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For beer geeks, few places are better than HopCat

Dan Radkey took one look at Hopcat's beer menu and said, "I'm going to need some time." He works at City Wide Liquors in South Bend and was along on a bus trip to HopCat in Grand Rapids, Mich., and three Michigan breweries on Feb. 20. He's a beer geek. And he was suddenly at the bar of what Beer Advocate Magazine called the third best beer bar in the world.

Posted on March 1, 2010 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on March 1, 2010 at 2:52 p.m.

Dan Radkey took one look at Hopcat's beer menu and said, "I'm going to need some time."

He works at City Wide Liquors in South Bend and was along on a bus trip to Hopcat in Grand Rapids, Mich., and three Michigan breweries on Feb. 20. He's a beer geek. And he was suddenly at the bar of what Beer Advocate Magazine called the third best beer bar in the world.

HopCat has 48 taps and a hand-pulled tap that relies on human power rather than gas to put the liquid in the glass. About 25 of the taps feature Michigan beers, another 15 to 20 are from elsewhere in North America and five to 10 are from further away. One of them, called the Lawnmower tap, has "chore juice" from Pabst, Stroh's, Olympia or the like. Then there are about 150 different bottled beers.

"The only rule is we don't have any macros here," said Garry Boyd, ringleader, or manager, of the place. That means no Budweiser, no Miller Light and not even Sam Adams.

Radkey and I sat at the bar on the trip organized by wine rep Jay Fields of Indiana Wine and Wholesale Liquor Co. It was our first time there. Also at the bar was John Bender, associate professor of chemistry at Grand Valley State University. He's a regular. And because this is Hopcat, he's lucky.

Beer Advocate is one of the respected voices when it comes to craft beer. Boyd made it a goal of his team to get on their list of the 50 best bars.

That was soon after they opened in November 2007. Then a year ago, HopCat didn't just make the list. It was third. This year it repeated the spot, behind Ebenezer's in Maine and The Brick Store in Georgia. "It's a huge deal," Boyd said.

Mark and Michelle Sellers started the spot after wanting to have a place to hang out and drink beer. They hired Boyd, who had worked elsewhere in the local restaurant and bar industry, and he traveled to learn what it would take to become a great beer bar.

It means making friends with those who make great beer.

It means being there when a plane lands with special kegs.

It means making it available to beer geeks who talk in terms of International Bitterness Units, maltiness and mouthfeel.

Hopcat's good at all of them. And one of the things Boyd said he learned other great beer bars do is put kegs of stuff in the cellars to age. That changes the flavor of beer. And makes it a beer geek's nirvana.

The taps highlight Michigan beers and the bottle collection highlights Belgians, but also includes rare offerings from places like Jolly Pumpkin in Michigan. As if that weren't enough, Hopcat is brewing it's own beer in a 3 1/2 barrel system. "We talk the talk, so can we walk the walk?" Boyd said of why they started. Doing so expands their offerings, but also allows them to interact with drinkers and go to festivals as brewers.

As customers, we learned how hard it can be to make a choice at Hopcat. I went for the Short's Huma Lupa Licious and tasted a few other things. And the thing is, if I like something today, it may not be there tomorrow, though the Short's wonderfully named India Pale Ale is almost always on tap, Boyd said.

HopCat will sell growlers, or half-gallon bottles, of anything on tap. When it has events, turning over as many as two dozen taps to a brewer such as Short's or Bell's, it won't sell growlers of specialty brews for a couple hours, but will eventually.

Contrast that to some brewers themselves that won't fill growlers of specialty brews. Mad Anthony's can't sell anything in Elkhart because of licensing but won't sell growlers of certain things at Warsaw or Fort Wayne locations. Even Founder's in Grand Rapids generally won't do so.

I say charge me a premium, but if I've gone all that way to get your beer and want to take some home, let me. Don't tell me you're trying to keep it around.

"What's the point of not letting people enjoy it," Boyd said when I asked him about their liberal policy. "It seems like a waste of beer. There's so much more beer."

The food at HopCat is pretty good too and it's all meant to be eaten with beer. Boyd said they crafted a menu of comfort food. I went for Bender's recommendation of macaroni and cheese and picked spinach, red peppers and chorizo from a list of add-ons. I'm still thinking about how good it was.

Hopcat will likely only get better. Boyd wants to expand the bottle program, tweak the menu and help the owners open a cocktail bar version of HopCat in Grand Rapids. I can't wait to go back. Next time, I hope I can go with Eric Strader, a friend and the excellent blogger who writes "Beer Nuts" for eTruth.com.

"Pretty much you're going to tell the whole world HopCat rocks?" Boyd asked when he first learned I was a food columnist.

To the best of my ability, yes. Maybe not the whole world. But as many beer lovers as I can.

IF YOU GO

What: HopCat

Where: 25 Ionia Ave. S.W., Grand Rapids, Mich.

Fare: Comfort food to go with beer

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 2 a.m. Sunday. Food is served until 11 p.m. every night.

Details: Growlers filled. Credit cards accepted. No smoking. Handicapped accessible. Four-course beer dinners happen every other Sunday for $35 per person.

Phone: (616) 451-4677

On the Web: www.hopcatgr.com

QUICK BITES

* Because of confusion, which I helped create with a note in last week's column, Il Forno Italian Restaurant, 127 S. Main St., Goshen, is returning to regular weekly hours instead of winter hours. "There have been many rumors about the restaurant and about our hours," wrote owner Mario Garber. "We have attempted to have 'winter hours' because of the slow season, but this has only caused confusion." Hours will be 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 5 to 9 Saturday.

* Das Dutchman Essenhaus' eighth annual Cooking Show and Demonstration Event is 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Samples and cooking seminars will happen in the upstairs of the restaurant at 240 U.S. 20, Middlebury.

* Brett Jacobs of Goshen will compete to be the Student Chef of the Year from the central region of the American Culinary Federation. The former Elkhart Area Career Center student is studying at Ivy Tech Community College. He's a third-year apprentice at Elcona Country Club and is a member of the ACF's South Bend chapter. The 21-year-old is representing Indiana and will compete against chefs from Kansas and Missouri on March 26.

* New Belgium Brewing, which entered the Indiana market last year, is offering Ranger Indiana Pale Ale in this area. It's the hoppiest offering of the third-largest craft brewer in the U.S., according to a press release.

* Arby's in Dunlap isn't serving breakfast as of today. The Cassopolis Street location will continue to do so, according to a Dunlap employee, who indicated business was slow for the morning meal.

Contact Marshall V. King at mking@etruth.com, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hungrymarshall.


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