Remembering 30 years of growing Bell's to the brewery it is today

Bell's is planning a 30th-anniversary party to top all parties. With at least 90 different brewers invited, beer lovers will have a chance to taste brews that may have never before come their way. Before the kegs are tapped, we have a look back at Bell's early days and a look at what lies ahead.
Craft beer in the United States--it's a 19.6 billion dollar industry with nearly 4,500 breweries chipping in to create over 21 million barrels of beer per year. As the industry grows, few breweries have had the sustained success and widespread appeal of Kalamazoo's Bell's Brewery Inc. With distribution to 22 states and the ability to produce 500,000 barrels of beer each year, Bell's is not only a staple of the national craft beer scene, it's an icon.

But back in 1985, business wasn't exactly booming. At that time, Larry Bell was an unlicensed home brewer and the owner of a tiny brewing supply store on North Burdick. To make ends meet the young entrepreneur was selling his home brew on the side, a practice that would come with a heavy fine and potential jail time if caught. No longer wanting to press his luck with the law, he decided it was time to go commercial.

When a plumber with financial troubles decided to rent out part of a rundown building on East Kalamazoo Avenue, Bell jumped at the chance to turn a glorified hobby into a full-time, government sanctioned career. He had no idea, no one did, that the leaky, tumble-down former auto shop would in time be a centerpiece of Kalamazoo nightlife, and the company inside would eventually be seen as a leader in the world of craft brewing, boasting 449 employees. 

The initial brewing facility was little more than a small retail shop with a 15-gallon brewing system in the back room. Drinking wasn't allowed on premises. Bell's wouldn't pour its first pint until 1993, but nonetheless, word quickly spread that something new, and pretty quirky was happening down by the railroad tracks.

By the early 1990's, Bell's had become a premier craft beer bottler and its nascent pub, The Eccentric Cafe, was gaining a reputation as a come-as-you-are spot to discover new beers and to listen to live music. For the next 20 years, beer and music would go hand in hand at Bell's as both the entertainment options and the beer program would steadily expand until both had fully outgrown their original digs. (Though the original operation still is used to brew specialty projects and brands only available in the cafe.)

In 2003, Bell's unveiled a 130,000-square-foot production facility in Comstock, which would soon include brand new bottling and canning lines.

On Nov.  26, 2010, Greensky Bluegrass played to a packed house in a brand new, state-of-the-art music space on the west side of the Eccentric Cafe. The new space allowed Bell's to comfortably book not only local and regional acts, but to also bring national touring bands to Kalamazoo, many of which had previously passed the area by in favor of Grand Rapids, Chicago, and Detroit.

The acquisition of its own farm, the creation of a Galesburg-based logistics and distribution center, the building of a top-of-the-line restaurant, and the investment in a new brewery, Upper Hand Brewing in Escanaba, would all follow one after the other, to round out Bell's first 30 years in business.

The three-decade milestone will be celebrated Saturday, Sept. 12 with the commencement of the "Funvitational," a 90-brewery beer festival at Homer Stryker Field.

Before the big day, we thought it would be fun to take a look back at the past 30 years. This is the story of how Bell's rose from a home brewing supply store into one of the largest craft brewing operations in the United States, as told by the people who made it happen--the brewer's, the staff and, of course, the fans.

They are: 

Larry Bell--The founder and owner of Bell's Brewing Company.

Laura Bell--Bell's Vice President, daughter of Larry Bell

Rock Bartley--Member of bluegrass band Great Lakes Grass, carpenter, friend of Larry Bell

Amy Richards--Key Partnerships and Promotions Manager

Rik Dellinger--Brewing Materials Manager, Comstock Facility

Andy Farrell--Head Brewer, Comstock Facility

John Liberty--Co-Owner of West Michigan Beer Tours

Atis Kleinbergs--Early patron of the brewery, husband of Lisa Kleinbergs

Lisa Kleinbergs--Early patron of the brewery, wife of Atis Kleinbergs
"I was going to go to jail for what I was doing." Early adventures in home brewing

LARRY: I started home brewing early in 1980 and the home-brew store opened in 1983 from a birthday present, a $200 check. I had a $150 worth of inventory and was only open 10 hours a week. It was very, very quiet.

I was also selling home brew out of my basement and it was either I was going to go to jail for what I was doing or I had to get a license. It's Rock Bartley's knock on the door that scares the hell out of me, and I think I'm getting arrested, that's what makes me file for the license. Rock Bartley, knocked on my door at 10 o'clock at night on a Saturday to buy a case of beer with his band. It scared the crap out of me and the next day I wrote to the government and said "what do I need to do?"

"We didn't have any money, we didn't have proper facilities. It was basically a nightmare." The early days of Bell's

ROCK: We moved over to Kalamazoo Avenue, there was a plumber who owned that building and he rented the front area to Larry.

