COMSTOCK — Bell’s Brewery, the anchor of the Michigan microbrews.
The brewery is quite possibly the reason the industry has exploded the past 15 years in Michigan and only set to grow even more in the near future.
Its staple brews of Oberon and Two Hearted have gone on to mainstream success. At several restaurants, Oberon stands alone and is known for the quality summer beverage it provides.
Larry Bell started brewing in a tiny kettle he received as a gift from his mother, providing friends the brews he concocted. Soon the demand grew to where he had to open up to the public. Since that day in 1985, Bell’s has grown big and strong, the granddaddy of “The Great Beer State.” The company is expected to brew more than 220,000 barrels this year, up from the 30,000 barrels at the downtown brewery in 2002. In 1985, he brewed just 135 barrels. The brewery has grown by 20 percent over the last few years.
Recently, The MittenBrew crew headed down to Kalamazoo — and Comstock — Mich., for an exclusive Laura Bell-guided tour of the newest 200 barrel production compound, completed in May, and the rest of Bells expansive brewing facility.
The newest addition — which boosts the company’s capacity to 800,000 barrels a year — is a gorgeous mix of wood and stainless steel. A set of stairs take you up to the “museum” that details the company’s history and offers a unique view of the upper parts of the new brewing tanks.
Also part of the expansion was a new grain system that allows quicker milling of grains and helps keep the brewery clean in a sealed room — Laura Bell stated it “cuts down on dust” that floats around the brewery.
The new system will be used primarily for the company’s large scale, popular beer such as Oberon and Two Hearted.
As we were moving on to the other parts of the facility, Laura told us how environmentally friendly the company is, including a 93 percent landfill diversion rate, and recently hired on a full-time sustainability expert. Even the steam from the brewing process is reused for heat.
It’s a three pronged approach, Laura explained, saying its good for environmental, social and economic reasons.
We explored the sensory evaluation room, where all the beers are tested for quality.
“We want consistency,” Laura said. “We want beer that tastes just as good in every bottle.”
The facility before the newest addition is a 50 system that can brew four to five beers at a time. It’s noticeably different than the newer area — it’s clearly meant to be just a production facility.
The whole facility is nicely lit, using a combination of light collecting skylights and sensors that keep the areas lighted like the outdoors and not with harsh fluorescents.
Laura said the bottling portion might soon go to a 24-7 operation and the packaging department just got a robot, which won’t be named, because once it is, it “has an identity.”
The nice part about the robot is it’s job neutral — it didn’t replace anyones job. And Bell’s employs more than 180 people, including 62 additions in the last year.
Quite possibly the most unique part of the tour was seeing the giant cyprus barrels from the old Stroh’s brewery. They were in the process of being put together, and Bell’s will brew in them soon, likely a basic lager. Stroh’s closed in 1985, just months after Larry Bell sold his first beer.
“We’re going to sell it in Michigan, as a piece of Michigan history,” Laura said.
The original Bells Eccentric Cafe also was recently renovated. And like the brewery, it’s also quite large.
Offering a full food and drink menu, the Eccentric Cafe features unique artwork, hand selected by Larry Bell himself. There’s a garden patio, a big lawn stage for music, two brewhouses, an indoor stage and the pub.
Both the pub and the indoor music venue have lofted seating areas that offer nice aerial views of the venues, and are encapsulated by a rustic, wood feeling that leaves a person feeling right at home in this great beer state.
Photography by Bryan Esler. Look for our video recap of our trip to Bell’s soon!