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bells brewery

Bell’s Brewery makes a lot of beer. During a tour of their sprawling facility in Comstock, Michigan, Austin Giles, our guide and the biggest bear hug of a person, spouts trivia at a mile a minute to drive that point home. Here are a few facts that stuck. Every second, two pints of Two Hearted are sold in Michigan. Every ninety minutes, during three different shifts a day, the team starts a new batch, and to get through one four-hundred barrel fermenter, of which they have sixty-six, it would take a person sixty years while drinking a six-pack a day. Giles smiles as though he’s up for the challenge. 

So yeah, Bell’s makes a lot of beer, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost touch with their roots. At the beginning of a timeline tracking the brewery’s milestones, there hangs a soup pot—Larry’s first brewing vessel—that could double as a sacred idol. “You look back at the pot and it’s like, oh my gosh, we were the original nanobrewery,” Bell said. It’s true and frankly insane to see how much has changed. When Bell opened up shop his competition included twenty-five other American breweries—only nine of which remain—and by 2020 we’re on track for upwards of eight thousand. Looking at the soup pot, these numbers leave an impression. This humble cauldron ushered in one of the nation’s largest and most successful breweries.

Despite his stature as a beer titan, Bell comes off disarmingly

down-to-earth and easy to get along with.

 

While moseying among the steel tanks, stories high and warehouses long, it’s hard not to feel awestruck by this empire Bell has built. Now distributed in 40 states, the Bell’s footprint goes toe-to-toe with many big box brandsand on its own terms no less. As AB-InBev continues to gobble up craft breweries, and craft breweries merge into conglomerate fortresses, Bell’s remains one-hundred percent independent and family owned. “Big brewers can say all they want that people don’t care who makes their beer, where it comes from, whether it’s independent,” Bell said. “I happen to know that they do.”  

 

I believe we’d all agree. Still, for as much as they care about their consumer, when I think about Bell’s I think about a pair of leather bootsworn in, trusty, but tucked away in a closet and taken for granted. At times, Bell feels forgotten too, “The number one question we get on tours is, is he still with us?”

He most certainly is, and to share a conversation with him now is to get lost in an aura of enigmatic energy. Despite his stature as a beer titan, Bell comes off disarmingly down-to-earth. We ricochet between his dreams of Bollrathian aliens, admiration for Walt Whitman, and musings on baseball. “When my brain has nothing to do, the place it goes is Cubs,” Bell said. Admittedly, his folkish veneer dissolves when he takes a call regarding his new Aston Martin. The sportscar will accompany his collection of eight Jaguars. Hippy turned tycoon, I can’t name another auteur in the industry quite like Larry Bell. I like to imagine he keeps a copy of Leaves of Grass stashed in every glove box. 

That said, when discussing the company, Bell is lucid. “I feel really good and excited about where we are right now,” Bell said. “We have a lot of energy behind innovation and new brands.” Take Flamingo Fruit Fight, Sparkleberry, and Pooltime for example. There’s a noticeable uptick of fun seeping into the portfolio. The Leaves of Grass series embodies the brewery’s free spirit too, breathing life into one of our country’s most nourishing poems. To borrow from verse, “the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.” Whether the beer takes off or not, it’s touching that Bell would risk sales to indulge a deeply personal project. 

 

Bell’s charters an intriguing way forward during a time when the future of craft beer isn’t entirely clear. Some argue there’s plenty of pie left for newcomers. Others worry how small the slivers are getting. “Let’s face it, we’re seeing the plateau,” Bell said. “Those heady days of 20% growth are gone. A third of the top 50 breweries had negative numbers this year.” 

From the sidelines, it seems like a good time for Bell’s to dig in their heels and pump out Oberon year-round, pile on surplus and see how things shake out, but they refuse to rest on their laurels. In fact, they’ve done the opposite. They’ve invested in a new pilot system to nurture creative recipes on a larger scale, revamped their beer garden to welcome nationally touring acts, and tinkered with their flagships to better reflect a drinker’s taste in 2019. It seems to be working. 

Unfortunately, a lot of press has focused on Bell’s trademark disputes and shifting leadership, but there’s an untold story in how they’re quietly adapting to a changing landscape. As consumer behavior shifts constantly, careful planning has gone into striking a balance between innovation and tradition, and hopefully what this amounts to is Bell’s meaning a little something important to everyone.

Let’s start with the enthusiast, perhaps the hardest to please, because no sooner does Oberon get tapped than it gets maligned on untappd as “worse than last year’s,” or for those who really want to flex their troll cred, “better when it was Solsun.” This vocal minority views Oberon as a scapegoat representing all that’s wrong with mainstream taste. It feels unfair to levy all this anger on one beer. While Oberon does taste mild, even compared to some of its seasonal competition, that’s its intentionto enhance experiences, not distract from them. Ultimately, if it bores, don’t drink it, there’s a wealth of choices to satisfy. Bell’s recently caged and corked The Wild One with raspberries, an open-fermented fruited sour that directly appeals to a beer nerd’s palate. But even these experimental offerings are beside the point. 

“Beer geeks get in their own echo chambers, whether it’s on Beer Advocate or other related groups. From where I sit, the world of beer is quite different,” Bell said. “I look at how much Two Hearted we sell.” As I’m sure you could guess, it’s a lot. “If Two Hearted were its own craft brewery it’d be the 13th largest brewery in the country.” No buts about it, Two Hearted mints cash, but maybe we’re lucky to enjoy this elephant in the brewhouse.  

