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ernie richards

“What good is sanity?!”

That was the first thing out of Ernie Richards’ mouth when I showed up to interview him, after having commented about how impressive Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s draft list looked. He laughed from his belly partially in self-reflection and part exhaustion, which made his salt and (heavier on the) pepper beard move, just a little. His eyes, although caught under the shade of his flat-brimmed baseball hat, gleamed with kindness behind the glare from his black-rimmed glasses. He offered me a beer, poured one for himself, and then pulled back the curtain to expose the methods behind his playful madness.

ernie richards

Ernie Richards

Before taking over the head brewer position at GRBC in early 2017, Ernie brewed on the opposite corner of the same block at the original HopCat location, a sister property in the BarFly Ventures family. Before brewing at HopCat, which he admits was “pure luck,” Ernie didn’t have a single batch of brewed beer to his name.

He earned a degree in genomics and molecular genetics from Michigan State University, but wearing a stark white lab coat for the next 30 years wasn’t going to cut it. His exit internship amounted to him “hanging out with boring people, culturing algae colonies, and screening them for fat production,” while still paying down his student loans. He laughs, “I wish I would’ve found out what lab life was like before I spent all those years and poured all that money into it.”

Fortunately, his comprehension of organic chemistry and microbiology would ultimately lend itself well to a proficiency in brewing. He’s able to reflect on what he’s been able to apply from his education, “Whereas most people learn how to homebrew first, and are able to grasp the functionality of it, and then progress to the more technical aspect, I learned the process backwards.” There’s still part of a sweet, innocent nerd in him that justifies his journey, “Brewing is a beautiful way to manifest the science component of what I paid for without having to be restrained in a lab.”

Ernie seems much more comfortable in his current role wearing broken-in jeans and a T-shirt embellished with a cuddly raccoon, holding a stemless wine glass filled with a barrel-aged sour. Speaking about his years in the hospitality/service industry, surrounded by his type of colleagues, “It’s so rad because you work with the weirdest, most eclectic, colorful people.” While enduring at an upscale fine dining restaurant, hating that he had to “wear a fucking tie,” a buddy of his tipped him off about a new craft beer bar in downtown Grand Rapids that was holding open interviews.

He walked into HopCat hoping to get an interview, but showed up at the wrong time. Instead, he bumped into two guys checking out the place, and struck up a casual conversation with them about Belgian beer and jazz clubs in Chicago. He had no idea who they were, but says, “They were super cool.” After he told them why he was there, they introduced themselves. Mark Sellers and Garry Boyd, the owner and ringleader of HopCat, respectively, were instant fans of Ernie—so much that they offered him a bartending gig on the spot.

Since opening in 2008, HopCat has seemed to have birthed a litter of sought-after brewers who have all since been adopted by new homes. Before Jake Brenner, who also had a tenure on HopCat’s modest 3-barrel system, went on to open GRBC in 2012 as their inaugural head brewer, he was pulling double-duty bartending on the weekends alongside Ernie and Bobby Edgcomb. While these three were counting their tips and drinking beer after their shift one night at close, Jake told them that he was moving next door to GRBC. Confident in what he saw in Ernie, Jake casually nudged him to take over brewing in his place at HopCat. Perhaps lubricated with slightly impaired judgment, Ernie accepted and told Jake, “Yeah, sure!” When Ernie woke up the next morning to a text from Jake that said, “You’re still coming in on Monday to learn how to brew, right?”, confirming Ernie’s verbal commitment, Ernie thought, “Fuck. What did I sign up for?”

ernie richards

Bobby Edgcomb & Ernie Richards

In hindsight, Ernie is happy with his decision to take the leap into brewing because he had gotten his fill with bartending, “It starts to wear on your soul a little bit.” Bobby soon started brewing with him at HopCat—until Jake recruited Bobby as his assistant brewer at GRBC. Ernie, now unsupervised, was left to his own devices, responsible for brewing solo at what was becoming one of the most recognized and respected brewpubs in America. No pressure, right? There’s something to be said for picking the person with the perfect amount of intrinsic motivation to do the job right—to do the job well, coupled with being a little bit weird. Just enough to keep things from getting too safe. Ernie was that guy.

