign.
Dressed in their celebratory t-shirts from last year, they were eager to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
They weren’t just toasting one city, though — they were celebrating an entire beer state.
“It’s a victory for Michigan,” said Greg Williams. “If you love Grand Rapids beer,” added Cain, “you love Kalamazoo beer, you love Traverse City beer.”
With Grand Rapids’ margin of victory and over half of the votes in the BeerCity poll coming from Michigan, it looks like both city and state could keep its titles for a long time.