Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. This part profiles the history of Grand Rapids beer, the next, the resurgence of Grand Rapids beer.

There’s one thing that really stands out about nineteenth century brewers; they had fantastic mustaches.

However, that’s not what the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Thank You, BEER! exhibit is profiling. Instead, the exhibit will profile and honor  the city’s beer industry that has come full circle since the early twentieth century.

Thanks to three loaners, Steve DeBoode, Kevin Foley and Bill Norton, the museum is able to put on a functional exhibit that runs until Dec. 30. Although the museum has a decent collection from the old Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s corner stone, Museum Curator Alex Forist said the trio’s collections really help bring the exhibit to life.

With the museum’s collection of Grand Rapids Brewing Co. memorabilia and an assortment of items from current area breweries — such as bolt cutters from Founders Brewing Co. and the Larry Bell’s original 15-gallon kettle — stand vast walls of bottles, cans and posters from a long history of beer.

 

Furniture City Brewing

Most of what is known about the old breweries comes from Albert Baxter’s 1891’s “History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan.”

In fact, Forist and the museum crew watched the documentary “How Beer Saved the World” and Baxter’s book to do most of the research for the exhibit.

According to Baxter, John Pannell set up the city’s first brewery in 1836, at the bottom of Prospect Hill, which was located near Pearl Street and Ottawa Avenue. Pannell was an Englishman, but soon the Germans overtook the fledgling industry.

Christoph Kusterer opened on the Westside, and bought out Pannell in 1849. Kusterer was one of the German immigrant figure heads in the 1800s, even serving as the “Grand German Jollification Parade Marshall” to celebrate Prussia’s victory against France in 1871. Unfortunately, Kusterer died in 1880 in a shipwreck of the Alpena. His sons and grandsons continued the brewing name.

In 1849, the Christ brothers came to Grand Rapids, two working with Kusterer and the third opening the Bridge Street House Tavern, granted Grand Rapids’ first tavern-keepers license following the village’s turn to a city.

The brothers eventually opened up a large brewery near Ottawa Avenue and Bridge Street, but a fire burnt it down on July 13, 1873.

As the German immigrant population continued to grow, the popularity of lagers did too. At the end of the Civil War, there were four major breweries in Grand Rapids: Kusterer’s City Brewery, Union Brewery, Michigan Brewery and G. and C. Christ Brewery.

Baxter wrote the popularity was so much, Grand Rapids’ output in 1875 was 16,000 barrels and production was valued at $600,000 in 1877 and more than 160 men were employed by brewers.

In the late 1800s, Cincinnati was a brewing powerhouse, leading to a former Kusterer brewer, Adolph Goetz to start the Cincinnati Brewery at 208 Grandville Ave. with the slogan, “Equal to Cincinnati Beer.”

Goetz eventually left to start a brewery in Colorado, but returned a few years later as Kusterer’s brewmaster.

Some non-Germans came into the picture in the late 1800s, but due to a lack of demand of ales and porters, they quickly failed. In 1879, seven breweries were in Grand Rapids, all German and all producing lagers.

In 1887, an outside force entered the market, Toledo Brewing and Malting Co. and began the movement toward a larger scale of beer production. And at the turn of the century, Anheuser Busch, Finlay Brewing Co. of Toledo, Muskegon Brewing Co. and Joseph Schlitze Brewing Co. all held market shares.

Instead of trying to find their own way against outside competition, six Grand Rapids brewers joined forces. Charles F. Kusterer, George Brandt, Tusch Brothers, Paul Rathman, Frey Brothers and Adolph Goetz opened up the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. on Jan. 1, 1893.

Grand Rapids Brewing Co. brewed several types of beers and distributed them across the region, but one type, Silver Foam gained immense popularity.

An icehouse for Anheuser Busch, where Founders Vice President Dave Engbers said bottling was done, still stands as the Grand Rapids Community Foundation building today. Constructed in 1905, it might be the last of a network of railside icehouses and the AB logo still stands proudly above Grandville Avenue.

The only local competition to GRBC was the Petersen Brewing Co., a successor to the Michigan Brewery, and by 1907, it expanded to a three building complex. In 1908 an old school house was purchased for storage, leading to this gem in the Grand Rapids Herald: “Its location has also been the source of a long standing pun. On one corner was the school, on another was a church, while on the third was a saloon. In consequence of this combination, the saying has grown that on three corners were located education, salvation and damnation.