His uninhibited knack for harnessing weirdness now had an outlet. Ernie got to “venture down deeper into the rabbit hole” of fantastic creativity. He says the freedom HopCat trusted him with was “probably one of the most ideal scenarios I could have ever asked for. It was truly the best learning experience for me.” He wasn’t entirely an island. “I pretty much had an entire bartending and service staff who were well-trained critics, who were available to me all the time. They were really open and honest with me about the beer. If they didn’t like something [I brewed], they were awesome about being objective and constructive. They know what good beer is supposed to taste like, and categorically where it’s supposed to be stylistically. If I was off, they let me know.”

The OG Grand Rapids HopCat is currently the only location out of the anti-chain chain’s nearly 20 locations that brews its own beer on top of having a well curated draft list. With almost 50 national and international taps always rotating right next to his own, Ernie had serious benchmarks by which to judge whether he was going in the right direction. “When you’re putting up a tap directly next to similar beers that are wildly popular—known by everybody, you have to be on your A game.” It was 48, give or take, constant reminders for him to strive to be better. “If you’re only surrounded by your own [beer], you don’t have anything to shock you out of your own bubble of what’s comfortable.”

Fast-forward to late 2016/early 2017. Ernie had been the sole brewer at HopCat for over five years when Jake tells him and Bobby that he’s been offered a professor position in the brewing program at Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. All three guys had become beer brothers, bonded over brewing, so “neither of us could’ve been upset with Jake in the least for taking advantage of an amazing opportunity—for himself, and his family,” Ernie supports. Garry, one-half of the executive team who originally hired Ernie, invited Ernie to inherit Jake’s position as head brewer at GRBC, reuniting him with Bobby, for critical support.

ernie richards

As most things do, the timing happened for a reason. Ernie felt as though his head may have been scratching the metaphorical ceiling of what he was able to accomplish at HopCat, with its system’s very specific limitations. Of what he was able to achieve at HopCat, Ernie says was “the equivalent of competing in a full-grown adult’s BMX race while riding a little kid’s Strawberry Shortcake Huffy. So, the fact that I was able to brew beers that were in comparable range with some of the country’s biggest breweries, with relative consistency, and find ways to fine-tune that system to compete with them was pretty humbling.” In Ernie’s place now at HopCat is Ben Bagby, a homebrewer and former Kalamazoo HopKitten, who earned the job after an internal company wide brew-off challenge, of sorts.

Now, nearly a year into brewing at GRBC, Ernie seems right at home to be reunited alongside his better half. However, Ernie’s now brewing on a system that’s about five times larger than HopCat’s, so both he and Bobby have had to, in a sense, relearn their jobs and how to work with each other. Ernie’s an obsessive tinkerer, and Bobby is a “master of consistency.” Ernie acknowledges, “I’m very aware that I can’t just leave anything alone, and since Bobby’s a wizard with so many aspects of that system, I’ve had to let him teach me the intricacies of it. He’s got the patience of a saint. He’s like a brother to me, and in some cases nicer than a brother probably would be. Mentally, strategically—Bobby’s the voice of reason. My bread and butter is taking risks, but he calls me out when it’s probably going to end poorly. I know ‘assistant brewers’ are way too often not given the credit they deserve, but shit seriously would not get done at the level we’re doing it if it wasn’t for him.” Honestly, they’re so damn adorable together.

grand rapids brewing company

Camp Rapids

Coming off of GRBC’s second annual ArtPrize submission, this year’s Camp Rapids, Ernie and Bobby probably won’t have the luxury of slowing down anytime soon. Teases in the local press, recent public feedback, and internal staff support of the current beer program seem to be unanimous: the beer is good. Flattered, Ernie says, “It’s been really cool to watch the staff come together around the beer Bobby and I are making.” Still, they can’t get complacent. They try to approach their production schedule with a little more intentionality than what Ernie was used to at HopCat (especially in its earlier days), because at GRBC they have 18 taps to fill with consistent integrity.  

The clientele, generally speaking, is noticeably different at GRBC than it is at HopCat, but Ernie and Bobby can use that to their advantage. Unlike HopCat, “GRBC can’t be so willy nilly with our beer because we don’t have a national lineup to pick up the slack if we screw up. What we brew and put on tap is entirely who we are. There’s a lot more weight put on the decisions about what we brew.” When asked if that adds any additional pressure, Ernie takes it in stride, “Yeah, definitely, but it translates to a healthy pressure—to ensure that every beer we put on is worth it.” That hasn’t swayed Ernie’s inherent urge to still pull off “wild and crazy shit.”

