For a few years now, Grand Rapids has been home to Hopcat, a brewpub focused on bringing everything I want to the city in which I live. They are a bar focused on Michigan beer that also offers a spectacular selection of American and international beers. They have a robust and ever rotating tap selection. To my knowledge, nowhere in Grand Rapids is there a superior draft selection, and very few competitors even come close. I have yet to discuss beer with a Hopcat employee who was not intimately familiar with the art of crafting and drinking fine beer. And to top it all off, they have a friendly, knowledgeable, and very original crew manning their own brewing facility right on site.
Laura and I arrived on site around two in the afternoon on a weekday. The sun, realizing that it could pretty much phone in any day it wants in the month of December, elected not to show up. A lazy drizzle instead greeted us, determined to make sure “outside” was much less pleasant than “inside.” Hopcat was not yet crowded, and we had some time to speak with Jake and Jeff, the Hopcat brewers.
The Brewing Facility
Hopcat's brewing facility is not large – in fact quite small by some standards. The mash tun and the boiler are both displayed in their shiny glory up on the main floor of Hopcat. We were fortunate enough to catch Jeff and Jake just as they were bringing their newest beer – coincidentally, a porter – up to a boil. The primitive flavors of grain and sugar emanating from the nascent beer were heady and delightful; it's not often in our travels that we catch brewers at this moment in the process, and it's really interesting to see the very beginnings of turning malt and water into yeast-food.
Downstairs, Jeff and Jake talked shop with us regarding their opinions on beer, from the market as it is to where they see it going. They showed us their Holiday Spice ale in the Brite tank, a complex and very original beer brewed with vanilla beans soaked in Maker's Mark bourbon, that sported nutmeg and eggnog flavors that inexplicably delivered hints of banana bread. I've had one other banana bread beer in my life and Hopcat's holiday ale was superior. Jeff and Jake mentioned their plan to put this beer on nitrogen, making for a smooth, creamy beer available in the coming weeks that I certainly won't be missing (and you shouldn't either).
Hopcat's brewers both started by home brewing, and have less experience that one might assume, given their spectacular products and imaginative recipes; each had under two years before Mark Sellers, the current owner of Hopcat (in addition to three other very popular Grand Rapids icons), chose them to man his brewpub. They share my belief that, with breweries like Jolly Pumpkin leading the way, sour ales will gain in popularity as the craft beer market matures in the midwest. (They even let us in on the fact that they have a sour ale aging right now, which will be ready in mid 2011!) Like many of our readers, their preferred breweries (when they are not at their own, of course) include some of the Michigan staples – Arcadia Brewing, Bell's Brewing, and Founder's.`
The bottom line? Hopcat's brewers are hard working, friendly, knowledgeable, and very imaginative; the next time you're in the third best beer bar in the world, make sure you say hi to Jeff and Jake; it's their hard work you're enjoying, after all. And speaking of their hard work...
Hopcat is listed with the state of Michigan as a brewpub. This means that they can brew and sell their own beer on site as well as sell the alcoholic products of other companies. They cannot, however, distribute their wares. That means that while Hopcat has the flexibility to offer a huge selection of beer (and spirits) not made on site, one cannot find their products at local specialty shops. That said, I want to focus on the creations of the brewers at Hopcat. If you want to hear a rundown of their other selections, there are other resources available.
Laura and I started with their Viener Lager, Hopcat's take on a Vienna lager, with extra innuendo free of charge. The smell was sweeter than I anticipated, with pronounced notes of grain. The taste, however, was dryer than the smell let on, letting the hops subdue some of the sweet caramel found in the nose. This is a superb beer and it's obvious why Hopcat has taken to keeping it available regularly.
Second up was the Black Mamba, a schwarzbier that certainly doesn't mess around. This ended up being Laura's favorite beer today, with a bold, toasted, whole grain flavor. In fact I described it as tasting like whole grain toast. I wanted there to be some more sweet to balance out the roasted flavor, but Laura thought it was perfect the way it was.
My personal favorite beer of the day was, by far, the Dictator Stout. Created as an homage to Cuban coffee, the Dictator Breakfast Stout smells strong, almost abusively so. However, a cuban coffee is a smooth, sweet espresso served with a twist of lemon; there is not really anything heavy or plodding about it. It would not be fair to make its beer namesake the same tired, old, heavy stout. The Dictator, thankfully smooth and creamy on the nitro, is not a tired, heavy beer. The lighter abv (only 4.8%) keeps it easy to drink, while the citrus twist keeps the coffee and sugar falvors in check. This has become my favorite coffee stout and one of my favorite beers ever.
Finally, we ended with Hopcat's popular Hoppapotamus, a light and balanced APA. I've had earlier iterations of the Hoppapotamus before and Jeff and Jake have really matured the beer into something I very much enjoy. The hops impart citrus with grapefruit, but surprisingly there's some complexity in the smell, with malt notes lingering. The taste, playing on the smell, is malty with sweet grapefruit and a salty hop finish.
FINE I WILL TALK ABOUT THE CRACK FRIES.
Michigan is very lucky in that its brewpubs double in culinary excellence. Short's has one of the best sandwiches I've ever had. The Walldorff has arguably the best pizza in Michigan. The Vierling has a perfectly grilled whitefish pulled right out of Lake Superior. Hopcat has crack fries. If you go to any internet review site – Yelp, Urban Spoon, Foursquare, Google Reviews – you will see that about half of the people leaving comments are begging you to try the crack fries.
I'll go ahead and let you know that this is not really a tough choice to make. Crack fries are perfectly crispy, perfectly seasoned, perfectly spicy potatoes sliced, beer battered, and fried to perfection. I've been eating them for close to a year now and I have never had a bad batch. To be honest, this is where I usually insert a picture of the mouth watering food, but...I ate them too quick to take a picture. Sorry folks.
The rest of their menu is quite good; I had their burger, which, while simple, was perfectly cooked (I like my ground beef to be pink in the middle, and many restaurants tend to second guess me when I ask for that) and complimented the beer quite well. Their entire appetizer menu is worth a shot; the beerbar cheese is an excellent cold cheese spread (sorry, Founder's, way better than yours) served with staunch fried pita slices that stand up well to the firm cheese. Their mini corn dogs taste better than any fair corn dog I've had, and the choice of horseradish mustard is always a wise choice.
The Hopcat represents a new vision in entertainment for the city; it's a place designed by and for craft beer lovers, offering up locally brewed selections next to favorites from around the state, country and world. It offers an impressive collection of spirits and even a “lawnmower beer” for that “What's the lightest beer you have?” friend who just can't take a craft beer. It serves these beers in a comfortable, laid back environment complete with knowledgeable staff and delicious food. There's no surprise that I consider this a 500 mile brewery; well worth the trip from anywhere in Michigan and easily the most fun place to hang out in the city. Thank you Jeff Williams and Jake Brenner for your originality in your brewing creations and your hospitality, and thank you to Mark Sellers for bringing such a place to Grand Rapids.
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