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?
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.