GRAND RAPIDS — A line was forming outside on the morning of HopCat’s sixth anniversary, but owner Mark Sellers was concerned first of all with the crowd inside.

“When we opened,” he told the congregation of about 25 employees, “I didn’t even know if we’d make it to one year. Now we’ve made it six years, and we’re setting records every year, and that’s thanks to all of you.

“Now get to work!” he added wryly, and opened the doors for the anniversary celebration. The all-day event featured limited release stouts, free “crack fries,” and a crack fry eating contest so intense that an impromptu halftime was needed to help the kitchen keep up.

It was clearly a successful day for one of the most celebrated beer bars in the country. But while success has become the standard outcome for everything HopCat does, it wasn’t exactly what Sellers planned for at the beginning.

Sellers just wanted the place to stay afloat at first. He didn’t anticipate the craft beer craze. He wasn’t thinking that far ahead. “I told my manager,” he recalled, “that my goal [for the first year] was to break even so I could have a bar to hang out in.” 

The vision was a place for “the true beer geeks,” a place that emphasized craft and kept out corporatized macrobrews. People told Sellers it would never work. “I got lucky, I guess,” he said.

Whatever caused it — luck, intuition or maybe just good taste — Sellers isn’t too concerned about his personal success with HopCat. He’s most gratified by the prosperity it has brought to others. Between HopCat and the other bars he owns (under the umbrella of Barfly Ventures), Sellers employs more than 430 people who have made over $7 million in wages since he opened HopCat in 2008. “It really gives me a sense of pride that I’ve given that many people a way to make a living,” he said.

Two of the staff making their living at HopCat are Ernest Richards and Bobby Edgcomb, the brewers behind the spectrum of stouts released for the anniversary. Both enjoy the challenge of brewing for a place where the in-house beers aren’t the only option or even the main attraction. Edgcomb said that, because their beers face more competition, the brewers “have to bring their best” in order to get any attention. 

Their best on this occasion was the Oil Rigger, a rich but smooth Russian imperial stout, plus six flavor-infused variations on it: Chocolate raspberry, coffee marshmallow, crème brûlée, molé, orange brandy and vanilla bourbon.

The stout’s full body offered a nice backdrop to each of these flavors, the most popular of which seemed to be the molé, a beer that smells a little like French Toast but finishes with heat from ancho and chipotle chili peppers. Special edition bottles of the standard Oil Rigger were sold to a limited number of customers, but all the flavors (plus 2012 and 2013 brews of the Oil Rigger) were available on draft.

You can expect more crack fries, more brews, and more people to be on hand this time next year for the seventh anniversary. If you can’t wait that long for a HopCat party, though, you’re in luck. Sellers plans to announce the opening of a third HopCat restaurant soon. He wouldn’t say where, exactly, but he would say this: “If you keep going east past East Lansing, you eventually hit another city.” 

GRAND RAPIDS — “Beer before liquor, never sicker.” But how about beer with your liquor, in the same glass? It’s a more appetizing combination and, in Michigan, certainly an inevitable one.

The beer cocktail has evolved from the Irish car bombs of its frat days. It’s no longer just shots-in-pints to break the monotony of shots-after-pints. It’s porters and IPAs with gins and tequilas and liqueurs and olives. The rise of craft beer has led to the rise of the craft beer cocktail.

That being said, the more creative mixtures — with fancy cocktail names like Black Velvet and Sidewalker — aren’t always easy to find, even in Michigan. Brewpubs abound, but most don’t have a full bar. Often a Black and Tan is the most creative your neighborhood taproom can get.

But there’s one place in Grand Rapids at least that always has a few concoctions ready: Harmony Brewing Company. 

Luke Schmidt, Harmony’s general manager, occasional bartender and cocktail creator, describes beer cocktails as “trendy,” but he adds that Harmony has always had some on their menu. “They’ve evolved a little over time, like everything here,” he says. And though the idea of beer cocktails sometimes meets with some hesitation, especially from patrons more familiar with standard cocktails and less inclined toward beer, most customers are more than willing to try one — and they aren’t disappointed.

Harmony’s beer cocktails fluctuate with the tap list. (That can mean quick turnover at a smaller brewpub, so check in often.) When we visited last week, there were two of the regulars on tap — the beergarita and the Proud Mary.

The beergarita combines whichever IPA is on tap (Fiddlestix or Crossroads), tequila, triple sec and lime juice. From a beer lover’s perspective, it’s better than a regular margarita — refreshing and tart, but with a heartier finish.

The Proud Mary is a Bloody Mary — vodka, tomato juice and some “secret ingredients” — mixed with Harmony’s Black Squirrel smoky porter. It’s a drink that’s almost a meal. 

According to Schmidt, creating a beer cocktail is mostly a matter of common sense and taste buds. “It’s not like I’m a cocktail wizard,” he says. “I approach it just like cooking at home.”

That means mixing flavors that usually go well together, and at Harmony it also means collaboration and a lot of feedback before (and after) a drink lands on the menu.

For those wishing to mix their own beer cocktails at home, Schmidt recommends enhancing a beer’s bitter side with something savory or balancing it with something sweet. Citrus flavors from liqueurs like triple sec are a natural complement to a hoppy beer.

But in the end, a healthy dose of trial and error is needed to achieve the perfect beer-liquor union. “It’s harder to come up with a beer cocktail than a regular cocktail, because beer is such a strong flavor,” Schmidt says.

So if you’re in the mood for some adventure, stock up on Michigan brews (both light and dark), unlock your liquor cabinet, grab some open-minded friends, and mix away.

UPDATE: West Michigan Whitecaps officials have stated they plan to be ready to host this year’s Winter Beer Festival. Michigan Brewers Guild Executive Director Scott Graham has also released the following statement:

“We have been in contact with our friends at Fifth Third Ballpark since the unfortunate fire which damaged a portion of the property and we are happy to report that all ballpark staff are safe and unharmed. We have also been assured that as they work through the rebuilding process they will be ready to host the Winter Beer Festival February 22, 2014 as planned. We wish them all the best.”

COMSTOCK PARK — The location of this year’s Winter Beer Festival may be in question just six weeks before the Mitten’s largest beer gathering.

Fifth Third Ballpark caught fire today around 11 a.m., according to WZZM-TV. Firefighters from several municipal departments are still fighting the blaze, the Grand Rapids news station reported.  

A source tells MittenBrew that the fire was out as of 1:30 today, thanks to the work of nearly 50 firefighters from five departments during a two and half hour effort.

The Michigan Brewers Guild has sold more than 6,000 tickets for the Feb. 22 event. Executive Director Scott Graham did not speculate on the Guild’s plans for Winter Beer Fest moving forward, but did express concern about the event’s location and for West Michigan Whitecaps staff — Fifth Third Ballpark is home stadium for the minor league baseball team.

“The Michigan Brewers Guild is certainly concerned about our upcoming beer festival at the Fifth Third Ballpark, but our first concern is for all of our friends at the West Michigan Whitecaps,” Graham said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the staff at the ballpark today.”

It appears the loss in the stadium is significant; however, Winter Beer Fest is primarily held outside the park in the adjacent parking lot. 

“We will assess what it means to the Guild after the damage…can be assessed,” Graham said. “Because our event is held outside the ballpark in the parking lot we are hopeful that it will turn out well.”

Vendor events and an after party for staff take place inside the ballpark facility.

“We will do our best to keep fans of Michigan beer informed in coming days as we learn more,” Graham said.