The German monopoly on Grand Rapids brewing came to an end, when, in 1904, a Detroit promoter opened up the last brewery in town before Prohibition named Furniture City Brewing.

 

The well goes dry

Grand Rapids joined the rest of the nation in a the large temperance movement and saw Prohibition dump a lot of alcohol down the drains in 1920. Grand Rapids Brewing Co. was liquidated and transformed into Grand Rapids Products Company, making soft drinks, industrial alcohol and by-products instead, as Silver Foam turned into a soft drink. Meanwhile, Furniture City Brewing Co. started making near beer called Nu Bru, before George E. Ellis foreclosed on the building in 1929.

Following the end of Prohibition, most beer came into Grand Rapids from Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee, but several breweries tried to make a go of it in the 1930s. A short-lived operation was called Great Lakes Brewing Co., and GRBC merged with Furniture City Brewing Co., and the beer was made at the Muskegon Brewing Co. building and shipped to Grand Rapids.

The last brewery, a franchise-type operation from Chicago, Fox Deluxe Brewing Co., closed up shop in 1951, leading to a massive dry spell in Grand Rapids beer history, culminating with the urban renewal projects in 1964 that saw most of the old brewery buildings torn down.

The before the early 1990s, the idea of brewing in Grand Rapids was “nonexistent” according to Founders President Mike Stevens.

And that was almost a national sentiment, when breweries in the United States dropped to fewer than 100, the lowest total ever, aside from Prohibition.

COMSTOCK — Bell’s Brewery, the anchor of the Michigan microbrews.

The brewery is quite possibly the reason the industry has exploded the past 15 years in Michigan and only set to grow even more in the near future.

Its staple brews of Oberon and Two Hearted have gone on to mainstream success. At several restaurants, Oberon stands alone and is known for the quality summer beverage it provides.

Larry Bell started brewing in a tiny kettle he received as a gift from his mother, providing friends the brews he concocted. Soon the demand grew to where he had to open up to the public. Since that day in 1985, Bell’s has grown big and strong, the granddaddy of “The Great Beer State.” The company is expected to brew more than 220,000 barrels this year, up from the 30,000 barrels at the downtown brewery in 2002. In 1985, he brewed just 135 barrels. The brewery has grown by 20 percent over the last few years.

Recently, The MittenBrew crew headed down to Kalamazoo — and Comstock — Mich., for an exclusive Laura Bell-guided tour of the newest 200 barrel production compound, completed in May, and the rest of Bells expansive brewing facility.

The newest addition — which boosts the company’s capacity to 800,000 barrels a year — is a gorgeous mix of wood and stainless steel. A set of stairs take you up to the “museum” that details the company’s history and offers a unique view of the upper parts of the new brewing tanks.

Also part of the expansion was a new grain system that allows quicker milling of grains and helps keep the brewery clean in a sealed room — Laura Bell stated it “cuts down on dust” that floats around the brewery.

The new system will be used primarily for the company’s large scale, popular beer such as Oberon and Two Hearted.

As we were moving on to the other parts of the facility, Laura told us how environmentally friendly the company is, including a 93 percent landfill diversion rate, and recently hired on a full-time sustainability expert. Even the steam from the brewing process is reused for heat.

It’s a three pronged approach, Laura explained, saying its good for environmental, social and economic reasons.

We explored the sensory evaluation room, where all the beers are tested for quality.

“We want consistency,” Laura said. “We want beer that tastes just as good in every bottle.”

The facility before the newest addition is a 50 system that can brew four to five beers at a time. It’s noticeably different than the newer area — it’s clearly meant to be just a production facility.

The whole facility is nicely lit, using a combination of light collecting skylights and sensors that keep the areas lighted like the outdoors and not with harsh fluorescents.

Laura said the bottling portion might soon go to a 24-7 operation and the packaging department just got a robot, which won’t be named, because once it is, it “has an identity.”

The nice part about the robot is it’s job neutral — it didn’t replace anyones job. And Bell’s employs more than 180 people, including 62 additions in the last year.

Quite possibly the most unique part of the tour was seeing the giant cyprus barrels from the old Stroh’s brewery. They were in the process of being put together, and Bell’s will brew in them soon, likely a basic lager. Stroh’s closed in 1985, just months after Larry Bell sold his first beer.

