KALAMAZOO – Bell’s Brewery, Inc. celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday with its own beer festival dubbed “Funvitational.”
Homer Stryker Field was transformed into a carnival atmosphere complete with a Ferris wheel, games, photo booth, and food vendors. The main features, though, were the beer tents spread around the field that housed ninety breweries from near and far. Many of them had never served beers in Michigan before and don’t distribute here. All of the local Kalamazoo breweries were invited to participate alongside those from as far away as Belgium. Each guest brewery’s table had two taps for serving its carefully curated selections.
Guests arrived at the festival grounds on foot, by bike, and in cars, buses, and shuttles—including the silly, yet functional Big Banana Car.
The 3,000 ticket holders began their celebration as early as noon in a holding area where they exchanged their shiny multicolored event ticket for a wristband, commemorative tasting glass, and a guide booklet containing pages of carnival style tickets valid for 12 beer samples and $8 worth of food. They were able to bring and share their favorite beers while waiting for the festival to begin. Many rare and special brews were being passed around from group to group as they anticipated the official start.
When the time came to move from the holding area to the the festival site, the Detroit Party Marching Band led the line with their enthusiastic style of showmanship and lively tunes.
Numerous breweries deviated from their announced plans and brought special surprises. Perhaps the biggest was Cigar City Brewing from Florida who brought its coveted Double Barrel Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, a beer brewed only once and now retired. Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project from Colorado pleased fans of its Petite Sour series by adding Raspberry to its lineup.
Russian River Brewing Company from California served Supplication and its highly rated Pliny the Elder Double IPA, although it wasn’t Pliny’s debut in Michigan as it had been served at the American Homebrewers Association conference in Grand Rapids last year. The line for its table stretched across the field until the taps ran dry midway through the evening.
Bell’s served more than 30 beers at its home plate setup, as well as several from its Upper Hand Brewery division that doesn’t distribute in the Lower Peninsula. Bell’s Brewery’s retired Batch Number series was well represented with six of the earliest incarnations on tap. New beers created for the occasion made their debuts throughout the event.
“When we started planning this a year ago it was like ‘Ok, we know this is our 30th anniversary, what do we need to do to make sure that we have enough awesome beer to do it?’” said Vice President Laura Bell. “Because we can’t just put something in a barrel and then two weeks later have it be what you want it to be or try to organize all of the brews so, yeah, we’ve been working for about a year to make sure we had new and different exciting stuff.”
Guests and breweries alike were buzzing about Funvitational being one of the most organized and enjoyable events they’ve been a part of. Anne Sprecher of Wisconsin’s Sprecher Brewing Company, which also celebrated its 30th anniversary of brewing recently, said “This is awesome. Very well organized and it is what they say it is, it’s fun!”
“Our goal is to make this fun for brewers, too, right? You get invited to beer festivals and you’ve got to set up your own shit, and so everything is already tapped and set up for the brewers (at Funvitational),” said Bell. “All they have to do is show up and they get to play for an hour before everybody gets here. If you’re throwing a birthday party you don’t tell people to come and do all the work.”
Many Bell’s Brewery employees were part of the ample workforce who did the preparation and continued to ensure a smooth day for all in attendance.
Maine Brewing Company owner Daniel Kleban, who has roots in Michigan, spoke highly of his experience.
“I had no idea what to expect coming to this festival. I was just happy to be invited because I have a great respect for Larry and Laura, and John [Mallett, Director of Operations], and what they’ve done here with this brewery,” he said. “I had no idea if people would know who we were. I mean, we don’t sell beer here so it’s great,” he added about the welcome he’s received by people coming to his table for pours of Lunch and Another One.
“Obviously we love Michigan beer, and there are festivals that showcase that and the Guild does a fantastic job doing that,” said Bell. “We wanted to do something a little bit different, and having the opportunity to have breweries from all over the world here who don’t distribute to our state and to get to bring that here is something that we’re really proud of and excited for.”
“I think people take beer too seriously sometimes and at the end of the day, we make beer and beer is fun so let’s celebrate not only being able to drink some really great beers but have fun with our community,” said Bell. “Just take a deep breath, enjoy yourselves, don’t think about it too hard!”
A fireworks display behind home plate closed the festival after a rousing speech by President and Founder Larry Bell as he and his hard-working team were applauded by the crowd. Afterward, many people made their way to the Bell’s Beer Garden for the final outdoor show of the season, a free dance party with DJ sets of funk and soul music.