The Beer Barons of River City

Brewing beer was an important part of local culture before Grand Rapids even became a city. The area’s large German-American population brought with them rich traditions of beer making, and Grand Rapids inhabitants heartily embraced these imported techniques. Today, after a long “dry spell” of local production, Grand Rapids is returning once again to its rich history of crafting quality beers.

Englishman John Pannell got it all started in 1836 when he opened the city's first brewery, according to a historical account of local brewing written by Wilhelm Seeger, a local beer expert and history professor at Grand Valley State University. The article, titled The Braumeisters of Old Grand Rapids, originally appeared in 1988 in the Grand River Valley Review, a publication of the Grand Rapids Historical Society. Today, it's available online at the Michigan Breweriana.

Pannell chose a location for his brewery over a small stream at the bottom of Prospect hill on the city's east side and began making an English hop beer. The establishment enjoyed quick success watering the fledgling city's growing and hard-working population. But by 1844 another European brew had already started to flood the market.

German-born immigrants were flooding into the Grand River valley in the 1840's and within a decade they would become one of the largest immigrant groups in the city. Christoph Kusterer, a prominent figure in the local German-American community and a German-trained brewer, opened his own establishment on the city's west side in 1843. Residents quickly developed a preference for German lager, and as the city grew, so did its demand for beer.

Eventually, Kusterer and Pannell formed a partnership and, in 1847, they formed the City Brewing Company. Within two years, Kusterer bought out Pannell’s interest and in 1850 the Kusterer Brewing Company moved to a new location at the corner of Ionia and Michigan Street. The building, complete with a rushing, natural spring, was ideal for beer making. Kusterer’s business thrived, but competition continued to emerge quickly.

Seven other major breweries, all owned by German-Americans, developed within the next thirty years, an era in which the beer industry experienced fantastic growth. Growing national operations such as Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company took an interest in the thirsty Grand Rapids market and began selling their products in West Michigan.

To counter this growing outside competition, six major local breweries – the Kusterer Brewing Company, Tusch Brothers, George W. Brandt and Co., Veit and Rathamn, Adolph Goetz, and the Frey Brothers – consolidated and, in 1893, the Grand Rapids Brewing Company was officially in business with Charles Kusterer as the president.

Dry Days
The company became the largest beer producer in West Michigan, distributing across Michigan and into surrounding states as well. The Silver Foam brew became their landmark beer, and the company boomed with an output of approximately 600,000 barrels annually, until the temperance movement finally gained traction with a local and national audience.

The movement only gained strength as Americans came to resent German dominance of the beer industry with the entry into World War I, according to Wilhelm Seeger. Some even produced propaganda suggesting that German brewers were secretly aiding the Kaiser.

Michigan voted to go dry May 1, 1918, and the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the sale of alcohol throughout the country, was ratified Jan. 29, 1919. Many brewers such as the Grand Rapids Brewing Company tried to sell soft drinks, “near-beer,” and industrial alcohol products. But Prohibition sounded the death toll for most companies. In 1920, the Grand Rapids Brewing Company sold its three-story production facility and went out of business.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, beer quickly became available again in Grand Rapids, initially from larger, out-of-state distributors. The Grand Rapids Brewing Co. opened for a short period, but went out of business by the late 1930's. A former rival, the Michigan Brewing Company, reopened the plant at Ionia and Michigan in 1935. But the enterprise was short lived. It closed by 1940.

The plant passed hands again to yet another company, Chicago-based Peter Fox Brewing Company, and brewed Fox Deluxe Beer until 1951. After that, the building basically sat dormant until 1964 when it was torn down to make way for the new State of Michigan office building. Grand Rapids wouldn’t see any significant brewing activity for decades.

The Beer Barons Return
It is perhaps difficult to imagine any small brewing company successfully competing against the onslaught of foreign and domestic beer giants in today's global market. Recently, however, smaller brewing companies that develop and produce smaller batches of more creative, hand-crafted beers are enjoying success.

The popularity of what has become known as craft beers, replacing the vague term “microbrews,” continues to grow across the country. Craft beers are generally all-malt beers using 100 percent malted barley, sometimes containing malted wheat, rye, or other fermentable ingredients such as fruit, herbs or spices. The goal is generally to produce unique, rich flavors for a more local audience rather than appealing to the masses.

The strategy seems to be working. Craft beer sales, as tracked in off-premise sales, are up nearly 17 percent from 2005, according to a recent report from the Brewers Association. In fact, craft beer production was up 11 percent for the first half of 2006, following a 9 percent gain during the same period in 2005, and a 7 percent gain in 2004.

The growing interest in and availability of craft beers is readily observed in Grand Rapids – one needs only to take a small tour of the city's taprooms, liquor stores, brewpubs, and microbreweries to realize the wonderful variety of quality brews available to consumers.