“We’re going to sell it in Michigan, as a piece of Michigan history,” Laura said.

 

The Original

The original Bells Eccentric Cafe also was recently renovated. And like the brewery, it’s also quite large.

Offering a full food and drink menu, the Eccentric Cafe features unique artwork, hand selected by Larry Bell himself. There’s a garden patio, a big lawn stage for music, two brewhouses, an indoor stage and the pub.

Both the pub and the indoor music venue have lofted seating areas that offer nice aerial views of the venues, and are encapsulated by a rustic, wood feeling that leaves a person feeling right at home in this great beer state.

__
Photography by Bryan Esler. Look for our video recap of our trip to Bell’s soon! 

COMSTOCK — Bell’s Brewery, the anchor of the Michigan microbrews.
The brewery is quite possibly the reason the industry has exploded the past 15 years in Michigan and only set to grow even more in the near future.
Its staple brews of Oberon and Two Hearted have gone on to mainstream success. At several restaurants, Oberon stands alone and is known for the quality summer beverage it provides.
Larry Bell started brewing in a tiny kettle he received as a gift from his mother, providing friends the brews he concocted. Soon the demand grew to where he had to open up to the public. Since that day in 1985, Bell’s has grown big and strong, the granddaddy of “The Great Beer State.” The company is expected to brew more than 220,000 barrels this year, up from the 30,000 barrels at the downtown brewery in 2002. In 1985, he brewed just 135 barrels. The brewery has grown by 20 percent over the last few years.
Recently, The MittenBrew crew headed down to Kalamazoo — and Comstock — Mich., for an exclusive Laura Bell-guided tour of the newest 200 barrel production compound, completed in May, and the rest of Bells expansive brewing facility.
The newest addition — which boosts the company’s capacity to 800,000 barrels a year — is a gorgeous mix of wood and stainless steel. A set of stairs take you up to the “museum” that details the company’s history and offers a unique view of the upper parts of the new brewing tanks.
Also part of the expansion was a new grain system that allows quicker milling of grains and helps keep the brewery clean in a sealed room — Laura Bell stated it “cuts down on dust” that floats around the brewery.
The new system will be used primarily for the company’s large scale, popular beer such as Oberon and Two Hearted.
As we were moving on to the other parts of the facility, Laura told us how environmentally friendly the company is, including a 93 percent landfill diversion rate, and recently hired on a full-time sustainability expert. Even the steam from the brewing process is reused for heat.
It’s a three pronged approach, Laura explained, saying its good for environmental, social and economic reasons.
We explored the sensory evaluation room, where all the beers are tested for quality.
“We want consistency,” Laura said. “We want beer that tastes just as good in every bottle.”
The facility before the newest addition is a 50 system that can brew four to five beers at a time. It’s noticeably different than the newer area — it’s clearly meant to be just a production facility.
The whole facility is nicely lit, using a combination of light collecting skylights and sensors that keep the areas lighted like the outdoors and not with harsh fluorescents.
Laura said the bottling portion might soon go to a 24-7 operation and the packaging department just got a robot, which won’t be named, because once it is, it “has an identity.”
The nice part about the robot is it’s job neutral — it didn’t replace anyones job. And Bell’s employs more than 180 people, including 62 additions in the last year.
Quite possibly the most unique part of the tour was seeing the giant cyprus barrels from the old Stroh’s brewery. They were in the process of being put together, and Bell’s will brew in them soon, likely a basic lager. Stroh’s closed in 1985, just months after Larry Bell sold his first beer.
“We’re going to sell it in Michigan, as a piece of Michigan history,” Laura said.
 
The Original
The original Bells Eccentric Cafe also was recently renovated. And like the brewery, it’s also quite large.
Offering a full food and drink menu, the Eccentric Cafe features unique artwork, hand selected by Larry Bell himself. There’s a garden patio, a big lawn stage for music, two brewhouses, an indoor stage and the pub.
Both the pub and the indoor music venue have lofted seating areas that offer nice aerial views of the venues, and are encapsulated by a rustic, wood feeling that leaves a person feeling right at home in this great beer state.
__
Photography by Bryan Esler. Look for our video recap of our trip to Bell’s soon! 

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Summer lingered this year but has finally gone, and with it the season’s beer festivals.

