Sunday began late morning at Harmony Brewing Co. (1551 Lake Drive SE, 616-233-0063), a brewery and pizzeria that opened in January.
Family-friendly and comfortable, natural light floods the handsome dining room full of reclaimed wood. More important, the pizza was top-notch (especially The Good Earth, a memorable blend of caramelized onion and Jarlsberg cheese, among other nonmeat ingredients) and the beer menu was full of clever, surprising summer brews.
We ordered a flight that included novelties such as cranberry wheat (tart, not sweet) and a camomile green tea ale (bright, earthy and drinkable). The beers were wonderfully clean and the attention to detail obvious, as it should be at such a small scale.
Harmony is such a low-key, anything-goes kind of place that the bartender offered a brief, impromptu tour of the brewing operation to the folks at the bar, including a man in a yellow tank top who proclaimed, "There's too much blood in my alcohol system."
Instead, we headed on to one of our favorite spots of the weekend, The Hideout (3113 Plaza Drive NE, 616-361-9658).
Craft beer has become so hip, so new and so now that a place like The Hideout presents a welcome oddity. It has the look and feel of a former spa — drains in the tile floor and a pool out back full of sand and grass — because it is housed in a former spa.
Seven miles from downtown and sitting at the end of a dead-end road, it also requires effort to show up, which makes it a local-heavy spot. And at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, the first few locals were streaming in to drink from the 10 taps, including four gray-haired gentlemen who gather every weekend for their "men's meeting."
The laid-back nature of the place spurred me to creativity, and I asked the bartender to mix the hazelnut stout on nitro (a method of carbonation that makes the beer creamier) and the rye ale. She raised an eyebrow before gladly doing so. It was delicious.
I followed it with a black and tan composed of the hazelnut stout and an IPA. Score No. 2. Drinking at home is fun, and drinking in a bar is fun, but drinking in a brew pub allows for invention.
On we went to Founders (235 Grandville Ave. SW, 616-776-1195, foundersbrewing.com), which is the big daddy of Grand Rapids brewing, both in terms of production and popularity (say the words "Canadian Breakfast Stout" and watch a beer nerd's eyes roll back).
It's housed in a wide former warehouse with a wall of windows and skylights above the long, sloping wood bar. It was packed, but we carved out a couple of seats at the bar.
I immediately went high-octane, ordering the one barrel-aged beer on draft; it was a savory rye stout aged in rye whiskey barrels. After that came one recommended by the bartender: a mix of Founders' Curmudgeon, a rich, malty ale, and the Double Trouble double IPA. Sure enough, it was a wonderful flavor punch for a weekend of beer touring that was winding down.
We wound up the weekend at the place we were arguably most excited to go to: the third-best bar in the world. And indeed, HopCat (25 Ionia Ave. SW, 616-451-4677, hopcatgr.com) evokes many of the nation's great beer bars. But in Grand Rapids, that volume and selection sings because you're in a city of 188,000.
I ordered that double IPA from Leinenkugel and steered my companion to a beer she had never tried, but anyone with an interest in beer needs to the marvelously balanced, moderately sour Rodenbach Grand Cru on draft. "Good man," my bartender said.
Let me tell you: a compliment from the bartender at the third-best beer bar in the world goes far.