GRAND RAPIDS — You know it’s a good party when the host calls the ambulance ahead of time.
A healthy crowd, which included two paramedics, gathered for a lively anniversary celebration at the Grand Rapids Brewing Company on Saturday. Thankfully, no one was harmed during the main event — a bratwurst-eating contest — and the medical personnel merely watched from the sidelines.
It’s been one year since the downtown brewpub opened its doors and resuscitated one of Grand Rapids’ oldest brands. In a city full of breweries, GRBC has made itself a landmark as Michigan’s first and only certified organic brewery and also the state’s top-producing brewpub.
Few would be surprised at its success. Its owner, Barfly Ventures founder Mark Sellers, seems to have the midas touch when it comes to beer venues. (Think HopCat, and also the other HopCat.)
Nevertheless, the first year wasn’t easy. All-organic brewing is hard, and, well, nobody around had done it before.
“I was a little bit skeptical at first,” confessed Jake Brenner, GRBC’s Head Brewer. “Initially it’s limiting,” he explained.
It was a challenge to find a wide enough variety of organic malts and hops, and the brewery has to mill its own grain to keep it free from contact with non-organic grains.
All those hurdles make Brenner especially proud of both the quantity and the quality of beer GRBC has produced. In just one year the brewery has served 50 different brews; 15 of which won medals at the World Beer Championship, — five being gold medals.
The pride that goes into each beer is evident in its name as well at its taste. Brenner names each beer after a notable Grand Rapids person, place or thing (the Fishladder, for instance, or the Senator Lyons Stout). “I’ve really had to steep myself in Grand Rapids history,” he said.
The name he likes best belongs to the special edition anniversary release, The Philanthropist. It’s a heavyweight, bourbon-aged barleywine named in homage to all the generous benefactors in Grand Rapids’ history. And it’s a name that has a special, personal meaning for Brenner: Just after he brewed the beer, his daughter was born prematurely and spent weeks in the NICU at the Helen DeVos Children’s hospital ± a landmark to Grand Rapids philanthropy.
“The philanthropists,” said Brenner, “kept this city alive.” They kept it alive long enough to bring back one of the city’s icons from the dead. And this time, it looks like the Grand Rapids Brewing Company is here to stay.
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In addition to the Philanthropist, GRBC had four other barrel-aged beers on tap for their celebration. They were powerful — most at or over 10% ABV — and they were rich.
- The Philanthropist was essentially the bourbon version of beer. It had three flavors: Caramel, malt and alcohol. And it was damn good.
- The Polish Eagle, a bourbon-aged imperial porter, was essentially a hazy Christmas in a tulip glass.
- Its cousin, the Distinguished Eagle, was a stout (imperial of course) aged in vanilla, cherry bitters and sorghum bourbon barrels. It had a deceptively pleasant vanilla scent and a bite so sharp it was hard not to sneeze after every sip.