Beer scene in downtown Kalamazoo to expand with entrance of HopCat

This fall the local beer scene will be getting just a touch less local, but a whole lot more diverse as Grand Rapids-based Barfly Ventures brings its popular HopCat concept to downtown Kalamazoo.

The 8-year-old company will retrofit The Depot, a previously abandoned railroad building located at 427 E. Michigan Ave., to house a state-of-the-art eating and drinking establishment with a capacity for nearly 300 guests.

With a projected early autumn opening, HopCat will aim to supply Kalamazoo with hundreds of beers, both of local and imported origin, as well as a large beer-friendly food selection.

The eatery will offer a tap list of well over 100 beers, with even more in bottles, giving HopCat the opportunity to introduce some fairly rare beers to a community that prides itself on its "beer town" status.

“That's always been one of our niches, we bring in some amazing Belgian beer. We bring in beer from England and Italy. We also get a lot of East and West Coast stuff. Basically, we just want to serve as much of the best craft beer we can find. We do want to focus on featuring beers that are from West Michigan, but we'll have breweries from all over the state too,” says Chris Knape, Vice President of Marketing and Communications. The tap list in Kalamazoo will be drastically different than the lists at the company's other locations, he adds.

“Each HopCat has its own thing going. For example, in Detroit we have a lot of meads. There are a lot of meaderies in that area and that's represented there,” Knape says.

Another major difference between the various locations is the atmosphere and architecture of the restaurants themselves as Barfly tries to find spaces that both represent the company and the city they're in. The depot pays tribute to Kalamazoo’s agricultural and industrial past. 

“We'd been considering Kalamazoo for several years but wanted to make sure we found the right spot. We were looking for a place with some unique character, one that would put us in the middle of the craft beer scene there. We're really close to Bell's. Arcadia is within walking distance and other places like Old Peninsula, Shakespeare's, Beer Exchange, they're all right around where we'll be,” Knape says.

The space they found will need major renovations to transition from a nearly 100-year-old train depot into the cutting edge restaurant Barfly envisions, but a multi-million dollar budget and some creative thinking should help. So should a  $484,435 grant from the Michigan Strategic Fund.

Once the staff is in place and the doors are open Knape and company are confident that their efforts will help HopCat become an integral part of the lThe grant will make a small dent in what is expected to be a $3.6 million dollar redevelopment by GTW Depot LLC (an entity of Plaza Corp Realty Advisors). The company says the project will maintain the integrity of the existing brick and wood building, and will shore up the structural integrity and add square footage. Many of the original features will be retained, including flooring, hardware materials.

The project will include a new enclosed deck area along the western wall of the building, enhanced parking and landscaping. The work is expected to be complete in summer of 2016. 

The project is also in line for a  local and school tax diversion to the tune of $145,050 to help pay for the removal of asbestos, pre-build demolition and site preparation. 

Built in the 1920s as a freight office for Grand Trunk Western Railroad, the historic structure was previously owned by Kalamazoo County, which had acquired it from the Arcus Foundation in 2014. Maru Sushi of Midland, and HopCat of Grand Rapids will be the first to move into the renovated building. Office space also will be available. With HopCat moving in the building will once again be a stopping point for downtown travelers.

“It's a big restaurant,” Knape says. "This one will seat almost 300 people and we'll have a lot of room outside for big groups on the multi-season patio,” Knape says. “I think that's really going to surprise a lot of people. We want to create a fun, active environment there. We're going to use as much of the Michigan year as possible. We're thinking outside the box and about ways we can keep the area open and warm when things get chilly out there. I think it will be a great place for people to gather and have a beer.”

Though the company began 50 miles north, it nonetheless has some Kalamazoo roots as Knape was a one-time resident of the area. That connection to Kalamazoo is something the company hopes to strengthen through collaborations with area breweries and other restaurants.

“We just recently brewed an Irish dry Stout with Latitude 42 in Portage called Bangin' the Mash. We have a brewer here at HopCat in Grand Rapids and a small brewhouse where we make beer that we don't distribute. He worked with the Latitude 42 guys and they canned and kegged a beer that we brought back up,” Knape says.

Besides working with area brewers, the company also wants lots of locals to work with them, in the form of a 100 person staff. The hiring process has already begun for servers, cooks, beertenders and other positions both in front and back of house.

Once the staff is in place and the doors are open Knape and company are confident that their efforts will help HopCat become an integral part of the local craft beer community.

"We want to be a great place for locals who can come in, have a great meal and then maybe walk across the street to Bell's or up the street to Beer Exchange or somewhere else. There’s a lot of room for cross-pollination in Kalamazoo,” Knape says.

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.
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