Owen Ogletree's picture

Larry Bell of Bell's Brewery

Like Father, Like Daughter – Bells Share Commitment to Innovation, Craft

During the fledging days of Bell's Brewery, founder Larry Bell found himself in a bind. He needed to drive around Kalamazoo, Michigan to complete deliveries of his popular Amber Ale, but his seven-year-old daughter Laura was sick and home from school. While Bell labored to get the brewery off the ground, his wife worked a regular job to help pay the bills. So, he strapped Laura into the van with some paper and crayons and hit the road.

Shortly after driving past Laura's school, Amberly Elementary, Bell looked over and noticed his little girl had sketched a beer label called Bell's Amberly Ale. "This label included a logo and everything," he recalled. "It featured a guy with crazy eyes and hair sticking straight up. Laura called him 'Mr. Ale.' If the school ever saw this, I knew I'd be in trouble."

That morning twenty years ago helped inspire him to double his efforts to keep Bell's Brewery going in a time when craft breweries were scarce and struggling. He saw the brewery as a legacy for his daughter and son. Today, Bell's Brewery ranks as the oldest and largest craft brewery in the state of Michigan.

Looking back from her current position as a co-owner and vice president of Bell's Brewery, Laura Bell sees a myriad of reasons why her dad succeeded as a craft beer pioneer. "Being an innovator not only involves coming up with a wonderful product," she said. "Inspiration is important and my dad received inspiration from so many different people, places and experiences over the years. He's also gifted at seeing how the company needs to grow, adapt and focus. Thirty years is a long time, and it's remarkable that he's gotten us here."

In The Beginning

Larry Bell's people skills and aptitude for business sprang from a variety of early life experiences. In junior high, he wanted to live in Chicago and become a jazz drummer. "Jazz was one of my earliest failures," he said. "I soon started promoting and booking bands and playing music with them, although not very well. I was doing some radio work in college when I decided to focus on a teaching career. I did some student teaching at a very poor, rural school in Mississippi and this quickly cured me of the teaching bug."

Bell's love affair with all things malt and hops began when his brother gave him an airline ticket as a high school graduation present. He boarded a plane for the first time and flew to Washington, D.C. to visit his brother, who immediately took him to The Brickskeller pub. Bell was only 17 and underage, but things were different back then. He drank five interesting beers and marveled at the pub's vast collection of beer cans.

The illicit visit to The Brickskeller prompted Bell to begin his own massive collection of cans and breweriana that's now displayed proudly in Bell's Eccentric Cafe in Kalamazoo. "I have so much stuff, that some people call me a hoarder," he said. "I prefer the term eccentric. The items on the walls of our bar are the history of my life, so I could never sell the place."

The Homebrew Connection

After college, Bell landed a job in a Euro-style bakery in Kalamazoo that was owned by friends who homebrewed using some of the grains. Homebrewing immediately became an infatuation and inspired mad thoughts of creating beer on a commercial scale.

In 1983, Bell's mother gave him $200 for this birthday. He spent $35 on incorporation fees and asked the bakery's attorney to set up a stock sale. He traded six shares of his new company for a few months free rent at a storefront near the bakery and $165 bought inventory to open up a homebrew shop. "Shortly afterward, I sold $2,000 worth of stock for a new brewery and got a $7,000 loan, only because my wife co-signed." Bell points out that the brewery's first beers were actually made on his homebrew system. "This whole thing really started on a shoestring!"

September 19, 1985 saw the opening of the original Bell's Brewery next to the homebrew store in Kalamazoo. Bell's Eccentric Cafe is now housed around the corner. Like one's first car from many years ago that continues to run well, the homebrew shop still holds a revered place in Bell's business paradigm. "I keep the homebrew store because I see homebrewers as the 'minor league' of professional brewers," he says. "Many of the guys working in our brewery started as homebrewers, and homebrewers make great consumers at the pub. They're your target audience that you want to befriend and help out."

Bell hosted the first homebrew club in Kalamazoo back in the 1980s and the group still flourishes today. "At least one of Bell's major brands was inspired by creative, early homebrewers, and we now host a competition at the original brewery where each homebrewer gets five gallons of the same wort made from barley we grow on our farm in central Michigan. They do whatever they want with the wort, and we judge the final beers. The winner brews the recipe on our system, has their beer on tap at the pub and gets to enter the beer at the Pro-Am competition at the Great American Beer Festival."

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