Their current draft list represents a dichotomy, yet is complementary. It’s a well-balanced lineup, grounded in safe, gateway styles like their mainstay IPA, brown, stout, and Hefeweizen. Its other half is a trip, appropriately offset by plenty of “weird shit” for the curious. For those who crave the peculiar, chase after hybrids like their bourbon barrel-aged dark strong ale blended with a Flanders red, a bourbon barrel-aged barleywine with cocoa nibs and vanilla, and one of Ernie’s ever-rotating signature funky saisons or fruit-forward sours. GRBC’s barrel-aged portfolio is evolving, “almost to an impressively annoying level,” Ernie says, noticeable by the volume of barrels starting to squeeze the relatively modest space of their brewhouse.

ernie richards

Bobby Edgcomb & Ernie Richards

There should always be room allowed to be playful and test people’s comfort zones. If nothing else, Ernie has been known to keep himself entertained by naming his beers, which can often be a little left of center. Earlier this summer, GRBC proudly released a flamboyant 5.7% sour with lactobacillus fermented with a tropical brett blend, “peached to the far depths of fantasy land,” known as… wait for it… Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen. For Ernie, “It’s a weird social experiment. Names will often change how you approach and perceive that [beer]. Sometimes, these names are designed to be challenge. If you can get over that, and enjoy it—actually appreciate the beer aside from it’s dumb name, then you know what—it’s gotten you out of your comfort zone, and creates a dialogue. I don’t want to get to the point where we’re taking things so seriously, where all we’re thinking is, ‘What can we name this beer to just make it sell the most?’. It’s much cooler when a grown-ass, white, heterosexual male, who can admit he sincerely loves the beer, has to verbally order a Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen.”

Being obnoxiously macho about beer isn’t the only thing that Ernie takes a swing at. “Too much of the cool craft beer world pretends to be aloof to our culture of extreme consumption patterns—that they’re too good to make, or drink, quality lagers and pilsners. When are people going to get worn out by everything having to be so over the top all the time, and just learn to be comfortable with simple and delicate?” He wants to help move the needle. He’d love to see Silver Foam, GRBC’s flagship 4.5% American lager (first brewed in 1893) available year round in cans (it’s currently only available on draft and in 22oz bottles) at a price point that helps contribute to taking a bite out of AB InBev’s market share. “There’s so much more to be said for brewing clean, subtle, laid-back beers that don’t feel obligated to be so intense. To me, it takes more skill to brew a beer like that than it is to just throw as much as you can at it.”

Part of chipping away at the absurdities of what’s considered acceptable is Ernie’s commentary on social media. Social Bot War Pawn, GRBC’s spin on an English Mild, was a subliminal message to everyone overly consumed by social media. “If you look at how people are influenced by it, you start to realize that, before they know it, they’ve become victims of being social media pawns. People will proliferate a story that suits their own internal narrative—essentially planting the seeds to influence others’ perceptions, which will then circle back to affect their own perspective on how they’ll approach a thing. It’s the same with beer. You can name a beer whatever you want to lure people expecting one thing, and then give them another.” For Ernie, he’d like that other thing to be an elevated experience with his beer around a deeper conversation about life.

And then the conversation got ethereal. Probably because I asked him about his thoughts on life after death. “I’m not that narcissistic to say that I think I’ll come back as a human. How are we any better than all the other possibilities? When you’re dead, you’re just dead. If anything, we go back into this vast pool of lifeforce, and we all become the same energy. People have a lot of comfort in believing in reincarnation or life after death, but I think that’s just masking our own fears and inadequacies because death sucks. Maybe we’re caterpillars, and death (or life) is really just our cocoon phase.” When Ernie dies, my money’s on—or, at least my hope is, that he comes back as a Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen, and we’ll all be lining up, very comfortable in our own skin, to order another stemless wine glass of him.

 

Photography: Steph Harding

 

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Established breweries that have survived the blood, sweat and tears faced by opening in a saturated market need to make a decision — stay the course, or make some changes. Grand Rapids Brewing Company chose to change its direction by no longer being a certified organic brewery as of 2015.  

“We did that mostly so we could use more local products – that was the biggest thing…We want to support local business and use local ingredients,” said Jake Brenner, Head Brewer of Barfly Ventures – which owns GRBC, Hopcat, Stella’s Lounge and The Waldron Public House.