For the third consecutive year, Zymurgy magazine, the homebrewer’s holy text, voted Two Hearted as the best beer, full stop, ousting the likes of Pliny the Elder and Heady Topper. Bell’s placing could derive from how cozy they are with homebrewers—what other major brewery packages their house yeast for commercial use?—but Matt Moberly, VP of sales and marketing, sees it differently. “Two Hearted’s beauty is in its simplicity,” Moberly said. “I think that sometimes the complexity of trying to innovative and utilize cool-kid hops can overpower the beauty of a balanced beer.” Single-hopped, aromatic, endlessly drinkable, it’s absolutely the six-pack I reach for after getting burned by another New-England murkbomb.

 

This brings us to Official, Bell’s foray into the hazy IPA market, which on a surface level looks like analytics pandering to what’s hot. I’ve caught myself accusing Bell’s of bandwagoning on the hazy train, but Bell anticipated these criticisms from the jump, “Look, we’ve been brewing unfiltered beer for decades,” he said. “If there’s something that’s trendy, how do we do it the Bell’s way, within our ethos and standards.” That means no flour and no shortcuts. While light on haze, the bouquet on Official is huge, and the tasting notes hit requisite citrus flavors without overwhelming the senses.  

A recurring motif from my conversations is the brewery’s insistence on quality. Bell’s gets first pick of centennial hops out west, their foeders are some of the finest in the biz, their brewing and packaging equipment is state of the art and environmentally friendly. They take pride in being a jack of all trades. “We define our brewery based on the breadth of our portfolio, not any single area,” Moberly said. “We strive to be a brewers brewery: let’s be really really good at everything we try.” The Bell’s logo has become synonymous with integrity.

bells brewery

Matt Moberly

So why have some brands like Roundhouse and Quinanan Falls disappeared into the ether? While beer speaks for itself, Moberly has noticed that to capture a younger audience, good liquid on its own doesn’t always cut it. “It’s so crowded now you have to have the total package when you put something out,” he said. “You have to not only have good beer but good branding and imagery for a chance to be successful.” Visually refreshing classics like Porter and Kalamazoo stout shows a willingness to bend even when it hurts. The new typography doesn’t quite match the original’s charm, but the consistent look should block well on store shelves. 

Ultimately, it’s about getting great beer into the hands of those who have overlooked it. For a majority of their brands, this isn’t a problem. Their portfolio has become iconic, slipping into the unexpected cracks of our lives. “I don’t know who climbs a mountain with a can of Coke,” Moberly said. “But they love to carry an Expedition Stout or a Two Hearted, take us along to their favorite places, and share their experiences with us. That’s pretty awesome.” 

Questions of succession remain as Bell reckons with his mortality, “I know I won’t live forever,” he said. I wouldn’t expect a funeral any time soon. His faculties remain acute, and his vision clear as day as a member of the old guard, Bell doesn’t see the craft beer tide reversing any time soon. “The revolution has already won,” he said. “We cracked the cosmic egg.” Whatever the future holds, all signs point to the cosmic scramble turning out in Bell’s favor. 

 

two hearted

 

COMSTOCK, Mich. – Bell’s Brewery and two of its beers – Two Hearted Ale and Hopslam Ale – were recognized again in this year’s Best Beers in America survey from Zymurgy magazine.

Two Hearted was No. 1 in the Top-Ranked Beers category and Bell’s in whole was named top brewery.

This is the third consecutive year that Two Hearted has claimed this honor. It came in second to Russian River’s Pliny the Elder for seven straight years previously.

Hopslam Ale also placed in the top-ranked beers list tied at No. 7.

Now running in its 17th year, the survey asks members of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA), which publishes Zymurgy, to choose up to five of their favorite commercial beers available for purchase in the U.S.

“Receiving this honor once, twice even was incredible. But a third time? I am speechless and incredibly thankful to the homebrewing community and everyone who has helped make this beer what it is today,” said Larry Bell, president and founder of Bell’s Brewery.

The full Best Beers in America list—which includes complete rankings on all the top beers, breweries and more is available at HomebrewersAssociation.org.

“Being selected as a winner for this esteemed list is no small feat. All of this year’s winners showcase exceptional flavors, expertly crafted by some of the greatest talent in the brewing industry,” said Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association. “I’d like to extend congratulations to all of this year’s winners and toast to their exemplary beers favorited by homebrewers and beer lovers alike.”

The AHA announced the results of this year’s survey in a press release.

“It is an honor to once again be awarded the top-ranking spots among so many great breweries and beers,” said John Mallett, Director of Operations at Bell’s Brewery. “Only the best Centennial hops, a commitment to quality by the entire Bell’s team, and the splendor of our home state are all part of the beauty of Two Hearted Ale. There is one other vital component, the beer lover. We are truly humbled to be recognized by the finest palates in homebrewing.”

The American Homebrewers Association has worked on behalf of the homebrewing community since 1978 and celebrates a membership of more than 46,000 homebrewers.

The Bell’s General Store has been supporting homebrewers in Kalamazoo and beyond since the 1980s and even, predates the brewery. Larry Bell founded the company originally as a homebrew supply store in 1983.

For homebrewers interested in replicating some of the winningest beers at home, the AHA provides clone recipes in Zymurgy and online, in the recipes section of the AHA website. Clone recipes for Bell’s beers, including Two Hearted, can be found at bellsbeer.com. Kits can also be purchased on the Bell’s online store.

 

 

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

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! 

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
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! 

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