LARRY: It was the closest place to downtown Kalamazoo that was zoned for light industrial, but the neighborhood wasn't anything like it is today, most people didn't even want to go north of Michigan Avenue. There were homeless people on the property and prostitution taking place, sometimes even during the day. The whole building leaked, we used to call it Niagara Falls. We were right next to the railroad tracks and I thought the building would fall down when a train went by.

ROCK: It was pretty beat up.

LARRY: We didn't have any money, we didn't have proper facilities. It was basically a nightmare.

ROCK: We tried to improve things, like when he needed larger areas for making beer, we'd tear stuff out and put up walls so he could get more tanks in. A lot of the remodeling was just tearing stuff out to make more open spaces. When he expanded and went towards the back where the Eccentric Cafe is that was a big change that came about. It was a bigger space and I remember the brewers, they'd help us carry in the wood. It was a very friendly place. They were always really helpful and fun to be around, we'd all have beers after work. Although Larry wasn't so much selling beer out of there. You could just taste it. You couldn't buy a pint.

RIK: The original building was a big auto mechanic service station, gas station. When I started there in '93 we were just renting out the left wing of the current 15-barrel system side of the brewery. The whole back room, which is now our music venue, that was a plumber's warehouse. And the whole right side where the new kitchen and general store is, that was an old furniture shop and the beer garden was an auto junk yard. There was like eight or 10 people working there at the time, everybody did everything. It was really loose. You're washing kegs one hour, gluing labels on cases another hour. It was all over the board. It was crowded, very crowded, and very hot.

LARRY: There were some part-timers, there were some friends and some people who worked for stock or minimum wage. If you go back to 1987 I believe we had two female brewers on staff. Female brewers are rare now, we had two and that was unheard of.

LAURA: I used to hang out at the brewery on Saturday afternoons. We used to have odd jobs as we got older, I mean like six, seven, eight (years old). Painting and rubber cementing labels on the six packs, washing glasses, folding shirts. I remember doing inventory. I remember spending time at the brewery, playing ping-pong when we had the table. It was just normal. Growing up around the brewery was just what we did. It was Dad's job. We had a brewery.

"Bell's wasn't like the other bars, and the crowd was different." The brewery serves its first pints, and develops a following

LARRY: In the early days I was able to do my own distribution and grow the business by knocking on doors. It just about killed me driving all over the state delivering beer. By the time '92 rolls around and we begin to have brewpubs in the state, we traded away the right to self-distribution for the right to sell beer by the glass. By '92 I pretty much had distribution all through the state through wholesalers.

ATIS: At that time, outside of taking tours out in Colorado or St. Louis or Milwaukee, there were no locally accessible breweries. There was no picking and choosing what you wanted to drink from a brewery, you were subject to what the market brought to you. Bell's wasn't like the other bars, and the crowd was different.

LISA: Yeah, the crowd was different. I remember my first time at Bell's, my college friends were interested in various herbal supplements, it was that kind of crowd that would go to Bell's and hang out. It was just one big room. I didn't really have any preconceived notions, but this just seemed so amazing.

ROCK: What I liked about it was it was like you were in the brewery. There wasn’t a lot of separation, as it developed it became that, but you could see the tanks, and they were small, they weren’t huge tanks. Larry would always have different kinds of beers; he was experimenting and learning. I think the first people that were coming in would give him feedback on which beers they liked and which beers they didn't like.

LISA: Back in the day you just drank whatever Larry was interested in making at the time. Maybe it was a java stout, so you drank java stout and you thought, "Wow, this is delicious," then you have two or three pints. It was before everyone knew what ABV meant, and then the next day, you thought "Oh, my god in heaven, I feel terrible."

ATIS: You hadn't been exposed to that before, drinking the commercial beers, this just opened up a whole new world to explore and become accustomed to.

"To call it a stage is a bit of an exaggeration." From casual music to a well-known concert venue 

LARRY: I had some friends of mine who had a bluegrass band and they played. They stood on top of a picnic table. That was inside, we didn't have an outdoor space at the time.

ROCK: I don't really remember being on top of a picnic table, but that could be true. We're a bluegrass band, acoustic, so a lot of times we'll play without a PA system. We could have done that, but I don't remember exactly. I do remember that Larry was a roommate with a guy I was working with, and I'd go over to their house. He was going to K-College at the time. He was a musician himself and I play the five-string banjo. Every once in awhile we'd get together and jam. I think as Larry got to the point where he thought maybe they can have some entertainment (at the brewery) he said, "Well, Rock, why don't you guys come and play."

It was a neat little place because it wasn't like any other bar in town. We'd hang out down there and knowing Larry from earlier that helped Great Lakes Grass get involved in playing. But over the years we'd play pretty steadily and we were probably the first house band.