The craft beer industry is defined by four markets—microbreweries, brewpubs, regional specialty breweries and contract brewing companies—categorized by different licenses and production capabilities. In Grand Rapids, there are currently three microbreweries and two brewpubs. Microbreweries sell only their own products and have full distribution rights, while brewpubs are essentially restaurants that can sell other companies’ beers as well and make their own beer for consumption onsite only.

Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers established Founders Brewing Company in 1997. Stevens began working the business plan in 1991, when there were no other breweries operating in Grand Rapids. He eventually formed a partnership with Engbers and obtained the licensing and financing needed to start the business. For the first six years, the company grew rather slowly and even considered bankruptcy. But Stevens realized something was missing.

“Up to that point, we were just making the basic beers,” Stevens said. “We had started the company with a passion for homebrewing and the creative side of beer. So we decided to go back to that more unique approach, and we dumped about 70 percent of our port portfolio and built a completely new lineup.”

Since then, Stevens says the company has consistently grown about 30 percent a year. Two years ago, Founders reached the production capacity of its current facility and demand for the companies beers often exceeds supply – they frequently ship half or even a third of what customers request. Their success can be attributed to their innovation and support from the community, Stevens said.

“What we do is definitely more of a craft, an artisan’s industry,” Stevens said. “We’re more experimental, and we definitely push the envelope to focus our attention on producing creative beers for a niche market within the craft brewers industry. The focus isn’t and never has been for profit…it’s the beer, the creative side, the process of it.”

“There’s been huge support from community investors, and I think a lot of community pride has developed about founders. People are starting to see Founders as “the” brewing company of Grand Rapids, saying ‘Founders is our brewery.’ And it’s really cool to know that, after 10 years, we’re starting to gain that recognition.”

Founders also enjoys a good amount of national recognition from reviewers and beer critics. Two of the company's beers are rated in the top ten American beers, according to, and five appear in the top 100. Only three others breweries in the country received higher ratings. The Breakfast Stout, which was released Nov. 25 at the first annual Breakfast Stout Breakfast, currently ranks number 7, and the Kentucky Breakfast, an imperial stout aged in oak-bourbon barrels in mines 100 feet below the surface, is ranked number 2.

Founders recently built a 6000 sq. ft addition onto their current 10,000 sq. ft space, which enables the company to double their production capacity to 8,000 barrels per year. Currently, about 70 percent of Founders output is bottled, and Founders has 16 distributors serving Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and the Boston area.

The Hideout Brewing Company, formerly known as Hair of the Frog, is a small microbrewery truly positioned like a hideout in the woods. Located just off Plainfield, this small, two-story brewpub has a simple, rustic feel with a pretty open, casual setting. Owner/head brewer/perpetual bartender Ken McPhail offers a selection of five or six brews, mead, and a limited selection of wines. Their fall/winter brews include a Belgian Abbey, an Imperial Stout, a Belgian Triple, and a Chocolate Rye with orange peel, cinnamon, and hard cider.

Schmohz Brewing Company, located in the old Robert Thomas Brewing Company building, is a laid back, non-smoking, microbrewery with a regular crowd and a great beer selection. With a 20-barrel system, Schmohz normally offers 12 beers on tap, with 5-gallon batch specials on Saturdays. There are about 250 mug club members, and though it’s a very friendly crowd, assistant brewer and bartender Justin Tiemersma says that it’s a bar where “everybody knows your name, and everybody knows each other’s names.” Schmohz beer is available on rotating taps across Grand Rapids, with future hopes to distribute across the state.

The Grand Rapids Brewing Company, one of the two brewpubs in the city, hails the name of the former brewing legend. The brewpub is decorated with artifacts and photographs from the original company, and further recalls the past by offering a Silver Foam brew. The microbrewery has a seven-barrel system, and head brewer John Svoboda always has about six to nine beers on tap. During the holidays, the Grand Rapids Brewing Company will feature Blueberry, Cherry and Raspberry Lambics.

B.O.B.’s House of Brews, located downtown on the lower level of the B.O.B. across from Van Andel Arena, is a brewpub with a 15-barrel system servicing the entire building. Brewmaster Dennis Holland offers four brews year round—wheat, pale, amber, and porter—with a variety of about six other seasonal offerings at a time. Their beers are available onsite only, with limited quantities bottled and available to take home.


Kusterer's Lager Beer of Grand Rapids circa 1876

Malt used at Founders Brewing Company

Fox Deluxe Tavern in Grand Rapids circa 1943

Mike Stevens of Founders Brewing Company

Brewing equipment at Founders Brewing Company

Taps full of hand-crafted beers - Founders Brewing Company

Breakfast Stout

Historical photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Library

Photographs Copyright Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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