Holding the certification of “organic brewery” limited GRBC to acquiring ingredients that held the same certification, which in Michigan is very little. This prevented GRBC from getting ingredients from local farmers who are producing high quality but are not organic certified, such as Pilot Malt House and most of the local hop farms. Organic is important to Brenner, but he’s excited to have less restrictions on where he gets the ingredients for his beers.

“Now we can go to the farmers market on any given summer morning and pick up produce. It opens tons of doors,” said Brenner.

GRBC’s change in direction also inspired them to find unique ways to give back to those who support and work hard for GRBC. Something they have been doing for almost a year now is a staff concept beer. Once a month, a staff member gets to meet with the brewers to come up with a beer recipe, spend the day brewing the beer, and then name the beer. It is a great way to educate and involve the people working for the company that don’t spend their days down in the basement brewing daily.

Currently you can stop by the tap room and check out El GoseRita — the brain-child of the Kitchen Manager, Brendan. It is a German-style Gose with a margarita-like quality from being brewed with sea salt, limes and grapefruit.

grbc

The staff concept beer is just one of the ways you can familiarize yourself with GRBC’s rotating beer list. With GR Beer Week underway, GRBC will have another new beer on tap to celebrate, as well as a bottle release of the beer. This year they brewed, Polish Eagle, an Imperial Porter, and aged it Wild Turkey Barrels.

And, of course, the talk around town this week is this weekend’s Winter Beer Festival — and GRBC will definitely be in attendance. Bringing eight beers, all with an ABV over 8.2%, you’ll want to pace yourself if you swing by their booth. A couple to keep an eye out for are — Batch 300, a Russian Imperial Stout that will be making its first appearance at the festival, and Decadent Eagle, a sour Imperial Stout with cherries and when its gone, its gone.

 

Photography: Steph Harding

Beer Week

It’s the most wonderful time… for a beer!

Certainly that line could be sung nearly anytime of the year in Beer City.

During the extra long week of February 17-28, also known as GR Beer Week, the community of Grand Rapids busts out of their cabin fever and celebrates all things beer.

Sure, there may be snow and ice on the ground, but we are Michiganders: we drink beer for breakfast — outside with pride, in the bitter cold of winter. Yes, that’s right — Beer Week GR will culminate with the 2 Day Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival at Fifth Third Ballpark on February 26 and 27. It is an outdoor event, and every attendee should dress for the weather (as in, ski-gear.) Saturday sold out in minutes, but Friday tickets are still available.

winter beer fest

To fire up enthusiasts’ livers – ahem – spirits for the Winter Beer Fest, and to welcome visitors to Beer City, GR Beer Week was created in 2012 and this year it is overflowing with nearly 120 events. Check out ExperienceGR’s Beer Week calendar for a full list of events that is updated on a daily basis. Even if you are not a planner, you could drop into many Grand Rapids area breweries, tap-houses, or brewpubs during Beer Week and be greeted with smiling faces from the collaborative community of Grand Rapids and some form of festivities.

Many Beer Week events will feature tap takeovers, ranging from a few select taps from a small MI brewery, to a crazy 20-tap blow-out from one brewery. Most breweries plan to bring rare craft beers, a few might even toss in a specialty firkin you won’t find anywhere else. It truly is a fun adventure. Be prepared to stand, to be kind, and to tip bartenders and servers generously. Also… designate a driver when necessary.

Beer Week

As you make your way around Beer Week GR, be sure to bring your Brewsader Passport to earn stamps at Grand Rapids Area Breweries. With 8 stamps during Beer Week GR, participants will receive a Brewsader koozie and bottle opener, plus an official Brewsader t-shirt. Passports and prizes can be picked up at GoSite inside the Grand Rapids Art Museum while supplies last. As an added bonus, enthusiasts will earn extra perks at participating breweries. With a full passport stamped (23 stamps!) you are considered an ULTIMATE BREWSADER and will earn even more perks at participating breweries. You don’t want to miss out on these incredible deals, from pint glasses to mug club memberships — it’s worth making the full Beer City Tour and earning those stamps. Again, drink responsibly!

Beer Week

ExperienceGR has also lined up Cool Brews Hot Eats with 50 menu items for enthusiasts to devour at a wide array of Grand Rapids area restaurants during the same time-frame. Cool Brews Hot Eats menu options are beer-infused entrées, desserts, and beyond that utilize beer as an ingredient, or a dish created for a specific pairing with a Michigan beer. There truly is something to warm everyone’s palate up for the last weeks of February.