AMY: When I was in college, Thursday night was the big night to go out. You could go down with 20 bucks, pay a five dollar cover, have a couple of beers, see some music and have a pretty good time on a college budget.

JOHN: My first most memorable time at Bell's, was when I went to see Joshua Davis and Steppin' In It play. They set up on what was the stage then. I took my now wife on our first official date together. We sat on the little wooden ledge on the other side of the bar and leaned up against the brick wall. That was our first real date. To call it a stage is a bit of an was a bump, a bump on the floor where the band stands.

LISA: That tiny little stage in the corner was insane. It would be insanely loud sometimes.

ROCK: When we got into the back space, which is now the Eccentric Cafe, we incorporated a small stage in there. So I not only had a hand in playing there but also in designing the stage. So did our friend Scott Spink. He would do a lot of the design work. He talked to Larry about where we should put a stage and then we put it up.

AMY: We had a mismatch of equipment. We had maybe a 10 channel sound board that if we were lucky about six channels worked. We had a couple monitors and some microphones and mic stands. Most nationally touring bands, outside of the gear they use for their set up, are expecting to go to a venue and play with a built-in sound system. When I was booking the front room I was always asking bands, "Do you have a sound board? Do you have speakers? Do you have monitors? You kind of need to bring what you need to play with." We had some random things there but at that time we were limited on what we could do.

The bands would get to Bell's and I'd take them to what is now the restaurant but then was a storage space where I had a pallet of random things. There were no green rooms. I always joke around that we had a courtyard area outside and the fact that a band could pull their van up and have access to the site and have that private area was about as luxurious as it got for us.

But one of the coolest times for me was a night when the Emmitt-Nershi band, which is Drew Emmett, a pretty well-known mandolin player and Bill Nershi of the String Cheese Incident had a night off and they were passing through town. They called and asked with 24-hours notice if I could put a show together. They knew Bell's. Drew Emmitt played with Leftover Salmon and had played in the beer garden before.

ROCK: We did a huge amount of work and built that timber framed stage when (Bell's) expanded in the back. Great Lakes Grass was the first band to play on that too. Except for the new music room, we've christened every stage they have there because usually I built them.

"The legend of the back room." The music continues

AMY: The space was there as long as I worked at Bell's. It was a storage space. We stored grain and soda pop, we put empty kegs back there. You'd always hear people say, "Oh, eventually Larry is going to turn this into a music venue." It was like the legend of the back room. Eventually we started utilizing that space for Eccentric Day and they built a makeshift wooden bar, and you can almost start to see what it would be like with tables and chairs and a sound system. But for me it was, "'I'll believe it when I see it."

For the opening, we had booked a show with Greensky Bluegrass assuming that the room would be done. It was kind of a crap shoot. They were growing in size and it was kind of like we're going to plan on it and we're going to make the best of it. I remember bartending and the fire marshall coming down, and our contractor going around, and this is at like noon, and then getting the go-ahead and knowing it was going to happen.

It really embodies Larry's vision, I tell people he's just about as passionate about music as he is about beer. Just as you can see it in his beer, he's done it in this room.

"The big thing was we were moving out of this three-car garage." Expanding the brewing operation 

LARRY: That took a lot of planning and financing and was not without its troubles. The banker I was working with at that point told me I could go ahead and start construction. Then he was let go, or he left, I don't know what happened. He was president of the bank one day, and the next day he wasn't president of the bank. We didn't have all the paperwork signed and the new president of the bank wasn't going to finance us anymore. I ended up in a bankruptcy attorney's office because I was worried I'd have to file for bankruptcy. I wasn't sure what was going to happen there. The banker who left, a few months later got a job at another bank, and he made good on his promise to finance me and came through for me.

ANDY: It was obvious that this was going to be a big step up from what we were doing downtown, that's for sure.

RIK: I think the big thing was we were moving out of this three-car garage and laying out on paper how we would want a brewery, where we would want things positioned, where the beer would flow. I do remember sitting down and putting X's throughout the brew house where I would want outlets. That was really my big involvement in setting up the design.

ANDY: There was actual forethought in how things were going to flow. Downtown, part of our job some mornings was putting together hoses to run across the courtyard, regardless of conditions. There would be days in the winter where there might be ten inches of snow on the ground and you'd be putting hoses together. We were working out of garages essentially.

JOHN: The new additions that they've been making--they certainly are top of the line. Some of the artistic touches from the Eccentric Cafe, Larry's been able to work into the Comstock facility as well. There're a lot of neat things going on there. The fact that they offer free tours and samples is a really neat thing too. It's interesting to see what's demanded of a physical space to allow it meet the demand that Bell's has.

"Well, I'm going to prom." Continued expansion and a brand new restaurant

LARRY: You have to realize, we put in a new kitchen, but we've been feeding people for a lot of years from a really tiny kitchen. We've wanted to put in a real kitchen for a long time. We were getting by, by the skin of our teeth with the health department only because we were promising to put in a new kitchen. They were letting us do what we were doing but they weren't happy about it and it was certainly an incredible strain on the staff.