But no matter. On Saturday, VanderFest 2012 offered Michiganders the perfect way to celebrate — or perhaps survive — the change of seasons.

On a truly autumnal evening, Vander Mill Cider Mill and Winery in Spring Lake opened its backyard to hundreds of festival-goers.

The weather was cold and gray and damp, but between the fire pit and the cider taps, everyone found a way to keep warm.

“Considering the weather, it was a pretty successful day,” said co-owner Amanda Vander Heide. “We were pleased with the turnout.”

The festival, now in its third year, featured both wineries and breweries, all local and each with a special seasonal product — many of which involved apples, of course — designed for the festival. For $25 (pre-sale), about 600 guests enjoyed five samples in a customized VanderFest glass.

But how can a cider festival survive in a state with so many successful beer festivals?

“Three years ago, cider was weird to most people,” said co-owner Paul Vander Heide. “It was a struggle to get craft beer people to drink craft cider.”

Rather than fight craft brewers and their fans, the Vander Heides — husband and wife — have partnered with them. A number of cider mills had booths at VanderFest, but even more breweries were represented. Most vendors offered drafts of both cider and beer — although the beer was likely to have some Vander Mill cider in it, thus helping the beer crowd to expand palates.

Two popular examples at the event were Greenbush Brewery’s Vanderbush — a mixture of American trippel beer and Vander Mill’s apple cider — and Walldorff Brewery’s Apple Pumpkin Ale.

VanderFest differed from typical beer festivals in other ways, too. It wasn’t downtown or near the beach, but adjacent to the small highway that connects Spring Lake and Grand Haven.

The venue was contained and intimate, the food innovative and eclectic. This was a point of pride for Paul Vander Heide, who confessed that although he likes a turkey leg “as much as the next guy,” he’s delighted that his festival boasts Korean barbecue tacos and pork-and-apple macaroni and cheese (Vander Mill’s own “special recipe”).

His wife added, “This is the opportunity to try different types of things that aren’t necessarily prevalent on the Lakeshore — unique food and craft beverages.”

If you plan to enjoy the ciders next year and you want the guidance of a master fermenter, you might consult Vander Mill’s cider-maker, Joel Brower.

When asked what his favorite cider was, he chuckled and asked, “You mean, what’s my favorite kind?”  But even though he creates the novelty ciders at Vander Mill, Brower admitted that he always returns to more traditional apple cider for himself: “It’s the base of it all.”

BATTLE CREEK — Beer enthusiasts were able to party with the wallabees on Friday night.

For the third year, Binder Park Zoo’s BontebOktoberfest featured beers from across the state, food and, most importantly, zoo animals.

Roughly 1,000 people were in attendance, battling cold and wet weather. All proceeds went toward the preservation of the zoo’s programs.

As it had done in previous years, Arcadia Ales brewed a beer specifically for the event — this time named Goldilocks and the Three Beers (6.3% ABV). The red ale was a bit bready and piney in flavor, and featured subtle, floral hops throughout the sip.

Attendees also were able to take home a 12-ounce bottle of the brew.

Of all the beers sampled that day though, I left being most excited about Bad Bear Brewery’s Peanut Butter Porter (7.3% ABV). The dark-brown colored brew was very balanced for what I’d consider a “specialized” beer, with a subtle, natural peanut butter flavor that was reminiscent of the high quality, organic peanut butter you might see on store shelves. It was the first brew I tried, and when I went back for more later in the night, it was completely gone, and for good reason.

I also was impressed with Olde Peninsula’s Stout Chocula (5.25% ABV) — a milk stout with layers of cocoa, vanilla and nut. It was pretty drinkable — being medium bodied with light carbonation.

The $40 event also featured live music from band Funktion, a 50/50 raffle, a “Lizard Lounge” and carousel derby.

