Food Service & Agriculture and Retail

GR Brewing Co. to begin pouring this week

Owners try to pay tribute to the city with their latest venture.

December 1, 2012
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GR Brewing Co. to begin pouring this week
Samuel Short, left, and Mark Sellers are ready to welcome customers Wednesday to the new Grand Rapids Brewing Co. Photo by Michael Buck

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) While Lansing is their next business frontier, Mark and Michele Sellers are opening their latest creation right here in downtown and they’re doing all they can to honor the city and possibly some of its famous citizens.

They have revived the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. and will swing open the brewpub’s doors at 1 Ionia Ave. SW Wednesday at 3 p.m.

The Sellers, the husband-and-wife owners of BarFly Ventures LLC, already are heavily invested in the Central Business District. They own and operate HopCat, Stella’s Lounge, The Viceroy and McFadden’s and are co-owners of The Pyramid Scheme with Jeff and Tami Vandenberg. All the venues are south of Fulton Street in an area often referred to as the entertainment district, which largely occupies Ionia and Commerce avenues.

Why add another Ionia Avenue enterprise to the ambitious downtown inventory they have built in just a few years?

“Well, I had opened Stella’s when I decided to take this project on. Stella’s had been open over a year at that point and I was looking for something else to do. Grand Rapids Brewing Co. went out of business out in the mall, and I thought that would be a very interesting brand to revive and do it the right way,” said Mark Sellers.

GR Brewing Co. opened in 1893 when six local beer makers decided to pool their talents. They were successful, too: Sellers said the firm’s records showed it produced 250,000 barrels a year during its heyday. Then Prohibition came in 1918 and the brewing stopped.

The business remained dark until Schelde Enterprises, which operated a local restaurant chain here, resurrected it in 1993 near what was then Eastbrook Mall, now Centerpointe Mall. Schelde operated it for 15 years and then sold it to a group of local investors who shut it down in June of last year.

“I don’t think they necessarily did it the right way out there. I wanted to bring that brand downtown. I contacted the mall, which had repossessed everything, and bought the assets from them. And a plan was hatched,” said Sellers. “I just kind of think Grand Rapids needs a namesake brewery and it needs to be downtown — I just feel strongly about that.”

The new GR Brewing Co. has 7,000 square feet of space on the ground floor with two bars and room for 300 patrons. Another 3,000 square feet on the same level has been set aside for possible expansion. A mezzanine that runs along the south wall also can be developed and would seat 80 more patrons. There is 6,000 more square feet in the basement where the kitchen and the brewing operation are located. Lott3Metz Architecture designed the project and 616 Development owns the building.

The operation’s interior is made of reused brick and wood, which complements the city’s push for using recycled products. The bricks are from the building, which opened in 1886, and much of the wood came from an old barn in Coopersville. The building is actually a combination of the Hawkins and Gunn Co. structures at 1 and 7 Ionia Ave. SW.

GR Brewing Co. will employ about 90; Shawn Blonk is the general manager. The brewpub will offer 10 craft beers on tap: Five will be permanently available, including the original brewing company’s signature beer, Silver Foam. The other five will be seasonal brews.

All but the Silver Foam may be named after famous Grand Rapids residents. One, for instance, will be John Ball Brown. Other names being considered are Louis Campau, Mayor George Heartwell, Gerald R. Ford, and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Sellers said he expects to brew about 2,500 barrels annually. Jacob Brenner is the head brewer.

Even before the first customer is served, the new business will have achieved something in the state’s craft-brewing industry that no other brewpub or microbrewery has. The GR Brewing Co. has become the first certified organic brewer in Michigan, another feat that adds to the city’s growing ecological reputation. Sam Short, project manager for BarFly Ventures LLC, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has certified the brewpub with that status.

Short also said the menu will feature hand-cranked sausages made from local products and from scratch. Customers can choose from beef, pork, chicken and duck. The menu will offer a host of other items, like homemade soups and salads, gourmet beef, crab and veggie burgers and rainbow trout. “We take as much pride and care in developing our food as we do our beer at Grand Rapids Brewing Co,” said Adam Watts, the executive chef.

“Like all the bars that I open, I kind of think of my customers as me. So I’m just building something that I would personally want to go to,” said Sellers.

GR Brewing Co. is actually a brewpub, not a microbrewery like Founders Brewing and others. A microbrewery can only sell what it makes but can distribute and sell its products elsewhere, whereas a brewpub can only sell its beers on premises but can sell other beer products, as well. GR Brewing Co. will have a cider on tap that it doesn’t make.

Once the new brewpub’s kinks are ironed out, Short will head to Lansing to start working on the firm’s ventures there. The plan is to open a second HopCat on the ground floor of The Residences at 211 Ann St. in downtown East Lansing.

The Sellers also plan to re-establish the Lansing Brewing Co. on the ground floor of the new Stadium District Apartments. The apartment complex is across the street from the home field of the Lansing Lugnuts, a minor league baseball franchise. The Lansing Brewing Co. operated from 1898 until 1914.

“We’re not starting construction for a few months, but we’re going through the permitting process, the liquor license process and those things right now. We plan to open both of those projects next July or August,” said Sellers, who graduated from MSU’s Broad School of Business.

“I want it to be a place that Grand Rapids is proud of and that I’m proud of,” said Sellers. “That means great service, high ethics and good business principles — and most important of all, great beer and food.”

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