Since finally arriving in the Atlanta in 2009, the beers of Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery have become much buzzed about, and on at least one occasion the object of a fierce buying frenzy.
In late January, Bell’s Hopslam, a big, hoppy double IPA brewed with honey, had beer geeks scrambling to find a six-pack or even a pint of the limited-release winter seasonal.
Bell’s history dates to 1983, when Larry Bell founded Kalamazoo Brewing Co. as a home brew shop. Bell, who is known as both a pioneer and something of a maverick in the craft brewing business, started selling beer in 1985, famously boiling his first batches in a 15-gallon soup kettle.
Now, Bell’s ranks as the 20th largest U.S. brewer, producing over 125,000 barrels of beer in 2009.
I caught up with Larry Bell during his recent visit to Atlanta. True to his reputation, he was more than willing to offer his opinion on the current state of craft brewing and reveal what’s going on at Bell’s.
Craft brewing: “Back in about 1997, the New York Times declared craft beer dead, and there was a little blip there. But those days are past. The quality level is really high. The United States is the most interesting, dynamic beer market in the world right now. Craft brewing is here to stay.”
Longevity: “Some of us have been around for a while. Bell’s is having our 25th anniversary this year. So there are young people who are turning 21 who have spent their whole lives watching their parents drink craft beer. They are very educated about beer.”
Craft success: “Sierra Nevada is making 650,000 barrels a year, but it’s all great beer. When they started with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, that was pretty exotic. Bell’s Amber Ale was exotic. They’re both still beers I love to drink.”
The market: “We’re seeing some crazy things in the market. The big macro brewers are all down, and they’re shaking their heads. They don’t really understand what’s going on. There’s a shift in what people are drinking and how they’re viewing beer. Craft brewers are small and nimble and we’re able to respond to those changing patterns.”
Worrisome trend: “What’s worrisome now is what I call the new tied house in America. Before prohibition, there was an issue where breweries owned the bars, so they were tied together. Now it’s breweries that are tied to wholesalers. I’ve never seen so much money flowing from wholesalers to buy up bars. That’s supposed to be illegal in the United States. Unfortunately, some of the larger craft breweries have decided to play into that game now. That winds up denigrating the name of craft beer.”
Brands: “You have a number of breweries that are interested in building brands. We certainly fit into that category. And then you have a number of breweries that just do specialties. A brewery like Jolly Pumpkin. What’s the flagship brand? There isn’t one.”
Seasonal vs. year-round: “Oberon is a seasonal beer and it’s our No. 1 beer. Two-Hearted Ale is our No. 2 brand, our fastest growing brand, and it’s year-round. But we’re always working on new things.”
Hopslam: “Who would have thought 10 years ago that we could sell 2,500 barrels of Hopslam in a month? That kind of blows my mind.”
Atlanta: “The Southeast has been behind the rest of the country, as far as craft beer. But it helps that you have such a strong regional brewery in Sweetwater.”
The future: “I’m hoping to pass the brewery along to my children. I still have some shareholders, but I control the company.”