The beverage evolution four years later

Author moves back to GR and looks at what’s changed — and what hasn’t.
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Mitch Ermatinger has been a pretty solid indicator of the Grand Rapids beverage scene, at least for me.

In 2017, Ermatinger opened the doors to Speciation Artisan Ales, a brewery that helped push Grand Rapids to a new level of Beer City. His business model was one seen in other more developed beer communities. Speciation’s sour beers and monthly releases attracted interest from beer lovers across the globe.

It also spurred some doubt from people who already were worried Grand Rapids’ beer industry had, perhaps, jumped the shark.

At the time, I was roughly two years removed from writing “Grand Rapids Beer: An Intoxicating History,” and regularly covered the industry for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and hosted a segment on WZZM 13. Ermatinger’s arrival back to West Michigan — he had moved to and worked in the thriving beer industry in Denver — excited me. While I loved the breweries and beer available in West Michigan, his push to bring a hype-generating brewery to Grand Rapids was a piece of what was missing to spur even more attention locally.

“I see successful breweries in California and Colorado booming with a focus on sour and wild beers,” Ermatinger told me when he first moved back in 2016 with plans for Speciation. “I saw a super-passionate customer base in Grand Rapids and a hole in the market, with no one focusing solely on wild and sour beers, and that’s what I’m going to do and hope that works out.”

Sure, I was certainly one of its biggest fans; the city had been declared Beer City USA and was home to one of the nation’s largest breweries, but I knew there could be more. I even wrote in the pages of this magazine how I thought there was too much focus on Michigan-made beers at GR bars and if we were to know where we really measured up, we needed to try the best from the rest of the world, too.

Speciation opened, and Ermatinger’s beer hit many of the right notes. It opened the eyes of beer lovers in the city to a creative brewer and beers, it helped shed light on the city for some in the world who felt West Michigan didn’t have breweries already pushing boundaries (hint: it certainly did) and won awards like many others in the city already had.

“The future of craft beer is in small breweries that either focus on one or two styles or serve the local population with a good variety of quality beers,” Ermatinger told me in 2017, when I wrote about his business and the state of Grand Rapids beer for GRBJ. “Not every new brewery needs to have a niche business model or product, but I think it’s kind of inevitable that it will happen in the bigger cities.

“You can already see this happening here and other beer cities like Denver, San Francisco, Portland and Asheville.”

As he was pushing his brewery to great heights and other breweries in West Michigan kept pace, distilleries, cideries and cocktail bars all started to thrive in the market as well. It also was in 2017 when I uprooted my life and moved to Las Vegas. That summer, I embarked on a life to freelance, mostly about the food and beverage industries — including beer — across the country.

A life with lights

Las Vegas was a fantastic place to live, a surprise to me. I was never one to wish for a trip to Sin City, so when my girlfriend (now wife) got a job with the NHL expansion team the Las Vegas Golden Knights, I thought I was set to move to a place with little that could excite my passions. Before leaving Grand Rapids, several farewell meetings with GRBJ sources led to questions like, “What are you going to do for beer?” Suffice to say, Las Vegas does not have the best reputation in the beer world.

Before moving, however, I signed a book deal to write about Nevada’s beer history. It quickly ingratiated me into a beer scene that might be tighter than the one here. Its reputation undersells the amazing beer being produced in the barren state.

For the most part, southern Nevada lacked the familiar atmosphere of the traditional brewery taproom seen in Michigan and other top-tier beer markets. The friendly nature of brewers in the city made me miss the brewing industry of Michigan from the early 2010s. When I left GR, I felt the city becoming elitist, with arrogant and sometimes dismissive cliquishness. It made me long for when I first started exploring the world of beer.

I quickly became a fan of Nevada’s beer scene and a voice advocating for the state’s brewers in national publications. I also had the privilege of writing a chef Q&A column for a local magazine and traveling the country to various breweries and distilleries, seeing some of the best producers and establishments in the world.

When we moved westward, we had no idea when we’d back to Michigan. We figured it’d come eventually, and if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it still might not have happened. This spring, however, we decided it was time to come home.

The four years were incredible. It included a very hard start (I moved to the city a month before the worst mass shooting in U.S. history), but the Golden Knights’ magical first season helped bring that community together in an incredible way and ensured I’ll never be without a piece of Nevada in my heart. It was hard to peel ourselves away from the world-class cocktail bars and restaurants in Las Vegas (seriously, if you need recommendations, feel free to reach out! Stay off the Strip!), but it was great to be headed home.

