Quality, not quantity: How focusing on craft culture is changing the way we drink

Pairing carefully crafted beverages with the perfect ambience and ethnically-inspired, gourmet cuisine, establishment owners are creating unique, unmissable moments. This approach to craft, well, everything, is changing GR's approach to drinking, inviting us all out for a better, well-rounded night on the town.
The Grand Rapids beer scene continues to explode. Voted Beer City USA in 2012 and 2013 and most recently named the Best Beer Scene in the country by USA Today, it's safe to say our fair, mid-sized city has transformed its craft beverage culture, and there's no looking back. With over 60 breweries and distilleries with more popping up every few months, Greater Grand Rapids offers a myriad of diverse destinations to enjoy a tasty, unique alcoholic beverage.

Pairing carefully crafted beverages with the perfect ambience and ethnically-inspired, gourmet cuisine, establishment owners are creating unique, unmissable moments. Instead of visiting a brewery, restaurant, or distillery only to kick back a few cheap drinks, consumers are staying a while, soaking up each locale's unique flare, all while yes, of course, enjoying an adult beverage (or few). This approach to craft, well, everything, is changing GR's approach to drinking, inviting us all out for a better, well-rounded night on the town.

But with great power, comes great responsibility…right? With so much craft beverage consumption going on at all corners of the city, one might wonder if some are overdoing it, drinking more in an effort to try every specialty ale and wild, artisanal sour (thank you, Brewery Vivant's 'Plein de Vie'). However, the record shows just the opposite. Michigan drunk driving and crashes involving drivers under the influence of alcohol are on the decline in recent years. This could be due to ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber, as well as the Rapid, but purveyors of local establishments think it's also due to a respect for the craft, and an entirely different approach to drinking.

"[It's] more about enjoying the craft than getting drunk," says Kris Spaulding, co-owner and sustainability manager of Brewery Vivant, a Belgian-inspired craft brewery heavily focused on giving back to their community. Spaulding, who has spent the past seven years building an brewery focused on great food and great beer, prides herself and her staff on a unique, comfortable ambience. "We really wanted this focus on Belgian/French inspired beers and the experience of pairing that with really good food," says Spaulding. "I never wanted our place to be a bar."

Establishing a four-drink maximum for guests at the brewery's inception in 2010, Spaulding notes that the brewery has always sought positive experiences for its consumers and its staff. "It's a message to people…we don't want you to sit here and get wasted," she says. And, at the end of your experience, "You can walk away on two feet."

It was this desire that led Spaulding, a self proclaimed "certification expert," (she has achieved the first LEED-certified brewery and most recently tackled B-corp certification), to explore her most recent venture in Better Drinking Culture.

Founded in 2015, Better Drinking Culture is a for-profit organization that provides education, events, and certification, all designed to assist individuals and companies in their quest for responsible drinking. Earlier this year, BDC launched its certification program for establishments that serve alcohol. Brewery Vivant, in addition to New Holland brewery, is one of the first to achieve the certification, which requires a 4-drink maximum, employee training, and a passing of BDC's social media audit that limits positive coverage of binge drinking.

"It's still a tough sell," says Spaulding, about BDC's mission to encourage more responsible drinking. "But I think that if they continue the path that they're on as an organization with really cool branding…I think they could actually really impact the lives of a lot of people as they're beginning their journey in drinking."

Jason Ley at The Knickerbocker.

Jason Ley, CEO of Better Drinking Culture, joined the organization earlier this year, but was captivated by the founder's mission in 2015. Attending their first event in the summer, Ley, a beer enthusiast who has written about the industry for years and has even produced a television show on the topic, was blown away. "I was so moved by how compassionate and patient they were with everyone, regardless of their relationship with alcohol," says Ley.

Coming on board almost two years later, Ley was excited to spread the message of better drinking in a city where craft is priority. "BDC and the craft beverage industry/culture are wired nearly identical," he says. "Quality over quantity is in our DNA." Emphasizing that Better Drinking Culture does not seek to dampen the drinking experience but rather to improve it, Ley believes GR is a great place to start the movement.

"If the city can welcome all of these breweries and these amazing restaurants, then they're open to change," he says. Working with breweries and restaurants to achieve their BDC certification, Ley seeks a unique—and most importantly, memorable—experience for all patrons. "We want the same thing…we want to help empower that drinker to have the most amazing drinking experience so that tomorrow they remember it and look forward to doing it again," he says.

Working in the industry for many years, Ley can easily point to the breweries and distilleries that are succeeding at the craft ambience. One he mentions is the recently opened City Built Brewing on Monroe. "They put just as much emphasis on their puerto rican-inspired cuisine as their beer," he says. Ley also adds that Grand Rapids Brewing Company, where he spent some time as an employee, is a go-to spot for a positive, craft experience.

"GRBC cared very much about delivering a guest experience where the craft food complemented the craft beer," he says. "The staff was particularly vested in insuring that the guests were treated well and were always concerned about the guests' safety and well being."

Part of caring for guests' well being is providing safe passage. A new venture in the city, Grand Rapids Beer Trolly, facilitates a nine-brewery tour at a hop-on, hop-off rate of $15. Stopping at staples like Founders, HopCat, and The Mitten Brewing Co., Grand Rapids Beer Trolly is purely a transportation service.

"There's more ride sharing technology and things like that available than ever before," says founder Austin Dingledine. Utilizing tech like real-time tracking of the trolly so patrons are always certain of their next pickup, Dingledine and co-founding sister Jaleen Dingledeen aim to fit this niche in a craft beer city.

"We're trying to preach how to have the best experience possible," says Dingledine, who encourages his patrons to sample at each brewery responsibly, and to utilize ride-sharing services or taxis to arrive at the trolly.

The Dingledine siblings also created the trolly as a means to support local businesses. "I think a lot of what we stand for is really beyond the Grand Rapids drinking experience," says Dingledine. Getting together to enjoy breweries and explore different neighborhoods, the Grand Rapids Beer Trolly seeks to connect their patrons with their community.

"The culture of craft brewing is just that..all of the breweries are on the same team, they're not working against each other," he says. "They're always supportive of one another."

In the end, no one can argue that brewery, distillery, and even trolly patrons are having a great time around the country. But here in GR, where craft is key, a new approach to drinking is taking hold. "We want this to be an experience," says Spaulding, and all the craft beverage enthusiasts in West Michigan raised their glasses.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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