Houses of Craft

Labor Day (Observed) — at Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, MI

My birthday falls on Labor Day weekend each year, which often lends itself to a bonus round of celebration for the three-day weekend. This year was exceptional however, as my shiny new wife, Hillary, booked a private brewery tour/tasting for me and the family at Brewery Vivant, one of Grand Rapid’s newest beer destinations. 

Known for their Belgian-inspired, but accessible beers, Vivant has quickly become a well-known spot on GR’s trendy east side. The main beer hall looks like a scene from Beowulf, complete with thick slab tables, hanging lights and stained glass. As a former funeral home chapel, it feels church-like, but all the stained glass is vaguely non-religious due to its mix of clientele at the time. 

Our special host for the evening, brewmaster and owner, Jason Spaulding generously opened the doors on an off day and poured some spectacular beers. He walked us through a few of their staples, the Solitude (an Abbey style Ale), Farm Hand (a Farmhouse-inspired pale) and Triomphe (a Belgian IPA), all newly available in 16oz. cans. But he also shared some of their bigger beers.

A big hit was Sgt. Peppercorn Rye — with a couple of rye characters and green peppercorns, this one packs a nice spice, but mellows quickly. Even among the wine drinkers (Lindsay, the gal behind Evelyn’s) and the Miller Lite contingent of the family, this was a bit of a breakthrough. 

Later on, we continued to taste a variety of brews, from the Amarillo Gold and the deep, dark Heavy Handed (a double chocolate stout), as well as a pair of ciders, both apple and blueberry-apple, which were both light and refreshing with a similar openness of flavor.

As a former brewmaster at New Holland, Jason knows his stuff. Including how to explain brewing to a mixed audience. He gave an excellent tour for first-timers as well as aspiring amateurs like myself. After leaving New Holland and waiting out his 5-year non-compete, it’s clear that Jason thought through exactly the type of brewery he wanted to have, and Vivant results in a clear vision. Expansion plans aren’t really part of that, he says. Vivant’s small size and neighborhood home seems to afford the lifestyle and dedication he’s always wanted. 

Next door, Jason lead us through the tightly-packed, but immaculate barrel-vaulted brewhouse. We climbed to the top of the tanks and peeked in, smelled the blow-off from the fermenters, and spied on the aging barrels getting lined up for multiple festivals.

The barrels piqued some curiosities — as it turns out, each barrel-aged beer is named after a girl from the brewers’ collective pasts. I have no idea what kind of beer a girl named Lawshawndarella would translate to, but she sounds like keeper to me. 

Judging from the impressive, almost-toppling walls of stacked cans, it was also apparent that they were deep in the throes of the canning line, which is a bit of a difficult fit for small breweries like this. Thinking back to the trial and error that Finch’s in Chicago recently went through, I didn’t envy these guys.

One of the more interesting aspects of the tour was the Tax Determination Tank. Apparently all the beer passes through this special tank to measure output, and determine their tax liability for the year. I’ve never seen this done before, but it does a nice job of highlighting the special love/hate relationship that government has always had with beer production. 

And just before leaving the brewery, I couldn’t help but notice some of the run-off coming from a fermentor full of Vivant Brune, which created a shallow pool on the floor. Like a vision of Mary herself, the beer formed the shape of Michigan as it dried. I swear to god. 

Michael Kiser