Back to West Michigan

Along with occasional trips back, I had been paying attention to the West Michigan beverage scene and how it was evolving. Of course, when you’re not somewhere regularly, it’s hard to really know what’s changing, particularly for the better.

So, I figured it’d be a good time to explore how the city has changed in the past four years. I made some calls, sent some messages and connected with some of the people I trust most when it comes to drinking in Grand Rapids.

Of course, the first call went to Mitch Ermatinger.

His drinking habits, while still owning Speciation, have completely shifted. Despite the brewery’s world-renowned reputation, he no longer drinks beer. He’s shifted to wine and cider, thanks to a celiac diagnosis in 2019.

He had largely moved off of beer production at Speciation, so little changed in the excellence of the beer. But he also shifted Speciation into wine production, and thus Native Species Winery was born.

He hasn’t had a “proper glutenous beer” since 2019, but that’s OK because of how the city is evolving.

“The biggest thing is the offerings have diversified a lot, even outside of beer,” he said. “Whereas seltzer was completely frowned upon by beer people, it’s widely embraced now across the spectrum of brewers and consumers. But also the general interest in non-beer stuff has increased, with wine being one of those. And non-alcoholic things, like THC-infused and CBD drinks.

“Those have all kind of surged and gained a lot of attention lately.”

Ermatinger told me about his favorite places to drink now, one of which is a cidery I was very high on as I left Grand Rapids: Farmhaus Cider. The old farmhouse setting in Hudsonville is an incredible place to enjoy a hard cider. “Such an amazing location, a great job with service, styles and the cider is just ridiculous,” he said.

He also likes Pux Cider, a nice little spot on Fuller Avenue NE, near Michigan Street. It’s been a nice stop for me in close proximity to my house. “It reminds me of the classic brewpub taprooms that made me fall in love with craft beer … small, intimate and doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Ermatinger said.

But then he mentioned a place I had yet to visit: Post Off, a natural wine and amaro bar connected to Buffalo Traders Lounge on Fulton Street. Buffalo Traders was new as I was preparing to leave West Michigan.

Post Off as an indicator

Following dinner one night in September, my wife and I made an impromptu stop at Post Off after my chat with Ermatinger.

Behind the bar was Rob Hanks, director of operations for a group of establishments that includes Post Off, Buffalo Traders, Side Bar and Big O’ Café. Hanks was once bar manager at Reserve, where I first met him and wrote about a looming cocktail renaissance for GRBJ in early 2017. That initial push was in part heralded in by the emergence of two great distilleries within the city: Long Road Distillers and Eastern Kille, both distilleries making delicious spirits and serving them up in-house with incredible cocktail menus.

While in Post Off, Hanks was succinct in his summation of how he felt the drinks scene had changed the past four years. He compared it to the natural progression of what people drink and related it to that.

It starts with fermented products: In the simplest terms, beer and wine.

Then we go to distilled spirits.

And then bartenders can play with different ingredients to create.

All of these are a form of art in their own right. And for Grand Rapidians, that all tracks pretty well. We started with beer, and we loved beer. Now, it’s time to branch out. Consumers are finding the flavors in different beverages they like, and they leverage that to expand their horizons and find the spirits, wines and ciders that hit their palates right.

It’s not all that different from what happened with coffee. Grand Rapids has a world-class coffee scene. That really started with people realizing they liked more than Folgers in their cup, but maybe they sought a little more than Pike Place.

It’s the same with alcoholic beverages. And that’s how a place like Post Off can make a go with a selection of amaros, which are herbal liqueurs, because so many flavor profiles can be hit in an interesting way. And now the American beverage industry is heavy into amaros, so don’t be surprised if they find their way into starring roles on more cocktail menus. They’ve always been around (Aperol spritzs, anyone?), but they’re starting to shine on a new path of exploration. (One of my favorites, by the way, is Nocino, a walnut liqueur. It’s particularly tasty on cold, winter evenings. And Long Road makes a pretty mean Nocino.)

But the local alcohol scene is about more than just the products. It’s figuring out where to buy things and how to support more makers.

Founders Brewing put this city on the beer map. It’s a place nearly all beer lovers want to visit, much the same way they’ll travel the country to makes stops at Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Hill Farmstead or even Anheuser Busch’s massive breweries.

