Monday, September 19, 2011

Bell's Brewery

Do me a favor and before you read this article, go outside to the closest place where there’s more than three strangers hanging out. Ask them if any of them have heard of Bell’s Beer. Come back into your house (or your office, or wherever you’re reading this) and report how many strangers have heard of Bell’s beer.

Or just imagine you’re doing that, and make up a fake comment: this is the internet, and I won’t judge you.

As you probably just found out, pretended you found out, or already knew because you’re an epic genius, pretty much everyone in Michigan knows what Bell’s Beer is. It should come as no surprise that their Two Hearted IPA is the best selling (and top rated) American style IPA brewed in Michigan. It should not be shocking that Oberon performs the same feats in the American Pale Wheat category. Bell’s is a big deal. It is not an exaggeration to claim that they started the Michigan craft beer market.

Larry Bell started the Kalamazoo Brewing Company in 1983 as a home brew supply shop. Two years later, armed with a 15 gallon soup kettle, Bell’s Brewery, Inc began selling its own beer. In 1986, Bell sold a scant 135 barrels of beer, all of which Bell and his staff hand bottled and delivered to market. The tiny company fought significant headwinds against the bloated macro market, carving out a niche for local craft beer the benefits of which everyone – from smaller brewers to startups to beer drinkers – enjoys today.

Fast forward to 2003: the capacity at the Bell’s brewing facility (now known as the Eccentric Café) had been outgrown. Bells built a new brewery in Comstock, on 40 acres of land that would allow for plenty of future expansion. Since then, the enthusiastic drinkers of Bells beer have required that the brewery expand its brewing capacity three times – and they are currently working on their fourth major expansion in under a decade. Twenty percent annual growth will do that to a company. If you’re interested in a more in depth history of Bell’s, check out their web site and the wiki page; both have some good information. I'll just end by saying they brewed 180,000 barrels of beer in 2010, with no intentions of slowing down.

And now it is a large place.

Laura Bell, marketing director for Bell’s brewing, was gracious enough to take the Michigan Beer Blog on a tour of their primary (and relatively private) brewing facility located in Comstock. The sleepy little business park is home to where almost every single Bell’s beer you drink is born.

This brewery is no joke. You wonder what the difference is between a small batch brewer operating with the capacity of a home brew setup and the largest brewer in the state? In terms of sheer output, Bell’s has more in common with a macro facility like Miller than it does with some of its local Michigan contemporaries, with an enormous kettle, lauter tun, and mash tun, their stainless steel spotlessly polished and gleaming in the natural sunlight.

They have what seems like acres of fermenters. Pictured above is their older 200 bbl fermenters, which make me look like a tiny person. Below, take a look at the massive farm of 400 bbl fermenters, stretching down an enormous facility that continues to grow as Bell’s beer continues to gain in popularity. You helped create this, fellow craft beer enthusiast, and you sustain it every time you order a Bell's beer.

And just to tease you a bit: here is a picture of the last of Bell’s Black Note beer, a rare and heady mixture of their Double Cream stout and their Expedition stout. Side note: Bell’s eschews the philosophy of having “beer release days.” You will not see the equivalent of a Dark Lord day for Bell’s, nor will you see a release party for the Black Note like you may for Kentucky Breakfast Stout or other highly sought after beers. Bell’s philosophy differs, and they want you to be surprised on that fortunate weekend when you walk into your favorite beer cellar and find a surprise waiting for you on the shelf.

(Yes, I realize that there are dozens of release parties for Oberon every spring. Slightly different situation.)

Continuing on the tour, in case you have not grasped the scope of the brewery, let me remind you that the pictures shown thus far have been only of the brewing room and the fermenting room. We have several huge rooms to go. Take a look at their bottling system, which looks like it’s right out of the opening sequence of Laverne and Shirley. The bottling system can clean, fill, label, and package 11 cases per minute of beer. Take a look at them filling orders for Bell’s Octoberfest:

 Additionally, Bell’s runs a bit of a hobby by offering mini kegs. These are not a large part of their business, but rather something they just, as Laura says, “like to do. For fun.”

Finally, Laura showed us the storage facility. Typically I don’t really spend a lot of time on the “giant room we store beer for the short amount of time it takes the distributor to pick it up,” but I want to point out one of the really cool things Bell’s does both for the environment and for its employees. See those lights up there?  The bright ones in the picture below? That is natural light. Bell’s invested in a mylar light system, which is essentially a highly efficient and powerful skylight system that allows the sun to be reflected and harnessed to act as a lighting system for buildings. Laura said these work even on cloudy days. And while there is an existing fluorescent lighting system in place as a backup, even that system functions on a specialized computer system that reads how much natural light is available and adjusts the other lights accordingly. It’s quite a setup, and as someone with a history of Seasonally Affective Disorder in my family, it’s heartening to see companies offering natural light to their employees.

Additionally, Bell’s makes many efforts to pump money back into the Michigan economy. While I don’t have figures on how much Bell’s adds to the state or city economy, I do know they employ nearly150 people with the intention of more than doubling that figure in the coming years as their newest expansion comes online. Bell’s is a regular sponsor in many, many events, from amateur sports teams to dozens of beer dinners statewide to the March of Dimes and the Children’s Leukemia Foundation. So, in case you needed another reason besides the delicious taste of their beer, feel safe knowing that Bell’s is a responsible member of the Michigan community.

There's a reason why one of the oldest breweries in Michigan is also one of the most successful. Bell's serves as a great example (and target!) for many aspiring entrepreneurs in Michigan, from established an growing brewers to home brewers with a dream. Thanks to Larry Bell for helping to create and shape the Michigan craft beer market we all enjoy, and to Laura Bell for providing the tour. 


Zymus said...

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Love Bells!

Anonymous said...

Visited Bells while they were still a small outfit at the orginal location. Maybe the beer was no better but the ambiance was. That said, damn, that Hopslam I just had was freaking wonderful. And there are still to many BMC drinkers out there.They do not have a clue as to what a real beer tastes like. That is sad. GO BELLS!

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