I’ve got cabin fever and the only cure is… Beer Week GR!

COMSTOCK PARK — The end of winter in Michigan means only one thing — Winter Beer Fest. Despite the coldest February on record (we checked), the additional organization required to shape the first ever two-day version of the event and brief issues with frozen tap lines, the 10th annual Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival was one to remember.

Over 100 breweries from around Michigan descended on Fifth Third Ballpark on Friday and Saturday.  Easily navigable rows of breweries were flanked by merchandise and tokens, food and an ample amount of porta johns (very important).

The flow of this year’s fest was wonderful, and even though it was packed with a sell-out crowd on Saturday, it never seemed like the lines were too long or any one tent too crowded. The Michigan Brewers Guild festival teams did an excellent job making sure everything moved smoothly in all aspects.

Navigating and visiting with all of our favorite breweries was almost impossible, but we did get the opportunity to talk to the good folks from many wonderful places across the state.

Brewery Vivant: Kate Avery, designated Abbess of Beer was on hand. She poured the brewery’s newly tapped ‘Sous Chef’ — a Red Wine Barrel Aged Belgian Inspired Strong Ale — essentially their popular ‘Escoffier’ base, but not aged on a brett yeast.

“This beer is super complex, and even despite the cold temperatures, you’re able to taste the bold flavors,” shared Avery.

Another popular favorite was the Wizard Burial Ground, a Bourbon Barrel Aged Quad that comes in at 10.4% ABV. Notes of vanilla and oak from the long cellaring are pleasantly present, and, lucky us, it’s now available in cans.

BarFly Ventures — Grand Rapids Brewing Company (GRBC) and HopCat: Grand Rapids staples, both HopCat and GRBC brought some award winners for the crowd. Distinguished Eagle from GRBC, which won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup, is a totally organic imperial stout, aged in Woodford Reserve barrels. Strong notes of vanilla, and cherry are readily assessable, and it was a tasty treat and a nice warm up on a cold (very cold) day.

Another award winner was HopCat’s Red Nymph, a Flanders Red with a nice slightly sour, tart cherry note.

Jake Brenner, Head Brewer for BarFly, said the pubs made sure to select tasty, high gravity beers to help keep everyone warm. The cold did present some problems though. “It’s been really laid back and a lot of fun, but one of the jockey boxes froze up Friday. So far, today everything is looking gorgeous.”

Northern United Brewing — Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak: Jolly Pumpkin always brings something unique to the table, and this year was no exception. Sour beers are its game, and some include its variety of Sasions — Sasion X, brewed with candied ginger, orange and lemon peel, and a blend of peppercorns was a standout — a nice citrusy, ginger flavor with that wild yeast, Jolly Pumpkin signature ‘funk’, we know and love.

North Peak brought a lot of signatures, and Maylem — a Midwest heavy/old ale from its Grizzly Peak Imperial Series. North Peak’s taproom will host this particular beer, aged in run barrels, soon, so that’s something to look forward to.

Folks in Detroit should also be on the look-out for a Jolly Pumpkin build-out sometime in April.

Newer breweries were showcasing its wears as well, and MittenBrew had the chance to visit three of the WBF newbies.

Railtown Brewing: This might be the newest of the new; this brewery in Caledonia opened its doors in December of 2014. Jim Lee, Co-Founder, let us explore the selection and gave us some insight in to what Railtown is all about.

“We brought a lot of our mainstays to show off what we do on a normal basis, along with some fun one-offs,” says Lee. “Our Citra Warrior (an imperial IPA) is very popular in our tap room right now. We are stylistic brewers, and don’t do a lot of heavy adjuncts — clean flavored, medium-style beers, nothing over the edge. We are definitely a small town brewery with a loyal local clientele, and that’s what we want to be.”

Pigeon Hill: Who doesn’t want to drink something called Wild Rumpus? A barrel aged Flanders Red, this beer has a wonderful complexity, fruit notes and sour notes have a great balance.

Chad Doane, co-owner and head brewer, let us in on Pigeon Hill’s philosophy.

“We want to make delicious beer. We keep it simple, but use that classic base and do something funky with it. Pigeon Hill is about community, and our pub has a coffee shop feel. The space is for adults and their families. We want it to be a place the community (of Muskegon) can come and hang out in.”

