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Beer City: Grand Rapids Wins Again

Region tops USA Today 10Best for third year in a row

By Kathy Gibbons

The taproom at Speciation Artisan Ales in Grand Rapids. || Photo by Wes Kitten

Right place. Right time. That’s what happened when Grand Rapids won Examiner.com’s Beer City USA title in 2013 after tying Asheville, North Carolina, the previous year. Examiner’s annual Beer City vote ended after that, leaving Grand Rapids as the last to hold the moniker that has only become more apropos with each passing year.

Now the city has been named Best Beer City in the United States for the third year in a row in USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice travel awards. Grand Rapids came out on top among 20 finalists that had been selected by a panel of beer experts, competing with Philadelphia, Indianapolis, San Diego, Asheville, Milwaukee, Tampa, Chicago, Atlanta, and Minneapolis in the final 10.

Experience Grand Rapids Associate Vice President of Marketing Kate Lieto says Founders Brewing Co. was an early driver of Grand Rapids’ emergence to become a destination for craft beer lovers. Established in 1997 downtown, Founders is now ranked among the top breweries in the world.

Founders Brewing Co. is ranked among the top breweries in the world. || Photo by Alina Albin

“They were light years ahead of their time in getting all set up and growing…to what they are today,” says Lieto, who also serves on the board of directors for the Beer City Brewers Guild. From there, she adds, there was great momentum as interest in home brewing grew and potential brewery owners saw the possibilities.

Today, there are more than 40 breweries in the Grand Rapids area, which includes the region outside of the city proper. Since 2016, beer lovers have been able to tap into the Beer City Brewsaders passport, a digital app that includes all of the area’s breweries. As participants visit a location, they check in and when they reach eight, receive a free T-shirt. “We’ve given out over 22,000 shirts,” Lieto says.

Meanwhile, Grand Rapids’ claim to Beer City fame hasn’t been lost on meeting planners, who often build brewery-related experiences into itineraries for events.

A flight of beer at Harmony Brewing Company in Grand Rapids. || Photo by Rachel Greiner, courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

“It could be something as simple as serving a local beer—that’s pretty much the standard,” Lieto says. “But we also see some conferences go to extreme. We hosted ESTO (U.S. Travel Association’s Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations) last year—a large national tourism conference—and they had a whole Beer City beer garden they built out in the convention center.”

It actually replicated a real beer garden, with greenery and a wooden pergola. Experience Grand Rapids was a sponsor and helped with the creation. “It was a really cool gathering place where they could meet when they had downtime,” Lieto says.

It’s also common for planners to schedule off-site events at breweries. For example, New Holland Brewing Co.’s The Knickerbocker isn’t far from the convention center and has the space for large groups; The BOB, with Bob’s Brewery, is another popular spot for such activities, as is Grand Rapids Brewing Co.

“It’s definitely something we’re offering to our convention clients,” Lieto says. “It’s a fun way to incorporate some of the local flare for a conference.”

The Grand Rapids convention sales team is composed of Experience Grand Rapids staff, DeVos Place staff, and AHC Hospitality staff. Their booth just won first place, Best in Show at the 2023 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. Pictured here, left to right, are: Ron Brondyke (AHC), Kathy Bart (DeVos), Kelsey Helstowski and Doug Small (Experience GR), Chris Schroeder (AHC), and Mary Manier (Experience GR). || Courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids’ convention sales team capitalizes on Beer City branding when it goes on the road. In fact, its booth just won first place, Best in Show at the 2023 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Our team has been working on perfecting this booth for a while now and we’re very excited about the win,” Lehto says. She describes it as “a whole kind of bar/taproom-themed convention booth. We serve local beer…so we’re doing the whole Beer City thing to sell Grand Rapids as a beer destination.”