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beer goggles

When you land at Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the first things that greets you as you walk through the terminal are t-shirts and other schwag advertising “Beer City U.S.A.” It sounds official, and in a way, I guess, it is. It’s an identity the city has chosen to unabashedly embrace. They’ve pushed it so hard the city’s new motto could basically be, “Hey, we’re Grand Rapids, and we’re totally into beer.”

Now, even if you’re a huge beer fan like me, your ale affection is probably not your defining characteristic. “Beer Lover” probably isn’t an entry on your LinkedIn profile.

Well, Grand Rapids doesn’t share that same modesty when it comes to craft brew. They’ve claimed the title “Beer City U.S.A.” and decided to run with it. But does this fast-growing, midwestern city even deserve that moniker? And if it does, is this really the reputation that they should want?

beer goggles

Beer Goggles

First, let’s discuss how this designation was earned. It’s true that Grand Rapids has come out on top in various polls/contests and won the “Beer City U.S.A.” title. But those contests are almost always based on a popular vote, and there have been concerted efforts by the city to encourage their own residents to help them win. It’s kind of like me winning “Dad of The Year” in a contest where my two kids were the only ones who cast votes. It’s not illegitimate, but it’s not a hard-earned victory either. However, as any Democrat can tell you, if you don’t like the results, you should’ve gotten more people to vote your way instead.

But winning a poll doesn’t necessarily mean you have the bona fides to truly claim the title. Is Grand Rapids really the city that comes to mind when you think beer? If you’re old school, maybe you’re thinking Milwaukee or St. Louis. I’ve visited Portland, Oregon and can tell you they’re crazy about their microbrews. And I’ve got friends in Colorado who find the idea of “Beer City U.S.A.” being somewhere other than their state totally absurd.

An article in Forbes from 2016 pointed out that Portland, Maine actually had the highest number of microbreweries per capita. Grand Rapids was all the way down at number 10. Interestingly, GR’s beer-loving neighbor to the south, Kalamazoo, came in at number 5. I couldn’t find a beer-related metric that put Grand Rapids at the top of anything. The stats aren’t in their favor, but they played the game and won the title fair and square, so let’s move on.

Regardless of whether the name is deserved or not, is “Beer City U.S.A.” really a desirable claim to fame? Despite all its wonderfulness, beer is still a vice. When you consume too much of it, bad things might happen. If a city brands itself as a drinking destination, people are going to come there and drink, and sometimes drink too much. Does there come a time when this source of civic pride becomes a negative? I wonder if residents of Amsterdam maybe get tired of people travelling there just to smoke weed.

As soon as a city is known for something, that identity can be hard to shake. Unfortunately, two things I think about when I think about Detroit is, “urban decay” and “Kid Rock.” Just a guess, but I’m betting that Detroiters are feeling pretty much ready to move on from both. “Beer City U.S.A.” is a fun idea right now, but what happens when the fun wears off? Will Grand Rapids wish they spent their energy trying to be known for something else? Beer is great, but it’s not universal. Just like with Kid Rock, not everyone is a fan.

For those who know Grand Rapids well, there’s plenty more on which they could hang their hat. They could’ve easily have chosen, “Church-On-Every-Corner U.S.A.” or “Conservative Dutch Billionaire U.S.A.,” but both of those probably lack any mass tourism appeal. Grand Rapids could get plenty of positive traction by boasting about its art scene, its ever-expanding medical community, or its well-documented quality of life. Some are even anxious to have Grand Rapids live up to its name and eventually become a popular whitewater destination.

But here’s the problem, I don’t think any one of those creates the same draw as “Beer City U.S.A.” I’ve made my case against that brand and for the longest time I found the whole idea silly. I have since changed my tune. A year ago, I was at Perrin Brewing in Grand Rapids. While there, I met a young couple on vacation from Indianapolis. They weren’t going to museums and they weren’t on their way to the beach—they came to Grand Rapids to drink beer…a beer-cation, if you will. They spent their money, they stayed in hotels, they experienced a city they wouldn’t otherwise visit for beer and for beer alone. “Beer City U.S.A.” worked.

This is purely anecdotal evidence to be sure. But I’ve heard enough input from brewery owners and beer aficionados to easily back it up. They say they’ve seen dramatic increases in tours and sales since the campaign began. The title has encouraged new beer entrepreneurs to start breweries and add to the brand as well. The growth of the craft beer industry in Grand Rapids has enlivened the city’s nightlife, helped rejuvenate run-down neighborhoods and created a reason for beer-lovers from all around the country to experience a place they would’ve otherwise never considered. It’s unique, it’s fun, and people are excited to take part.

