Grand Rapids and Asheville, N.C., are at it again in the chase for beer supremacy.

HopCat in Grand Rapids was voted the No. 2 American Beer Bar, followed by The Thirsty Monk in Asheville, according to a poll by CraftBeer.com. There were nearly 30,000 votes cast Sept. 13-20.

The two were named BeerCity USA this summer.

“It feels awesome and gratifying,” HopCat owner Mark Sellers said. Sellers also owns Stella’s Lounge, McFadden’s Restaurant & Saloon and the soon-to-be opened Grand Rapids Brewing Company under the Barfly Ventures name.

This time, however, they both were passed by Mekong Restaurant in Richmond, Va.

It’s the fourth list, that Sellers knows of, that honors HopCat as a top beer bar. The bar was voted the third Best Beer Bar in the world by BeerAdvocate, 24th on RateBeer.com and in DRAFT Magazine’s top-50 beer bars.

DRAFT’s list is unranked.

“I’m glad we didn’t get number one, then we’d have nothing to shoot for,” Seller’s joked. “But just maintaining it, if we can stay at that level, that’s a huge accomplishment.

“It’s harder than it used to be, because there are so many new beer bars opening up.”

HopCat will hold a party on Oct. 8, following the conclusion of ArtPrize. The deal will be the same as its BeerCity party — $1.50 Michigan pints. And the bar carries between 20-25 Michigan brews at any given time.

Founders Brewing Co.’s taproom came in second place in the North Central Region, behind HopCat.

Sellers had good things to say about The Thirsty Monk in Asheville.

“It’s a great town, great bar, they definitely deserve it,” he said.

COMSTOCK — In October, Bell’s Pale Ale will no longer be Bell’s Pale Ale.

The company announced Monday it is changing the name of the beer to Bell’s Midwestern Pale Ale. With the name change comes a slight recipe alteration.

Now incorporated into the brewing process will be barley from Bell’s Farm in Shepard, Mich., in an effort to build a stronger connection to the state.

“This is a relatively minor change to the recipe and people won’t notice anything different, however it’s part of a much larger picture,” Marketing Director Laura Bell said in a statement.

The newly-named brew will start shipping in mid-October.

The barely from the farm already is used in two other Bell’s beers, Christmas Ale and Harvest Ale. The Harvest Ale also uses Michigan-grown hops.

The newly named beer also will have a new label — a painting of Bell’s Farm by Kalamazoo artist Conrad Kaufman.

COMSTOCK — In October, Bell’s Pale Ale will no longer be Bell’s Pale Ale.
The company announced Monday it is changing the name of the beer to Bell’s Midwestern Pale Ale. With the name change comes a slight recipe alteration.
Now incorporated into the brewing process will be barley from Bell’s Farm in Shepard, Mich., in an effort to build a stronger connection to the state.
“This is a relatively minor change to the recipe and people won’t notice anything different, however it’s part of a much larger picture,” Marketing Director Laura Bell said in a statement.
The newly-named brew will start shipping in mid-October.
The barely from the farm already is used in two other Bell’s beers, Christmas Ale and Harvest Ale. The Harvest Ale also uses Michigan-grown hops.
The newly named beer also will have a new label — a painting of Bell’s Farm by Kalamazoo artist Conrad Kaufman.

GRAND RAPIDS — The second annual Hoptoberfest, hosted by HopCat, took place Saturday. The event, which was expected to draw about 8,000 people over the course of the weekend, featured 40 Michigan breweries, musical performances and the “World’s Largest Beer Brunch.”

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.

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.

GRAND RAPIDS — Quite a bit more quality beer hit Michigan shelves last week with the introduction of New Belgium Brewing Company into the state. But it also brings an interesting collaboration with Brewery Vivant.

Coinciding with New Belgium’s (Fort Collins, Colo.) release into the Great Lakes State, Brewery Vivant’s Escoffier also made its way into stores. The brewery only made 180 barrels of the beer, a high-gravity Belgian ale.

Peter Bouckaert, head brewer at New Belgium, said it’s a fun way to enter the Michigan market, and is made possible because of its soon-to-open Asheville, N.C., facility.

“At first, (Michigan) is a state that we’ve been dancing around for such a long time, capacity-wise, we’ve never been able to consider it,” Bouckaert said. “I’m not exactly sure how we chose them, but we came to Brewery Vivant because they’re a young, outstanding brewery.”

Escoffier, named after French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, sold more than 100 cases at the launch party last Monday.

About 500 cases of 16-ounce cans were sent across  Michigan for distribution. Each case has 24 cans, sold in four packs.

The beer is the first American craft beer to be canned with wild yeast, and will only get more wild with age. The can states you can age the beer up to five years. Escoffier has 9.5 percent alcohol by volume.

Meanwhile, Vivant will get some national exposure when they head out to New Belgium, the nation’s third largest craft brewery. There they will make a new collaboration.

