Craft beer makers to star at HoptoberFest

August 26, 2011
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Oktoberfest is a 17-day festival held annually in Munich, Germany, from late September through the first weekend in October. HoptoberFest is a new, one-day downtown festival that will take place on Ionia Avenue between Weston and Oakes streets Oct. 15.

The inaugural festival is the brainchild of Barfly Events and HopCat, a beer bar with food at 25 Ionia Ave. SW. Its business purpose is to showcase the signature products made by area breweries. The event will feature a German beer garden, food, work from local artists and a blues lineup headed by the legendary Lonnie Brooks.

“Oktoberfest is a pretty well-known event that actually happens in September, not October, in Germany. But September is also ArtPrize in Grand Rapids so we couldn’t do it in September, and we picked the first available time after ArtPrize ended,” said Mark Sellers, principal of Barfly Ventures, which operates HopCat, Stella’s Lounge, The Viceroy and McFadden’s, all in downtown Grand Rapids.

“Since American beer tends to have a lot more hops than European beer, we’re calling it HoptoberFest — and the other thing is, it’s being put on by HopCat,” he said as to how the event’s name was chosen.

Sellers said he and his special events director, Shane Philipsen, spent months thinking about the event before deciding to go forward with it. Key to taking that leap was the success they enjoyed with their daylong Irish on Ionia promotion that celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last March.

“Because of that, I put Shane in charge of doing another festival. We were going to do one in August, but I realized there wasn’t enough time to get all the approvals. The next available time would be October, because of ArtPrize. So I’d say we kind of mulled it over for five months before going ahead with it,” said Sellers, who also is a part owner of The Pyramid Scheme, a live music venue in downtown.

HopCat, Founders Brewing Co., Brewery Vivant, The Hideout Brewing Co., White Flame Brewing Co. and Schmohz Brewing Co. will feature their top-of-the-line beers at the event. Sellers said The Brewery at The BOB also is planning to be at the event, but can’t sell its beers there because state law prohibits a brew pub that doesn’t distribute from selling its products at an event like HoptoberFest. The same goes for Harmony Brewing Co., which plans to have a booth at the event but won’t be pouring. “They’ll be there promoting themselves with banners and flyers,” said Sellers.

The Rockford Brewing Co. also will participate in HoptoberFest, but won’t be selling products because it won’t open for business until 2012. The Michigan Beer Cellar of Sparta is the most recent addition to the event.

Joining Brooks on the blues stage will be Big James and the Chicago Playboys, Stacy Mitchhart, and Rob Blaine’s Big Otis Blues.

Sellers said the city has granted all the necessary permits. “They’ve been very helpful, very amenable to doing this,” he said. “Irish on Ionia went off without a hitch, so the city kind of trusts us, and we take that really seriously. We know that if something doesn’t go well, we’ll lose credibility, so we’re not cutting any corners. We’re hiring good security and spending a lot on fencing to get everything fenced in.”

Sellers said he has about $60,000 invested in HoptoberFest. Some sponsorships have been sold and some goods, such as the plastic cups, have been acquired in return for promotional considerations. He said his biggest costs are for the fencing, the tents, the security and the bands. The blues portion of the event will cost around $10,000. Roughly 40 people will be working the festival.

“Because we are running this through HopCat’s license, we’re hiring all the employees who will be pouring beer. So it’s not brewery employees that will be pouring beer, it will be HopCat employees. There are a lot of costs to this thing, but then again, you can definitely make money if you do it the right way. If we just break even, I’ll be happy,” he said.

Tickets are $10 in advance and should be available at this week, as the plan is to put them on sale before Labor Day. The cost rises to $15 on the day of the event, which will run from 2 until 11 p.m.

Sellers said he hopes to make both HoptoberFest and Irish on Ionia annual events. He is hoping to draw 5,000 to the Oct. 15 event.

Two of his holdings, HopCat and McFadden’s, are on Ionia Avenue, while his three other businesses are on nearby Commerce Avenue. “I’ve invested about $10 million on that block over the last four years, and I think I have a pretty vested interest in seeing more activity in that area, so this is just an extension of that,” said Sellers.

“I’m just trying to give people more reasons to come downtown. But it’s not purely about making money; it’s also about making it a more exciting place to visit. We need more and more things to get people to come downtown.”

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