Grand Rapids should be proud to claim “Beer City U.S.A.” What a city is known for can often be nothing more than pop-trivia nonsense. Ever been to Allen Park in southeast Michigan? As far as I know, Allen Park is famous for one thing. Setting alongside the freeway in Allen Park is the Biggest Tire in the World. It’s a fun roadside curiosity that most Michiganders know, but no one goes out of their way to see it. Allen Park hotels aren’t booked with tire tourists.

Grand Rapids is on the rise, and it’s not because of a guidebook gimmick. “Beer City U.S.A.” may be a title that’s foolish and undeserved, but it’s created a buzz that any city would be proud to have. Take it from the “Dad of the Year,” if someone gives you the title, might as well run with it.

 

beer goggles

beer goggles

“Coldest Beer in Town.” For anyone too young to know, that’s the old marketing technique used by convenience stores to get a leg-up on the competition. However, in our current world of tulip glasses and Belgian dubbels, this idea seems as antiquated as renting VHS movies from a grocery store. These days, ice-cold, mass-produced lagers are supposed to be consumed exclusively by NASCAR fans or old men who call women ‘gals.’

But maybe those guys are onto something. Do you know who else drinks that swill? Me. Do you know who else should? You. That’s right, all of you highbrow haters, it’s time to admit that sometimes nothing tastes better than a dirt-cheap, corporate-owned, golden, American macrobrew.

Some things are just meant to go together. Like pork and beans or Cheech and Chong—summer and cold, cheap beer are a match made in heaven. I mean, seriously, if you’re going to spend the day canoeing down a river, what’s in the cooler—a 7.2% IPA? Only if you think an aluminum canoe makes for a comfy bed. If you’re headed to a music festival what are you going to buy—some Scotch Ale? Only if you want to spend a hundred bucks on a ticket and not make it past the opening act. If your perfect summer day revolves around sunlight and hours of drinking, some Corona’s or Busch Lights’ are the only way to go.

And it’s not just the lower alcohol content that makes them great. If it’s 85 degrees, and you’ve just finished working in the yard and the sweat is pouring, look right past that special nitro stout, grab the Miller High Life and quench your thirst with the Champagne of Beers. It’ll taste great and you won’t have to worry about finding the appropriate glass or making sure it’s at the ideal serving temperature. Not to mention that all of those beers are still ‘twist-offs’ and there’s a million ways to do that while looking like a badass.

I know what you’re thinking. You think that I’m just another hipster who likes to buy his PBR’s ironically and it’s more of a self-flagellating style statement than truly reflective of my tastes, but I’m married with two kids and the size of my love handles make ‘skinny jeans’ a physical impossibility. I assure you that if I’m holding a can of Blue Ribbon, it’s not as an accessory.

And speaking of tastes, there’s this notion that macrobrews taste like someone dropped a bunch of dirty pennies into a bottle of club soda and called it beer. But just because your palette has been tainted by sour beers and the bitterness of hops doesn’t mean that lagers and pilsners don’t have their place. And that place is setting right beside a bacon cheeseburger or a pizza. An Imperial IPA might pair well with an artichoke and arugula flatbread, but don’t overlook the beautiful simplicity of a double pepperoni pizza with a tall glass of Bud. Whether we’re talking about music, movies or whatever—the classics are classic for a reason.

Let’s also not overlook the simple economics. My wife recently bought me a $26 four-pack of beer. I’ll repeat that…a $26 four-pack. Of beer. Now, I liked that beer quite a bit. It was delicious. But I don’t make nearly enough money and I drink way too often for that to be commonplace. Sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable to channel your inner 22-year-old self and buy the cheapest beer you can find. (except Natural Light…I mean, we’re not animals, here.) Have you ever hosted a barbeque and wanted to buy craft beer for everyone at the party? You can spend $200 and it doesn’t even fill up your cart. There’s no shame in a keg of LaBatt’s.

I’m not arguing that you should ditch your growlers and give up on your neighborhood brewery. The craft beer industry has grown for a very simple reason—they make awesome beer. Large, corporate, macrobrews have a stranglehold on the American beer market that they arguably don’t deserve and they’ve abused their position of power. In the past, we bought our beer because of marketing gimmicks. There was a time when our buying decisions weren’t based on taste but rather on which group of retired jocks we thought were cooler. Today, small brewers are unquestionably making a superior product. They’ve taught us to expand our horizons and actually give some thought to what we order when we belly up to the bar.

I love craft beer. But they aren’t always the appropriate choice. “Casablanca” is an incredible movie, but in certain situations, “Die Hard” is the better viewing option. That expensive barleywine may be amazing, but I guarantee you the Coors Banquet Beer will make your next tailgate complete.

So don’t be afraid, my beer-loving friends. You too can live the High Life without regret. Spuds Mackenzie is a cool dude and all are welcome at his party. Just remember, no fancy glassware around his pool.

 


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