“We’re still talking about it,” Bouckaert said. “We’re going to make slight tweaks to it, we’ve done it before with other brewers. We kept it similar, but different. In this case, it’s only going to be slightly different.”

The beer hasn’t been named yet, but will be released nationally in 22-ounce bottles in November.

HUDSONVILLE — Because Bill White doesn’t have what he calls a “real job,” he has plenty of time to sit back on a Friday and talk about beer.

He seems like the kind of guy you should trust about such matters, a man whose stocky build suggests that he can drink, and indeed has drunk, a formidable quantity of beer. The mug he drinks from dwarfs our pint glasses. Also, the beer he is drinking, as well as the beer we and everyone else in the room are drinking, was made by him.

Bill is the founder, owner, and brewer at Hudsonville’s White Flame Brewing Company. But despite those titles, and despite the labor he’s invested in his company, Bill isn’t quite willing to speak of his work as a job.

“My wife has the real job,” he says.

She works as a researcher for the Van Andel Institute. Bill used to work there too, in a way. He was a project manager, “a paper pusher in a trailer,” during one of the building phases at the Institute.

But after the project was completed, Bill didn’t want to transfer out of town, so he planned for the layoff he expected. Instead of working, he stayed home, spent time with his children, and pursued another longtime love: Making beer.

White was already an established homebrewer with two decades of experience.

“I brewed my first beers,” he admits, “before I was able to buy beer.”

His wife, another brewer, shared his love of the craft, and it soon became a family affair on a serious scale.

“When you’re married and you have a family, you can’t really go to the bar,” Bill says. “So we decided to bring the bar to our home.”

The Whites weren’t the only ones happy with the decision — their friends liked the idea, too. They came and partook and agreed that Bill’s beer was pretty good — good enough, in fact, that he should sell it.

And so, in February 2011, at one of the Michigan Brewers Guild’s festivals — “over a bunch of beers” — White decided to roll the dice. He used money from his 401(k) and began wading through the government paperwork.

Renovations on his taproom — formerly an office space — began in August with White at the helm. Because of his contracting experience, he was able to complete much of the work with the help of a few friends.

White’s influence shows; the taproom has a decidedly masculine feel. The bearskin (named “Growler”) that greets new customers seems at home next to the burnt red and piney green of the walls. The whole building has the modest confidence of a place known for the beer, not the in-crowd.

“Modest confidence” is an apt description of Bill himself. Though the story of his brewery seems to be one of risk and adventure — the man had no monthly paycheck and no entrepreneurial background when he started, and he staked his retirement on the place — White expresses little awe or admiration at what he’s accomplished.

He makes it sound as if he’s just doing what he’s always done: Drinking beer with friends. (His job, when he actually uses the word in reference to himself, is “to drink beer and to make beer,” in that order.) He seems proudest of the fact that he now has “two hundred really good friends who are mug club members.”

White Flame’s success has been both immediate and steady, which might explain how relaxed Bill seems about the venture. When Bill opened his taproom on January 28 of this year, he didn’t advertise: “We didn’t say anything to anyone; we just opened the doors.”

The place filled pretty quickly, and White Flame had hundreds of Facebook fans by the end of the night. White stands by his “if you build it, they will come” mentality, and his determination and the quality of his beer attract enough customers to fill the bar’s 60 seats three to four nights each week.

Perhaps because he now has over 1,800 fans on Facebook, White hasn’t changed his marketing strategy. He boasts quietly, “I haven’t paid a dime for advertising.”

When asked if any homebrewer could live this dream, White pauses. Ever-modest, he credits part of his success to the Hudsonville market. The city was dry until 2007, which means that most local establishments don’t have a liquor license. White is grateful that he doesn’t have to navigate the pressures of an over-saturated market.

“We’re in the right place at the right time,” he says. “If you could build a bar where there weren’t any bars…”

Because of the bar’s status as one of a few area watering holes, White estimates that his clientele is about half beer aficionados and half locals just looking for a cold one close to home. That doesn’t mean there’s no crossover.

Bill relates the story of a customer who previously drank only name-brand domestics but now drinks exclusively IPAs. Indeed, there seem to be more dads than hipsters appreciating the fine brews at 5 p.m. on a Friday. The ability to please both crowds speaks to White’s ability to keep both balance and variety on tap.

While White credits the ready market for a large part of his success, his beers shouldn’t be overlooked. The taproom boasts a hop-heavy lineup for the summer season, and these beers are modest and likely to please, not unlike their brewer.

The most popular brew is the Super G IPA, which combines the bitterness and the citrus notes from early and late hops additions, respectively. Close behind is the Black Sheep, a black IPA with 8% ABV.

Whether crafting these libations is a real job or not, Bill White earns his livelihood doing what he loves. When asked at what point it really hit him that he could brew for a living, White smiles.

“I hired an accountant,” White chuckles, “and he told me I could go out for a few beers from time to time and write it off as ‘industry research.’”


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