LAURA: When I was in high school, I worked summer nights, I was making money to go to college. I think one of my favorite nights was my senior prom. I wasn't really into it, and I had to work. I was working with this guy, Ian, and he asked what I was up to later in the night and I said, "Well, I'm going to prom," so he just said "What are you doing? Get the hell out of here, Laura." It was a really fun job and I had to work hard, it was a nice experience to feel like I was part of the team and not just there because of who I was.

When I was working there, there were two of us and a busy night was maybe 100 covers (meals served), that's it. Before we expanded into the new kitchen there were eight people back there and they were doing six- to seven-hundred covers a night.

We had to do it. We had to build the restaurant. Ultimately, we want to make sure the customers are having the best experience possible. As busy as we had been, we weren’t able to accommodate everyone as well as we wanted to. It was a natural step.

LARRY: If you're in business in Kalamazoo, the great growth model to emulate is the Stryker Corporation. Their plan has been to grow 20 percent per year. If you can do that then you have a really rockin' business. That's a game-plan that I'm trying to follow.

LAURA: There are a lot of things we want to do and it's all about just prioritizing those projects. Everything's a possibility still. We're currently undergoing an expansion to our packaging line and logistics. That's our main focus, to get a new bottling line, a new packaging line, it's time to upgrade and grow that area.

ROCK: We're also building the bar, the new bar (in the Eccentric Cafe). Scott and I have worked there for 25 or 30 years doing different projects. We took the kitchen out, and where the kitchen used to be we're extending the bar. It's funny, I've built so much stuff in there, and then taken it all out and built new stuff. It's crazy. We try to use some of the old stuff and blend it with the new stuff to make it look old and eccentric, it's what we like to do. That building has really changed, it's really unbelievable; it's come a long ways.

"We work hard, we play harder." Planning the Funvitational

LARRY: We have a great work culture at Bell's, tons of dedicated employees who work hard every day but have fun. The beer business is fun. We work hard, we play harder.

AMY: Planning for Funvitational started about a year ago. I've never planned anything of this caliber. It's really cool. The employees we have here and the committees that were put in place, the level of creativity and intelligence--it's really cool to see people get into their roles and execute their jobs.

LAURA: We were trying to figure out what to do last September. I'm an over-planner sometimes. We decided to have a beer festival. One of the things that I don't think happens enough in our state is the opportunity to showcase beers from all over the world. I wanted to throw a festival that brought in beer that maybe people in Michigan had never tried before. I think our total is 90 brewers coming. Many don't distribute in the state of Michigan. It's going to be really exciting to have all of these beers here in Kalamazoo.

Homer Stryker Field and the Growlers have been amazing partners, and we're super excited that we get to host our party there. It's going to be a very fun venue. Let's be realistic, putting together a beer festival for 3,500 people isn’t the easiest thing, but it's been fun and that's the goal.

LARRY: I'm really fortunate to have such a great staff who's able to plan it and put it together. So far it's been very well organized and looks to be a really fun event.

"A spirit of constant improvement." Family and community: working together

LAURA: As you can imagine, the amount of work Larry had to do to get Bell's going was hard on us. It was pretty challenging. I held a lot of resentment towards the brewery. My dad was very busy, but I have a different perspective now that I'm an adult and see how hard it is to build something this big, how much travel is involved, and how much time needs to be put into it. But I did not have favorable opinions of the brewery when I was younger.

I never wanted to work for the brewery but when I graduated from college, Larry said, "Why don't you try working for me for a little bit, see what you think." He might have been worried about me and wanted to make sure I at least had some sort of income, which was nice of him. So I started working in sales over the first year. I got an opportunity to go to a lot of festivals and beer tastings. That year, honestly, I got the opportunity to really learn about Bell's in a major way.

People who didn't know who I was behind the table would come up and start talking about, "Oh, my gosh, Bell's means this to me," or "I love Bell's because of this," or "Larry Bell is such a pioneer and such a great guy." I learned about Bell's from other people even though I grew up around it my entire life. Through those interactions, I fell in love with the brewery. I learned what it meant to other people and not just what it meant to my dad.

LARRY: It's awesome to have children in the business. She's incredibly energetic. She's driven and has a passion for the beer business. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

ROCK: I like the people, it really was a great group of people that worked there. It was kind of a little community that grew out of that and I'm glad to be a part of that.

LAURA: It's an active practice. It takes active communication from everybody. We're not perfect at it, we're still trying to get better, but it means making sure we're taking the time to check in, to talk, to support each other. It's hard. I won't say that it's perfect, but one of the best things about Bell's is there is a spirit of constant improvement and a desire to constantly want to be better.

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.

Photos courtesy Bell's Brewing Inc.