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Larry Bell of Bell's Brewery

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

During the fledgling 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."

larry bellIn 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."

Brewing Up New Facilitieslarry bell

In 2003, Bell's christened a modern, sprawling new brewing facility in Comstock, Michigan – just a few miles outside of Kalamazoo. After almost 20 years of dreaming, building solid brands, juggling finances and developing an indispensable aptitude for business, Bell finally had a brewery that would allow him to meet demand and expand into markets thirsty for craft beer. (Two years later, the original name of Kalamazoo Brewing Company was changed to Bell’s Brewery.)   

Financing the new facility proved quite stressful. "My banker was president of the bank, and I was on their community relations board. He had given me a contract to go ahead on the new brewery, but the bank called me later to tell me he had been fired, and the new guy refused to make good on the loan. With $1.9 million on the line, I was close to considering bankruptcy. Fortunately, my banker landed on his feet at a different bank, and the first deal he made was for our brewery."

As much as Bell is often seen as a fixture in the business community of the Kalamazoo area, his heart belongs to the scenic, rural areas of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he owns some property that has long belonged to his family. "This is a magical place with a different culture and three seasons for fishing, hunting and snowmobiling," he declares. "It's always been a dream of mine to brew beer up there and celebrate the culture."

In November of 2014, he fulfilled this dream by opening the $1.3 million, 11,500-square-foot Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba, Michigan, about 425 miles north of Kalamazoo. The small production facility's 20-barrel brewhouse shipped just 620 barrels of Upper Peninsula Ale, Escanaba Black and Upper Hand Lager in 2014 and makes no Bell's products at all. He seems proud of the fact that his Upper Hand beers are not available in the Lower Peninsula. He notes, "To get these beers, you have to travel to this beautiful place that I call home."

larry bell

Rock Solid Brands

Back at Bell's Brewery in Comstock, which was expanded in 2012 to include a new $22 million, 200-barrel brewhouse, the hoppy Two Hearted American-style IPA and the fruity, wheat-centered Oberon rank as top sellers among Bell's standard portfolio that includes Amber Ale, Porter, Kalamazoo Stout, Bell's Lager, Midwestern Pale Ale and the tart, sessionable Oarsman Ale. An indicator of just how much Bell's enjoys experimentation and creativity, the seasonal and specialty lineup boasts more than 50 inventive varieties.

Hopslam double IPA, a cult-classic Double IPA, started when Bell accepted an invitation several years ago to participate in the Lupulin Slam challenge at The Brickskeller pub that pitted three East Coast ales against three selections from the West Coast in a hoppy showdown. "We made a massively hopped, high-gravity IPA that was really amazing, but at the last minute I had to cancel and couldn't drive it to the event,” recalled Bell. “So, we put it on at the pub instead, and it immediately caught fire." Without any marketing, Hopslam soon gained mammoth popularity, entirely by word-of-mouth from hop-head consumers.

Bell's currently distributes kegs, bottles, cans and five-liter mini-kegs in 20 states and Puerto Rico. The brewery sells no beer to overseas markets but has participated in collaborations at breweries in the U.K. for the Wetherspoon pub chain.

Impressive Beer, Large Volumeslarry bell

In 2015, Bell's is shooting for production totals in the range of 410,000 barrels. "I don't think anyone who started a craft brewery back in the 1980s or 1990s had any kind of clue that this market expansion would ever happen," said Bell. "The advice from old brewery business leaders used to be 'Get to 30,000 barrels and stay there – you'll have a nice business.' That was my original goal. That's come and gone."

With so much buzz about quantity in today's explosive craft beer climate, Laura Bell likes to emphasize the importance of quality. "In our lab, production areas and packaging – it all comes down to making sure we are doing things right," she said. "At the end of the day in our pub, there's always a group of employees from every level of our company drinking our beer and showing pride in what great products we make."

Larry and Laura like to think of each employee as a member of the Bell's family. With 320 employees, 100 of which were hired just last year, maintaining personal relationships can be a challenge. "We have a slideshow of every employee," Laura explains. "We study the slides and get quizzed. We really want to know our people and promote a family atmosphere at Bell's."

Quality and Creativity

In today's trendy, fickle, beer-of-the-moment craft beer culture, how does Bell's manage to maintain its prominent status and remain on the radar of aficionados? Larry sees a "silent majority" of craft beer drinkers out there who appreciate outstanding products and classic styles. "These people aren't posting, blogging or fixating on the trendy stuff," he said. "They enjoy consistent, well-made, flavorful beer, and we provide this."

On occasion, Bell's does go out of its way to shake things up. Bell's annual All Stouts Day involves a tap takeover at the Eccentric Cafe with 21 different black ales made on the pub's pilot brew system. "It's so cool to look around the entire bar and see 200 people drinking nothing but dark beer," said Laura. “It’s fun and keeps customers excited and interested."

Aside from the Eccentric Cafe's role as a research and development test facility for Bell's latest brands, the pub forms a vibrant and spirited social hub for Kalamazoo. From the inception of the pub in June of 1993, Larry wanted no televisions. Remarkable beer, food and conversation make up the heart of the pub. He just approved a $2 million upgrade to improve the kitchen, add 120 more seats and build a new sports bar in the back.

larry bellAll In The Family

An old friend who teaches business once sat Larry down and talked about the popularity of light beers. He told him that Bell's should cash in and get on board. "I told him that's not what Bell's is about. We will never make a light beer."

There may not be a stauncher advocate of craft beer in America than Bell. When at odds with a distributor in Chicago not giving his beer its due in 2006, for instance, Bell withdrew from the state of Illinois and the highly lucrative Chicago market before returning with beer under a Kalamazoo label and a different distributor.

Bell’s daughter will help continue the advocacy for craft beer. "Bells is owned by family,” said Laura. “There's no bullshit. We don't have to answer to people who don't know about craft beer. The people here want to continue the legacy my dad started. We monitor ourselves, and our customers respond to this."

Bell recently completed a stock repurchase from some of his early minority investors to insure the business will stay in the family. He owns Bell’s Brewery with daughter Laura and son David. David Bell works in the political arena, but Laura has her sights squarely on a career with the brewery. She admits to not holding much interest in the brewery during her youth, but when she couldn’t find a job after college, her dad offered her a position at the brewery. "I started in sales and rotated my way through all kinds of jobs at the brewery – even running the forklift," she said. "In 2009, when I was 24, my dad asked me point-blank if I was in? I had learned so much about the business and developed a deep interest in craft beer. I had to say yes."

In her early days with Bell's, Laura enjoyed working the Bell's booth at festivals around the country and talking to customers who didn't know she was Larry's daughter. "I loved listening to people talk about our products and tell me stories about my dad," she said. "It turned out to be really easy for me to become passionate about our brewery and our beers."

Like a veteran rock star still cranking out hits, Bell’s founder always seeks inspiration from fresh sources. "I need young people in the band to come up with new ideas," he said. "Laura is always creative and innovative, and I think she will make a wonderful successor."

With his intense originality, creativity, success and passion for craft beer, Bell remains a student of the industry. "I'll never stop learning and trying out innovative ideas and new brands," he declares. "Maybe some of our new beers will fail, but many will do well. As time goes by and things get more complicated and the industry changes, it’s easy to take your eye off the passion for making great beer. We still have passion, and our business will always be about the beer."

Brewery Photos Courtesy of Bell's / Portraits Courtesy of Valerie Ott