BATTLE CREEK — Beer enthusiasts were able to party with the wallabees on Friday night.
For the third year, Binder Park Zoo’s BontebOktoberfest featured beers from across the state, food and, most importantly, zoo animals.
Roughly 1,000 people were in attendance, battling cold and wet weather. All proceeds went toward the preservation of the zoo’s programs.
As it had done in previous years, Arcadia Ales brewed a beer specifically for the event — this time named Goldilocks and the Three Beers (6.3% ABV). The red ale was a bit bready and piney in flavor, and featured subtle, floral hops throughout the sip.
Attendees also were able to take home a 12-ounce bottle of the brew.
Of all the beers sampled that day though, I left being most excited about Bad Bear Brewery’s Peanut Butter Porter (7.3% ABV). The dark-brown colored brew was very balanced for what I’d consider a “specialized” beer, with a subtle, natural peanut butter flavor that was reminiscent of the high quality, organic peanut butter you might see on store shelves. It was the first brew I tried, and when I went back for more later in the night, it was completely gone, and for good reason.
I also was impressed with Olde Peninsula’s Stout Chocula (5.25% ABV) — a milk stout with layers of cocoa, vanilla and nut. It was pretty drinkable — being medium bodied with light carbonation.
The $40 event also featured live music from band Funktion, a 50/50 raffle, a “Lizard Lounge” and carousel derby.

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — With an expanded brewery and winery lineup plus more food options, VanderFest returns to West Michigan this Saturday.

The third annual event combines the best of cider to go along with specially-brewed Michigan beers infused with Vander Mill’s sweet apple cider. Although the event comes during the busiest season for cider, for the same reason the timing couldn’t be better for the Lakeshore cider mill and winery.

“It’s our season,” said Paul Vander Heide, owner of Vander Mill. “If we’re going to showcase hard ciders and collaboration beers, there’s no better time than the fall.”

Represented during the festival, which runs 4-10 p.m. at Vander Mill, 14921 Cleveland St. in Spring Lake, are:

Wineries – Ciders

  • Vander Mill
  • Northville Winery
  • Blackstar Farms
  • Uncle John’s
  • Northern Natural
  • Robinettes
  • Virtue Ciders
  • Sietsema Orchards

Breweries – Specialty Beers

  • Founders
  • New Holland
  • Arcadia
  • Greenbush
  • Old Boys
  • Oddside Ales
  • Brewery Vivant
  • Hopcat
  • Jamesport Brewing Company
  • Michigan Beer Cellar

“We’re excited about about our collaboration with new participants Founders, Arcadia and Greenbush this year,” Vander Heide said. “We have up-sized everything else — music, sound, stage.”

Founders added cider to its Pale Ale for the event, spicing it with all-spice berries fermented in two firkins. All beers use Vander Mill’s sweet cider uniquely crafted by each brewery. Vander Heide would only share the name of the Greenbush brew — VanderBush — perhaps a clue. Meanwhile, New Holland will feature two different Wit-style beers fermented in cider while Odd Side Ales takes a wheat approach.

VanderFest marks the debut of Vander Mill’s new food menu, under the direction of chef Stephanie Luke. The fall-friendly menu has four specialty macaroni and cheeses, pizza, salad and soups. All food sales are cash, including four additional vendors — Public Zeeland, Saburba, Standard Pizza Co. and What the Truck. Per tradition, free freshly baked donuts are likely to make their annual appearance.

“There might be a showing of donuts at some point in the evening,” Vander Heide said.

As for entertainment, Organisssimo and Social Bones headline the live music for the afternoon and evening. As is custom, VanderFest will also include a laser light show.

Tickets — selling online and on location at Vander Mill, Oddside Ales, Public Zeeland, Siciliano’s Market and The Winchester — are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Admission includes a printed 12-ounce festival glass with five cider/beer sample tokens with additional tokens $1 each. One token gives patrons a 6-ounce pour of beer or cider.

Proceeds from VanderFest benefit the Holland Chapter of Ambucs, an organization that creates mobility and independence for the disabled.

“This is not intended to be a money-maker for us,” Vander Heide said. “There is a local charity receiving the benefits of the money brought in.”

GRAND RAPIDS — Founders Brewing Co. has announced the release of Bolt Cutter, a brew celebrating the brewery’s 15th anniversary.

The 15% ABV barleywine will be released in November, and is part of the brewery’s Backstage Series.

Bolt Cutter will be available in Founders’ taproom through a ticketed release system, Nov. 11-16, and in stores Nov. 19. Tickets for the taproom release go on sale this Saturday at 11 a.m. at Brown Paper Tickets.

“Dry-hopped with a mountain of Cascade hops, it’s balanced by a malty sweetness and spicy complexity, resulting from barrel aging some of it in bourbon barrels, some in maple syrup bourbon barrels and some not at all (standard fermentation only),” said Founders in a statement.

Founders also announced a free anniversary party, taking place Nov. 17 in its taproom.


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