Kalamazoo Brewing Co
By Marty Nachel
Among the most ardent fans of Kalamazoo beers are homebrewers, and for good reason. Brewery owner Larry Bell, despite his successes, is still a homebrewer at heart and his beers confirm this fact.
Tracing Larry's steps into the microbrewing business is a classic "rags-to-relative riches" story. It began in 1976 when Bell moved from a suburb of Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan to attend Kalamazoo College. After two years of studies, Bell ran short of funds. Forced to find full time employment, he hired on as a baker at a local bakery. While there, he had his first taste of homebrewed beer, compliments of a fellow employee. In a later move to a house he shared with three beer-guzzling buddies, Bell recalled the idea of homebrewing and realized he could be making all the beer they wanted for much less money. He took up homebrewing shortly thereafter and quickly got serious about his avocation; reading brewing publications and increasing his batch size; learning and experimenting along the way.
With a cash gift from a family member, Larry Bell started the Kalamazoo Brewing Supply Company, continuing to nurture the dream of owning his own brewery. His reputation as a homebrewer caught the attention of a local spice-extraction company executive who wanted to try some brewing experiments with hops. Negotiations between Bell and his new financial backer resulted in the incorporation of the Kalamazoo Brewing Co. in April of 1985- the first microbrewery in the midwest. It was started with an initial investment of $39,000. With some used and reconditioned restaurant equipment and a lot of blood, sweat and determination, the pico-brewery managed to produce 135 barrels of beer in 1986.
Almost ten years and two expansions later, Larry looks back to the beginning in disbelief, calling his efforts "a total crap shoot". With the 1990 addition of a DME 15 barrel system, another DME 30 barrel system in 1993, and with the original 3 barrel system still in operation, Bell's brewery has a total single brew capacity of 48 barrels. The Kalamazoo Brewing Co. now produces an estimated 8,000 barrels annually, with a goal of exceeding 25,000 barrels by 1997.
The Kalamazoo brewing empire now encompasses about 1.4 acres of mostly underdeveloped buildings in an industrial/commercial neighborhood on the east side of town. Some of these structures housed a World War II munitions plant, a car repair garage, a plumbing supply house and a 1950's era beer and wine store. A railroad roundhouse once operated out behind the brewery. Bell has grandiose plans for the property including an outdoor beer garden, a festival area with a stage for live entertainment, additional paved parking and the most necessary improvement of all- public restrooms. Before any of this can come to fruition, however, Bell wants to complete construction on the brewing operations, including the installation and outfitting of a new $10,000 microbiological lab for yeast culturing and quality control.
Manning the three separate brewhouses, fermentation areas and the packaging and shipping departments, are 23 dedicated employees. In a concerted effort, they are producing some of the most distinctive beers in the midwest. These are derived from straight infusion mashes of Briess and Dewulf & Cozins specialty 2 row and 6 row malts. Rye, wheat and even corn sugar are employed wherever the recipe calls for it. The higher gravity beers are boosted with an addition of malt extract. Fuggle, cascade, nugget, northern brewer and Hallertau Hersbrucker are the regular hop varities used, but Bell has also used a rare 2.2 alpha Lublin hop from Poland. Once each year a special beer is brewed with homegrown Bullion hops and another variety that is organically grown by a local farmer. All of the brews are fermented with ale strains from major yeast banks and an occasional Wyeast culture. Kalamazoo city water, which is moderately hard, is pre-boiled before it is used. The brews are fermented in open fermenters- wide sheets of plastic cooking wrap providing the only protection.
There are fifteen different ales produced at Kalamazoo Brewing; five regulars and ten seasonal/specialties. The specialties include four styles of stout- Kalamazoo Stout, the incredible Expedition Stout, Bell's Special Double Cream Stout and Bell's Cherry Stout. Bell's Beer is the Flagship brand, but Bell's Amber Ale shares the "best seller" billing with Bell's Solsun wheat ale. Though the Solsun is limited to seasonal availability, it accounted for 20% of total sales in 1994. Bell's Third Coast Beer is unique for its label, if for nothing else. Third Coast refers to Lake Michigan's coastline, which is the third longest after the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and the bottle labels feature 24 different segments of a map of the coast. Bell's Third Coast Old Ale is one of the best bottles examples of its style and has been recognized as such by the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago. There is still a pale ale, a Two Hearted Ale, (Eugene) Deb's Red Ale, Bell's Porter, Bell's Best Brown Ale and the beer that is a celebration of Humulus Lupulus- Harvest Ale. Some of these are bottle conditioned and some are keg conditioned.
Despite the growing popularity of his beers, Larry has never lost sight of his homebrewing roots and Bell's zealots would be the first to tell you- Larry's beers are not for everyone. For the most part, the Kalamazoo stable of beers are rich,chewy and aggressive ales; not meant for the faint-of-heart. Along with the beers that Bell makes for the public, he also creates beers for himself and those of like mind, with no concerns over whether the beers sell or not. Armageddon Ale is one such brew. It had an original gravity well over 1.100, with twenty lbs. of crystal malt alone. It happened to be Kalamazoo's 666th batch of beer and Bell wanted it to "last til the millenium". No one doubts that it could have.
The local attention focused on Bell's beer inspired him to open an on-site bar called the Eccentric Cafe in 1993, where enthusiasts can try the product in draught form. In doing so, Larry Bell effectively opened the first brewpub in the state of Michigan. It is located within the brewing complex and is dedicated to the pure, unadulterated enjoyment of beer! Decorated with antique maps and a lot of breweriana, there is no television, no jukebox, and no smoking at any time. Food is limited to appetizers and finger food. Entertainment is self-produced, chess/checker boards have been inlaid in the table-tops, protected by a thick layer of clear epoxy. Every December the brewery celebrates Eccentric Day; this is the official rollout party for the annually brewed Eccentric Ale (you have to experience this for yourself). A large beer cooler is stocked for carry-out customers.
The Eccentric Cafe is open seven days a week but tours of the brewery is limited to Saturdays or by appointment only. Bell's beers can be widely found in the midwest, but are also distributed in limited quantities to North Dakota, Northern Virginia and the Brickskeller in Washington D.C. Breweriana consists of T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and boxer shorts (all for the well-dressed beer hound). The K-zoo brews can also be found at the ballpark where the Michigan Whitecaps play. The Whitecaps are single A farm team for the Oakland A's, sponsored in part by the Kalamazoo Brewing Co.
Wherever Bell's beers can be found, each bears the thumbprint of its creator: bold, assertive, respected and, perhaps, even a bit eccentric.
Bell's Batch 1,500 - Hazy orange-copper with creamy ivory head (good lacing). Huge hop bouquet. Fruity and citrusy nose with malty undertones. Malty, grainy palate with citric sour edge is met with almost overwhelming bitter wallop. Malt character, as big as it is, must fight for attention with the hop intensity. Certainly not for the timid, the meek or the lupulin-impaired.
*** other beers have been tasted but not specifically for this effort. The above beer, though extreme, is an example of the type of beers brewed at Kalamazoo.
© 1995 Marty Nachel