GRAND RAPIDS — Not even a sprained ankle can slow down Mark Sellers on this Monday morning because an expanded beer festival and new organic brewery are at stake.
Treating his noticeable limp as an afterthought, Sellers enters through the backdoor of HopCat, one of the many downtown Grand Rapids establishments he owns, and strolls past the bar while greeting the employees he passes.
He has just minutes to squeeze in a lunch and prepare his thoughts for an important meeting about his new endeavors. A quesadilla and water will have to do.
But Sellers, 44, a former investment fund manager in Chicago, would have it no other way. Instead of stressing out about other people’s money, these days he is investing his own money to improve the Grand Rapids arena district neighborhood one beer at a time.
“I came back to get away from the rat race,” the West Michigan native said, noting he was semi-retired at the time. “I never had a master plan. I just really liked this neighborhood. It just kind of happened.”
First he opened HopCat, a beer-focused bar that serves brews from all over the world. Soon other neighborhood establishments like Stella’s Lounge and McFadden’s were developed or joined his company, BarFly Ventures.
Sellers’ latest project and most immediate concern is Hoptoberfest. In 2011, its inaugural year, the one-day October festival featured about nine Grand Rapids-area breweries and attracted about 4,000 people, he said.
However, this year Sellers hopes to double the crowd to 8,000 people by moving up the event to Sept. 15-16 and expanding the beer lineup to 40 breweries from across Michigan.
“All the big names — Founders, (Brewery) Vivant and Bell’s — will be there,” Sellers said.
Sellers also enhanced the festival by adding higher energy bands, New Orleans-based Dumpstaphunk and Los Angeles-based Fishbone, who will provide funk and reggae music that attendees can dance to.
The final upgrade to Hoptoberfest is the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Beer Brunch” the next day. The first 2,000 festival attendees who return with their ticket can receive a free brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. thanks to sponsors and purchase more beer.
“We wanted something that was crazy, but would resonate with people,” Sellers said.
Hoptoberfest tickets cost $10. Samples, which are 2 1/2 ounces, cost $3 per sample.
“The $10 is for nationally-known bands, free breakfast the day after, and the ability to drink outside on a city street with thousands of other fun people,” Sellers said. “It’s the cheapest Fishbone/Dumpstaphunk concert of all time.”
Just weeks after Hoptoberfest concludes, Sellers has another ambitious project to reveal: the new Grand Rapids Brewing Company, the Midwest’s first organic brewery, which is scheduled to open in late October.
He had daydreamed about the Grand Rapids Brewing Company name for years because he felt it was so underutilized. When the brewery folded last fall, Sellers said he “instantly jumped” to purchase the assets of the brewery.
For months he searched for a location before he was asked to be the anchor tenant at 1 Ionia SW, a historic building being redeveloped just down the street from HopCat. As a nod to the city’s history, all of the furniture in the restaurant will be made in Grand Rapids, Sellers said.
Then he researched an angle to make Grand Rapids Brewing Company stand out. Sellers discovered one during a beer trip to Asheville, N.C., when he stopped at Pisgah Brewing and enjoyed a quality beer. He was astounded to find out the brewery was certified organic.
“The beer was great,” he said. “I didn’t even know.”
Sellers said “organic” means no chemicals are used to grow the ingredients. He found that only 30 organic breweries exist in the U.S., with most residing along the West Coast or East Coast.
After meeting with many vendors and hops growers, Sellers confirmed an organic brewery was possible and he is thrilled about the challenge.
“It’s hard to do,” he said. “We had a really hard time lining up suppliers.”
When he isn’t revitalizing a neighborhood, Sellers finds time for a few of his favorite craft beers. His new pick is the Perrin Brewing Company IPA, which he expects will be hugely popular.
However, his all-time favorite craft beer is Short’s Huma Lupa Licious, the company’s best-selling IPA.
“My wife jokes they are going to bury me in it,” Sellers said.