By Rick Coates
Larry Bell is the godfather of the Michigan craft brew industry of
microbreweries and brewpubs. While the modern craft brew industry
started out West, Bell is one of its pioneers this side of the
Mississippi River. He has inspired legions of brewmasters to follow in
Bell launched the Kalamazoo Brewing Company in 1985 (now called Bells
Brewery, Inc.). Their brewery operation is now located in Galesburg,
just outside of Kalamazoo. The company also owns the Eccentric Café in
Kalamazoo where they offer their beers on tap and feature live
Bells will be among the breweries represented this weekend at the
Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival. There will also be a Bells
Beer Dinner on Tuesday, August 24 at the Top of the Park in Traverse
Bells beers are now available in 18 states and Puerto Rico, and the
brewery is currently expanding its production capabilities as well as
its Eccentric Café. The company currently employs around 100 people.
During the course of the year, Bells offers 50-plus brews. Flagship
beers include their Amber Ale and Pale Ale, with their summer seasonal
Oberon being the breweries best seller.
In a few weeks Larry Bell will celebrate his brewerys 25th
anniversary with a series of events planned in Kalamazoo, including
the release of a special 25th Anniversary Ale, a dry-hopped strong ale
made with Michigan barley grown at the brewerys farm.
Larry Bell remains passionate about his brewery and the industry in
general. Now 52, Bell was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years
ago. Fully recovered and as energetic as ever, he took time from
relaxing during his vacation in Curtis in the Upper Peninsula to
answer a few questions.
Northern Express: Do you remember the first ever batch of homebrew you made?
Larry Bell: Yes, I was working in a bakery in Kalamazoo (Bell went to
Kalamazoo College) at the time and one of the guys made some homebrew
and had me over. It was awful and I thought I could do better. So I
bought a homebrew kit and made a batch. I was living with three guys
at the time all who liked beer. I remember the beer recipe called for
just a can of malt and a bunch of sugar. It tasted terrible, but you
know, we drank it all, and after that first batch I was inspired to
NE: What are some of the things that stick out to you when you reflect
back on the early days of the brewery?
Bell: Well I went from homebrewing to owning a homebrew supply shop in
Kalamazoo. I opened the shop to get customers to become stock holders
in my commercial brewery. Well, there was this brewery in Chelsea that
had just opened and I started spying on them and decided to open my
own. It was rough going in those days; I think that Chelsea brewery
only lasted a year or two.
Basically, the best way to describe those early days was that I had
people wanting to buy my homebrew. So I looked into a license and my
early brews were really legalized homebrews. I was using some homebrew
equipment in those days and even fermenting in Rubbermaid garbage
NE: So when you opened there was no vision of where you would be in 25 years?
Bell: (Laughing) No the only vision we had was whether we would be
able to open the doors the next day. That is pretty much how we
operated for the first five years. I started this with $200 my mom
gave me and a loan I secured through my first wife co-signing on it,
along with trading stock for renting a building. Eventually, this
vision became making payroll and getting a paycheck myself. But we are
still here because we have stayed true to our vision of making quality
NE: Northern Michigan got behind your brews early, places like Arts
in Glen Arbor, The Bluebird in Leland, and the Happy Hour Tavern near
Northport carried your beers early on. How did that come about?
Bell: I have always loved Northern Michigan. Growing up in Chicago we
headed up north all the time; my ancestors settled in the Upper
Peninsula. So one day back in 1987, I loaded up a van with beer and
headed north. In those days breweries could self-distribute. Well, all
those guys you mentioned jumped on board and the beers took off up
there. In many ways when I started Kalamazoo Brewing Company we were
considered every towns local brew. Now everyone has at least one
local brewery they claim and I think people should drink their
locally-made craftbrews; that is the heart of this industry. I am just
grateful that people still remember we were the first and still buy
NE: A few years back when you were diagnosed with cancer there was a
rumor swirling about that you were selling your operation to
Anheuser-Busch. How did that start?
Bell: I really dont know. This industry is full of rumors. The
funniest one I heard was that I sold it to them for $55 million. I
would laugh when people would come to me about that and say, if I
sold for that kind of money do you think I would really be showing up
to work everyday? No truth to that rumor. I still own the place.
NE: Not only were you instrumental in helping to launch the craftbrew
industry this side of the Mississippi, you have been instrumental in
legislative changes. Your thoughts today on any legislative change to
benefit the industry?
Bell: Look, the biggest discussion in Michigan for the industry is the
three-tier system (one person makes it, one person distributes it, one
person sells it). When I started I could self-distribute and that was
very beneficial for me because distributors were not interested in
craft beer in those days. I am a big fan of the three-tier system; it
works for me because I am established. I worked hard to trade my right
to self-distribute for my right to be able to serve my beer on
But do I think new, small breweries should be able to self-distribute
until they get established? Yes. I also think that there is a need to
look at updating the three-tier system; our industry has changed so
much over the years.
NE: What are some the changes you see for the future of the industry?
Bell: I see our craft brew industry continuing to grow. We have not
reached our peak at all. Now, I do not see the number of
microbreweries increasing, just some people leaving and others coming
in. The biggest challenge is tap handles, the number of available tap
handles is not growing. I see it being tough for people wanting to
start today because there is so much great beer out there.
That said, those of us in the industry are struggling to keep up with
the demand for our products. I know we have 80-plus breweries in
Michigan now and the general consensus is our industry here is very
healthy and vibrant. Shorts Brewery in your area is proof of that.
NE: We first met at what was probably the first ever Bells beer
dinner 20 years ago. Do you see beer finally getting its recognition
as a great beverage to pair with food?
Bell: I remember that dinner with the Tasters Guild in Traverse City
and they served sausage and sauerkraut because stereotypically that is
what people thought was the only food that paired with beer. Sure, it
has come a long way, but I am not sure it will ever catch up with
wine. But I am seeing more and more restaurants creating beer lists
and more chefs making beer recommendations to go with entrees.
NE: So what is in store for the next 25 years for Bells?
Bell: I still am hoping to get a paycheck. No, I feel good about our
future. We are in 18 states and Puerto Rico and holding for the time
being. We may open in new states in a couple of years. I have a lot of
great people working for me, we are continually creating new beers. My
daughter Laura has joined the company as our marketing director, so
there will be a Bell, not a Busch involved with this company for
several years to come.
NE: Okay, now the tough oNE: your favorite Bells beer.
Bell: So the standard (reply): these are all my children and I love
each of them equally will not fly with you. Right now I am really
enjoying Quinannan Falls Lager, it is a dry-hopped beer, my personal
favorite at the moment.
NE: Thanks for taking time out on your vacation to answer random
questions. So what do you do to relax?
Bell: Well I fish and play golf. I just got back from the farmers
market up here. My ancestors settled in this area (Curtis) so I love
it up here. After my cancer scare I have tried to cut my work schedule
back and just come up here as often as possible and veg out. I am
growing some hops up here and making some mead in the back room
currently. Then there are the occasional pontoon excursions on the
lake with a couple of beers. Life is pretty good.
Check out the Bells Brewery Beer Dinner Tuesday, August 24 at the Top
of the Park Place; phone 231-946-5093 for further details. Bells
will also be participating in the second annual Traverse CIty
Microbrew & Music Festival this Friday and Saturday at the Village at
Grand Traverse Commons. They will offer a few beers not typically
available in Northern Michigan, including their Batch 9000 as well as
some of their flagship offerings. For tickets and info go to