Other interesting riffs on classics include the Walter Goes to Bang Coq Blonde Ale, brewed with Thai chilies and lemongrass — a little heat, peppery bite and gingered spice.

Territorial Brewing: This very new, Battle Creek-centric German influenced brewery brought a lot of their staples to showcase at their first WBF. Nick Yuill, Brewer at Territorial, shared its Spedunkel, a traditional style Munich Dunkel and their Red Headed Rauchstar, a ginger Rauchbier — a little twist on the classic.

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The consensus by attendees? Great beer, all around, with IPAs and Imperial Stouts ruling the day.

Some standouts mentioned frequently included White Flame’s Black Flame, an Imperial Stout and perennial favorites by Kuhnhenn and Griffin Claw, so we had to visit a few of those booths too.

Griffin Claw Brewing Company: Its booth was hopping, so apparently word got around. Project Clementine seemed to be a favorite of the weekend — a double IPA with clementines added during the mash.

The Birmingham brewery plans to double in production in the next year, and also distribute state-wide.

Kuhnhenn Brewing Company: “It’s amazing,” says Eric Kuhnhenn, co-owner. “For being so cold out and this many people attending. There’s over a thousand different beers here, the camaraderie — it’s great.”

Kuhnhenn likes to do a lot of aged beers, and brings at least one every year to WBF. This time, it was a Russian Imperial Stout.

“It’s a big robust stout aged on bourbon barrels for almost a year,” explains Eric.

The Crème Brule Java Stout was also well received by many people we talked to. Kuhnhenn tends towards the higher ABV, and Eric shares why. “We found out we could get more complexity, more flavors, this way.”

Kuhnhenn wants to put in the time, the effort, to take the old stylistic types of beer and take it one step further. Recall its ever-popular Raspberry Eisbock?

If you weren’t able to attend this year, we leave you with the words of Brad and Kevin — home brewers and frequent festival attendees.

“This is the first year that we came in with an Enthusiast membership pass. We were always jealously looking at the people who got in early. Everyone should do that, you have time to get in and don’t feel rushed.”

Other, timely advice: “Get your ticket as early as you can. Dress warm. You can never have enough clothes on, and, of course, wear shoes that don’t get wet! If you are coming from out of town, book your hotel in advanced and stay safe — arrange for transportation to get you here.”

Despite the cold and ever pervasive Michigan wild winters, the WBF continues to be one of the most well attended. Perhaps Vivant’s Kate Avery best sums up the popularity of the event: “The Michigan Beer Scene conquers all.”

On Saturday,  crisp, chilly weather didn’t keep fans away from Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s 2nd Anniversary Party.

The line of people stretched down Ionia Avenue nearing HopCat before the 11 a.m. opening, with many rushing toward the back bar to buy the limited run of bottling for the brewery’s Polish Eagle and the Philanthropist.

The bourbon barrel aged imperial porter and barleywine barrels went for $15 each, with just 150 bottles available of each. Staff expected the bottles to last well into the afternoon, however many of the first patrons in the door took liberty and bought the maximum of two bottles of each.

Also on tap were last year’s Philanthropist and an amped-up version of the brewery’s Rosalynn Bliss Blonde called Empress Bliss.

A full taproom also took advantage of a $15 brunch buffet and a $2 Bloody Mary bar.

 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.

* * * * *

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.

GRAND RAPIDS – Grand Rapids Brewing Company tapped a collaboration Belgian Black IPA entitled La Noire Vitesse on Wednesday night for High Five Co-op Brewery’s third membership buy-in party.

Towards the back of GRBC’s rather large taproom, High Five board members were represented via logo tees and other merchandise, including stickers, buttons, pint glasses and beer koozies.

Dressed in the classiest combination of argyle and tweed, Nick LaVelle, president of High Five, commented on the recipe-building process.

Members of High Five approached the award-winning brewers at GRBC, with the idea to brew a black IPA, which was an idea that the 80-something members of High Five collectively came up with. Since GRBC had recently run a black IPA through their taps, the assembly of brewers had decided to keep things fresh and do a black IPA with a Belgian yeast.

LaVelle stated that when developing the recipe according to GRBC’s high-end, organic standards, “we wanted to use as much Michigan hops and Michigan organic product as we could, and then supplement with hops that were traditional of Belgian beers.”

