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Beer Town: Craft Beer Maverick Larry Bell

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.

Larry Bell at Bell's Eccentric Cafe

Larry Bell at Bell's Eccentric Cafe

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.”

Hopslam

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.”

14 comments Add your comment

Steve

February 14th, 2010
10:40 am

Appreciate the props Larry, keep bringing that good stuff of yours to the South. Hopefully we will be flowing in your neighborhood one day as well

Steve Farace
SweetWater Brewery

Covert Hops

February 15th, 2010
8:42 am

Got to meet Larry Bell at Taco Mac Metropolis and I explained the plight of craft beer in the south. I did mention that the landscape of craft beer in Atlanta has improved exponentially the last few years, with his brand being one of the many us beer geeks have sought. Contrary to what others may feel, Atlanta will be a major beer town, thanks to brewers like Bells, and the quality of the local brewers like Sweetwater.

Rusty Diamond

February 16th, 2010
8:34 am

Only a true maverick would wear an outfit like that! I was introduced to a Bell’s Pale Ale in 1999 out in Red Rocks and have been loving their beers ever since. And I am especially glad that I didn’t have to bootleg HopSlam from the Midwest again this year…

James

February 16th, 2010
9:25 am

There were 2 beers that were my “gateway” beers to the craft world in the mid-1990’s in Chicago. Bell’s Amber Ale was one of them (Goose Island Oatmeal Stout was the other) and I never looked back. What’s funny is, at the time, that was considered quite a hoppy beer compared to what else was out there. I’m thrilled that Bell’s is in GA now.

Brian

February 16th, 2010
9:50 am

I’ve always enjoyed Bells Expedition Stout. Wonderful stuff. That and the Two Hearted Ale. I have had some stuff like his Cherry Stout that I didn’t care for. But, I think he hits such a wide spectrum of brewing that everyone should find something they like and something they don’t.

I wonder how the regulatory climate is in Michigan as compared to Georgia? To start as a homebrew shop and end up a brewery is a great business story. I’m not sure that would happen today in Georgia.

FairwayOaks

February 16th, 2010
10:04 am

Conistently great is what comes to mind for me and Bell’s. 2Hearted, Amber, Porter, Kzoo Stout one of best year round lineup offerings out there.

Steve

February 16th, 2010
10:05 am

Wow, 2500 barrels of Hopslam is just impressive. Bell’s is without a doubt one of our premier craft brewers in the US.

Chris Terenzi

February 16th, 2010
11:00 am

Iconic and inspiring…two words that appropriately describe Larry Bell. Two-Hearted Ale is one of the great American beers.

Bob

February 16th, 2010
11:45 am

Thanks for the comments guys!

Any thoughts on Larry’s “worrisome trend” quote? Think that sort of thing goes on here in Atlanta?

Bob T.

Bill Plott

February 16th, 2010
1:52 pm

Enjoyed the interview. It’s been a joy to have Bell’s come into Alabama recently. Before I had to look for it on travel ventures.

adam

February 16th, 2010
4:46 pm

Man that two hearted is dangerous. I hear Sweetwater’s newest Dank Tank is coming out this week. Did Lee from the BSP contribute to the brewing??

Steve

February 17th, 2010
9:19 am

Bob, that “worrisome trend” is alive and kicking here in Atlanta. If you know which wholesalers carry which brands, it’s pretty easy to identify. If 1 particular wholesaler has 80% of a bar’s draft lines, you can bet that bar had their draft system bought by that wholesaler (which is illegal). This isn’t always the case, but a lot of the time it is. This makes it easy for breweries with big marketing budgets to control their own destiny to a point.

Thankfully there are a solid handful of bar/restaurant owners with enough integrity to say no when it comes to this…I wish it wasn’t this way, but it is.

Rings

February 18th, 2010
3:14 pm

@ Brian: Larry was among the first brewers in the state and instrumental in getting the laws changed. When he started, there was only a “brewer” law as Strohs was the only brewer in the state (allowed to produce, but no on-site sales).
Now, there is a microbrewery (can produce for packaging & sell only on-premise brews on site) and brewpub (can sell house brews & other alcoholic products, but cannot distribute) license, in addition to wine and distillers licenses available.
Bells was the first and has become the giant in the state, but there are also another 70 brewers in operation here.
@ Rusty: “Eclectic Day” takes place every year at the tasting room, aka “The Eclectic Cafe” and the idea is to wear the most outrageous outfit/costume possible.

Carl Perkins

February 18th, 2010
4:13 pm

Bob – I know for certain that “worrisome trend” is going on in GA. Not all distributors play the game, and most breweries can’t afford to. One of many dirty secrets of the alcohol industry in GA.
Hats off to Bell’s and their success. Two Hearted is a great beer.