It’s still a place Grand Rapidians can visit and feel at home, but it’s not exactly a cozy taproom that makes it feel like everybody knows your name. Not anymore, at least.

Instead, with breweries, distilleries and cideries within walking distance of most neighborhoods in the city, it’s certainly broken down to drinking where you know where your money is going. Restaurants in the past four years have ramped up their cocktail offerings and wine selections, with the intention of drawing the eyes of thirsty patrons with an elevated taste. A perfect example has been The Sovengard, a place with a focus on quality beer, spirits and wine from across the globe.

After our brief discussion, I told Hanks his distillation of the situation made sense and certainly the path I’ve taken as a drinker and drinks writer. I also told him he seemed to be on par with Ermatinger.

Hanks gave a fist pump as though he felt he got the answer right.

Beer City still rocks

There has been lots of really great beer in Grand Rapids for years. And it just continues to pour out of the taps.

Breweries like Founders, New Holland and Jolly Pumpkin long have been stalwarts in the brewing world and continue to be. The breweries that opened at the crest of the last major wave, around 2012, continue to fill their valuable roles, the likes of Mitten Brewing, Harmony Brewing, Rockford Brewing and Perrin Brewing.

The cast of stylistic breweries continue to provide a great variety of options for those who seek something specific, like Brewery Vivant’s French- and Belgian-inspired brews and Cedar Springs Brewing’s German focus. Cedar Springs, by the way, is prepping a Grand Rapids West Side outpost that cuts straight to my heart, Küsterer Brauhaus, named for the first major brewer in the city.

But it’s two breweries from the last five years that are making waves in the beer world right now.

It was Speciation and City Built Brewing that were named to “The 34 Hottest Breweries in America Right Now” list in the cultural publication Thrillist. While certainly not a final authority on the topic, Thrillist naming two Grand Rapids breweries to that list shows this city has something going for it when it comes to beer.

When it comes to even newer breweries making excellent beer, City Built CEO Edwin Collazo gives a nod to Arvon Brewing Co. (“They just do a good job, really solid with everything they try to do.”) and Archival Brewing Co., a brewery in Belmont that focuses on making historic beer styles.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a lot of things up in the air and it changed the models of a lot of hospitality establishments in Grand Rapids — and around the globe. The pandemic put an added focus on offering packaged beer to go and providing a comfortable and safe place people could visit.

In my conversations shaping this piece, I reached out to Steph Harding, owner of drinks content company Drinkible.

“Obviously things have changed. Half of that is during a pandemic, it brought out a lot of things — I don’t want to judge anyone — but when you have to hustle, things come to light that maybe you weren’t doing well,” Harding said. “But it also brought out the best in people, and how they handle their business.

“Grand Rapids is known as having a great beer community to begin with and the pandemic made everyone lock arms, keeping themselves and everyone else a float.”

Harding echoed a lot of similar sentiments when it came to what has changed in consumer habits. She said breweries have started to partner with distilleries to offer a line of spirits and cocktails, while they’re also making seltzers, wines and ciders, or serving others’ products, to make sure anyone who walks into a taproom has an option.

Grand Rapids grown up

When I left Grand Rapids, I was covering the major developments that now help shape downtown. I was a real estate and development reporter, so I covered the beginnings of projects like Studio Park, Warner Place and the expansion of the MSU Research Center facilities.

Upon my return, most of those projects were completed or growing beyond original expansions. Traffic is increasing and neighborhoods development is sprawling, for better and worse.

Before I left, I was excited to see what Grand Rapids could become. By the time I got back, I found it has grown up quite a bit. And so, too, has the beverage scene here. There are multiple neighborhoods that one could spend days getting to know.

COVID-19 has caused a lot of businesses to struggle, so it’s important to support the ones you love on a regular basis. But the growth also should make you wonder what’s next door, then wander in and likely find a nice server or bartender who can help you on your journey.

“COVID has shaken all this stuff up … we cannot predict anything at all; business is very sporadic,” Ermatinger said. “People have to shift plans a lot, but it seems like Grand Rapids has embraced it. It’s like we’re trying to grow up and be a big city in some ways. At least embracing the best parts of big cities.

“I like the direction it’s heading. It’s a small-town feel that you run into the people that you want to see when you’re out and about, but there’s still enough cool stuff you never get bored.”

The same can be said for the city’s beverage scene.

This story can be found in the November/December 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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