Needless to say, the final product was a wonderfully balanced waltz of the estery yeast, fruity and spicy hops, and roasted malt character. The beer poured with a dense, light brown head and with a complex aroma that could stop traffic, and although they packed 72 IBUs into the beer, it felt quite smooth, and exhibited no excessive bitterness or harshness.

High Five has nine board members, including LaVelle, a vice president, secretary and treasurer. Not only will the board members all take part in deciding what types of beers will be served when the co-op opens its fully functioning pub, but so will all of High Five’s members.

As well as receiving the typical benefits of your run-of-the-mill mug club membership, all High Five members will be a legal part-owner of the brewery.

Thus far, the brewery’s funding events have gone quite well, with the hope to move into its own pub sometime next year.

High Five plans to add online membership buy-ins, so stay tuned for details on that and the next event by via the brewery’s Facebook page.

GRAND RAPIDS — Lines are a bit of thing at Grand Rapids Brewing Company.

Since opening its doors last week, beer lovers have waited as long as two hours to snag a table at the downtown brewery.

“We’re thrilled,” co-owner Mark Sellers said. “There was a lot of chatter online (about the brewery opening), but we did not expect this much. “

Although he was enamored with the early response to GRBC’s opening, Sellers hopes the pace continues and grows. With seating for 370, patrons lined the walls Friday evening, sipping on beers as they waited an average of an hour for a seat.

“Now that we have opened, yes, I’d like to see us keep this pace,” Sellers said. “If it doesn’t (keep pace), it means we’re not doing something right.”

During its grand opening — the first day mugs went on sale for its Mug Club — more than 200 of 500 mugs were claimed. Club members will enjoy $2 off all brews each Monday — if there’s any beer left at that point.

According to Sellers, Wednesday’s grand opening had patrons line an entire street block from the brewery on the southwest corner of Ionia and Fulton— the historic Hawkins and Gunn Company buildings, 1 and 7 Ionia Ave. SW — all the way past HopCat beer bar (also owned by Sellers) on the southeast corner of Ionia and Weston streets.

During the past year, three Grand Rapids-area breweries have opened and run out of beer not too long after — a mistake GRBC was hoping to avoid.

“I wish we would’ve had more time to brew,” co-head brewmaster Jake Brenner said Friday. “The trend right now is new breweries running out of beer — we’re on track for that. I’m fine with that.”

Although running out of beer shows demand is high, Sellers preferred to play it safe, opening GRBC one month later than it was ready in order to have an extra week’s worth of beer on opening day.

Perhaps Sellers planned ahead because GRBC had a fan base going into last week’s opening. In fact, this is the third time GRBC has opened its doors. The historic brewery originally opened six blocks north of its newest location 120 years ago on the southwest corner of Michigan and Ionia streets.

In December 1892, six Grand Rapids breweries consolidated their individual operations to form the Grand Rapids Brewing Company. The brewery closed during prohibition.  The downtown location was torn down in 1964, and the brewery eventually opened on 28th Street SE.

However, doors closed at its 28th Street location last year and Sellers bought  the rights shortly after.

“As soon as we bought the rights, bought the system, Stu was there dismantling it,” Brenner said of his co-head brewmaster, Stu Crittenden.

Crittenden, an East Lansing native, has six years of brewing experience, including stints at Michigan Brewing Co. in Webberville and, most recently, the former GRBC.

In April, the brewing duo started preparing for the opening. Brenner, a homebrewer for eight years and brewmaster at HopCat for the past two and half years, said they had to start from scratch. All of the former GRBC recipes were scrapped to focus on brewing organic beers — GRBC touts itself as the only all-organic brewery in the Midwest.

“It’s a smart business move (being all organic),” Brenner said. “As beer consuming humans, it’s going back to our roots.”

The only “original” recipe is the brewery’s flagship beer, Silver Foam, a lighter lager. However, with organic ingredients, even Silver Foam is not exactly the same.

GRBC features six of its beers on tap, mostly session pales and ales with a couple of mainstays. In addition, the taproom features eight guest brews from various Michigan breweries.

“We’re trying to keep the beers in style, more to the season,” Brenner said.

Current GRBC beers on tap are: Silver Foam, Brewer’s Heritage, Rosalynn Bliss Blonde, The John Ball Brown, Senator Lyon’s Stout and The Fish Ladder.

Eventually, at least one of those brews may be available beyond the taproom, as Brenner and Crittenden are “scheming to sell some 40s of Silver Foam.”


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