Bell’s Brewery, Michigan craft beer pioneer, turns 30 – MLive.com

KALAMAZOO, MI — Bell’s Brewery has come a long way from its beginnings brewing in a 15-gallon soup kettle to becoming Michigan’s largest beer maker and a trailblazer in the burgeoning craft beer industry.

Bell’s this weekend is marking its 30th anniversary, throwing a party Saturday that is bringing nearly 100 breweries from far and near to Kalamazoo to tap kegs and celebrate beer.

RELATED: Guide to Bell’s Funvitational

Three decades since Larry Bell launched it, Bell’s is the state’s largest brewery by sales and the brewery that sells the most Michigan-made beer in Michigan.

‘None of us would be here’

Bell’s is a pioneer for the beer industry in its home city and for craft beer across Michigan, said Kevin Tibbs, who in 2013 started a brewery next to the Kalamazoo State Theatre.

“The reason I’m brewing beer is because I grew up in Kalamazoo,” said the brewer of Tibbs Brewing Co., whose gateway into drinking craft beer was Bell’s and whose gateway into home brewing was Bell’s General Store. “I’m 38 years old and when I turned 21 the only beer you could get in the bar that wasn’t Bud Light or Miller Lite was Bell’s Amber (Ale).”

“None of us would be here without Larry Bell,” said Brian Steele, co-founder of Boatyard Brewing Co., which opened in June 2014 on Kalamazoo’s north side. “He’s the godfather of beer in Kalamazoo. We all pay homage. It’s hard for me to find someone as instrumental in the Midwest in craft beer.”

Larry Bell founded his company as a home brewing supply shop in 1983.

In its first year as Kalamazoo Brewing Co. in 1985, Bell was making his beer in a 15-gallon soup and selling it in “cubitainers,” a plastic four-liter container with its own spigot that could be refilled at the brewery, for $8. Kegs were sold for $56.

By 1986, Bell’s was producing 135 barrels of beer a year.

In 1992, Bell, along with fellow Michigan brewing pioneer Tom Burns, founder of the Detroit & Mackinac Brewing Co., were integral in pushing for state legislation to allow brewpubs to sell beer by the glass, said Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild. Bell’s was the first brewery in Michigan to sell beer on-site in June 1993 after that legislation was approved in Lansing.

“That legislation is really what turned the switch on in Michigan for craft brews to take off,” Bell recently told the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

“I can’t imagine how hard it was for Larry Bell to open a brewery 30 years ago,” Tibbs said. “I know how hard it was for us after the trail had been blazed.”

Without the work of Bell and Burns, he said, his business model wouldn’t work.

“We’re not a distribution brewery,” Tibbs said. “Small batches don’t lend themselves to kegs. Our business model wouldn’t work if we weren’t allowed to sell pints in our brewery.”

Bell’s brewpub provided a place for Michigan craft beer to grow again.

“We refer to it as the birthplace of Michigan’s craft beer resurgence,” said John Liberty, co-owner of West Michigan Beer Tours. “(Bell’s was) pretty much the lone wolf in Michigan at that time and now you’re well over 200 craft breweries in the state.”

Bell’s has since grown to sell more than 318,000 barrels in 2014, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade association based in Boulder, Colo. Its original brewery in downtown Kalamazoo brews up small batch brews adjacent to Bell’s Eccentric Café, which has recently been expanded into a full-service restaurant.

The vast majority of Bell’s production is done at its brewhouse in Comstock Township, which opened in 2002. Three years later, in 2005, Kalamazoo Brewing Co. changed its name to Bell’s Brewery Inc.

The company also owns an 80-acre farm near Mt. Pleasant, where it grows barley.

In November 2014, Bell’s opened Upper Hand Brewery, a new division based in Escanaba in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Upper Hand has its own line of beers and does not distribute them below the Mackinac Bridge.

The Brewers Association ranked Bell’s as the nation’s 8th largest domestic craft brewing company, based on self-reported sales, in 2014. The next largest Michigan brewery, Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, was ranked 17th.

Bell’s marked its 25th anniversary in 2010 by announcing a $52 million expansion to its Comstock production center. In its 30th year, it is undergoing another $50 million, 200,000-square-foot expansion at the facility east of Kalamazoo that will give it capacity to brew as much as million barrels a year.

Impact on Kalamazoo

Bell’s impact in its home city has grown increasingly evident. It invested in the eastern end of downtown at a time when that area was “pretty rough,” said Jerome Kisscorni, Kalamazoo’s economic development director and assistant city manager.

“At night you probably could have shot a gun downtown and nobody would’ve noticed,” Kisscorni said.

Bell urged city leaders to stick to the vision they had for redeveloping the riverfront, along the Kalamazoo River at downtown’s northeast edge, he said.

“Larry took a needy parcel of land and started out there,” Kisscorni said of Bell’s original location on Kalamazoo Avenue. “I give him credit. He could have easily, as he got successful, exited the downtown, and he didn’t.

“He’s got some challenges with the property and he’s worked with them. He’s got railroads on two sides of him and a major one-way street in front of him. He’s stayed with it and people seek him out now,” he said.

“We have for years been working to create a lot of excitement and energy around the eastern area of town, and Bell’s has been huge part of what’s going on now,” said Kalamazoo mayor Bobby Hopewell. “You have Water Street (Coffee Joint), Food Dance, Arcadia (Ales). All of this is creating this amazing destination for the residents of the city and the entire community.”

The acclaim Bell’s has gained by now distributing its beer in 20 states is evident here, said Greg Ayers, president and CEO of Discover Kalamazoo.

“All you have to do is walk through their parking lots and see license plates from across the country,” he said. “Many of them come to Kalamazoo for Bell’s and others come for other reasons and while they’re here make sure Bell’s is on their itinerary.”

Brewing landscape changing

Around the world, the brewing landscape is changing. Bigger breweries are buying up small- and moderate-sized breweries, as evidenced nearby with this month’s announcement that Goose Island, a Chicago subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch InBev, has bought a majority stake of Virtue Cider, located in Fennville.

Bell’s, which had outside shareholders for most of its history but since 2012 has been entirely family-owned, has gone in a different direction, Liberty noted, with Larry Bell, 57, having turned some key operational work over to his daughter, Laura. 

“I’m excited to see what her fingerprint on the future of the brewery will be for the next several years,” Liberty said. “There’s a lot of weight on her shoulders. A lot of pressure comes with that name.”

To celebrate its 30 years in business, Bell’s is spending the weekend with 90 of its fellow brewers, which are coming in from across the country. The Funvitational, Bell’s 30th anniversary party, is slated for 4 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, at Homer Stryker Field in Kalamazoo.

The Funvitational will feature more than 200 beers from around the world, from Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder, the double India Pale Ale that’s hard to track down but always rivals Bell’s Two Hearted Ale in competitions, to a favorite closer to home, Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout.

Bell’s will bring out some fun beer variations of its own, from its coveted Black Note Stout to double Two Hearted, Sparkleberry, Sweet Potato Saison and Bourbon Barrel Aged Expedition Stout. Bell’s officials have said to expect some surprises not on the brewery’s official beer list, too.

Emily Monacelli is a reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Contact her at emonacel@mlive.com or follow her on Twitter.