If Larry Bell wasn’t fascinated with homebrewing in the early 80’s, the craft beer scene in Michigan would look much different today. If Larry Bell isn’t as fiercely persistent as he is, Michigan’s beer laws don’t get changed to allow for the astronomical growth in craft beer. Whether people want to admit it or not, Larry Bell deserves a huge thanks for Michigan being a legitimate craft beer destination. Larry Bell turned Bell’s Brewery into a craft beer behemoth. He is also a big reason why I had to come to Kalamazoo in search of great beer.
I am an unapologetic Bell’s fanboy and love their beer. Oberon, Two Hearted, Java Stout, Best Brown, and when I can find it, Black Note Stout; I can’t get enough. There is a distinguished level of quality and consistency with their beers. Their tap handles and packaging are easily recognizable in a crowded marketplace. I also appreciate that they have a beer for every palate. For all those reasons and more, I am giddy about getting a behind the scenes tour at the Bell’s production facility. I met Melissa Dekoff, the Key Partnerships & Promotions Coordinator for Bell’s back in June at the National Homebrew Conference. I asked her about the possibility of getting some type of tour for the blog on my beercation and she did not disappoint.
Melissa set me up with a behind the scenes tour of their production facility and I cannot thank her enough. I can write all about it, but I think that for the tour recap, it is best if I just let the pictures do the talking.
Bell’s Comstock Production Facility
It is hard to believe that a place now brewing 200 bbl batches started out doing a 15 bbl batch. Bell’s has certainly come a long way. The brewery itself started in 1985. They’ve outgrown several places and are now located in a facility that is colossal. They expanded most recently in 2012 to a 30 acre facility at Comstock where they can now brew 66,000 bottles of beer per batch. In 2017, Bell’s is the 7th largest craft brewery in the U.S.
Bell’s is truly a family affair, with Larry’s daughter Laura now overseeing many of the operations. She started helping in the family business as a student when she would come home after school and hand-glue labels onto bottles. Laura helps keep Bell’s on the cutting edge of craft, just the way her father did back in the day.
If you think that the pantry has a lot of things in it, check this out! Holy great piles of malted barley, Batman!! Bell’s takes grain storage to the next level. I mean, when you brew as much beer as they do, you need an enormous amount of grain. There are 5,000 lbs. of malt in each white silo. The metal bunkers behind the silos each hold 62,000 lbs. of malt! No wonder their Bell’s Best Brown has such a great roastiness to it!
Wood Aging at Bell’s
These Cypress wood open-top fermentation tanks are from Stroh’s in Detroit. Bell’s worked with a fourth generation water tower maker to assemble these wooden vessels in the brewery. It is hard to convey via the picture just how truly massive these things are. A total of three of these occupy this room. I am tempted to throw on a wetsuit and dive in to do an amphibious tasting of what wonderful liquid delights are hanging out in these Cypress tanks.
Cold Hop Storage
If you are familiar with Bell’s Brewery, you know the important role hops play in their beers. The cold hop storage area is a nice place to stop to cool off. It is also awesome to see all the different forms of hops that they use. From pellets to whole leaf hops, they are all stored properly in a huge room in the depths of the brewery. Bell’s contracts out their hops out as far as 2020. I guess this is one of the perks of being a craft beer powerhouse. Of course, if another brewery is in a pinch and needs something, they are able to share what they have.
Michigan is the 4th largest hop producing state in the union. Many of the hops that Bell’s use in their beers are sourced locally. They also grow hops on site on roughly 2.5 acres. These hops are used for specialty batches of beer that they make.
50 BBL Brewhouse
Hopslam is a beer brewed by Bell’s that has hop heads losing their minds every February. Because this beer is so incredibly popular, it is brewed in the 50 BBL brewhouse. I have never heard of one type of beer having an entire brewhouse dedicated to its production.
Barrels Resting, Please Be Quiet
To me, one of the best parts of any brewery tour is the part where I get to see all the bourbon barrels aging in peace and quiet. Some breweries are lucky to procure a handful of barrels. Some medium-sized breweries will have maybe 50-100. My collegiate Math Sampler class (a real math class offered at the University of St. Thomas) limits me from telling you exactly how many barrels of Buffalo Trace and Four Roses bourbon barrels rest here in military-like rank and file. All I can say is that it looks like a metric butt-ton of wooden wonder. Two gentlemen look to be filling said barrels with something fantastic using a beer gun.
Can you believe how much Bell’s beer goes into cans?
Please forgive the puns. I am wowed by the amazing amount of beer Bell’s can put into cans in a short amount of time. While I am here, Bell’s Best Brown is being filled and packaged. The entire palates of Bell’s Two Hearted cans are overwhelming. The canning hall, which was installed in 2014, is always busy. Bell’s cans to the tune of 500 cans per minute.
I’d Rather Have A Bottle In Front Of Me Than A Frontal Lobotomy
Bell’s packages bottles so fast it literally makes your head spin. As we are making our way into the bottling area, there is a lightning fast cacophony of little clinks from bottles as Lager of the Lakes is being put into cases. The bottling line can do 750 bottles per minute and that is a whole lotta beer! Bell’s also recycles at a 91% landfill diversion rate. That means that they create a miniscule amount of waste.
This tour ranks right up there with New Belgium’s as far as information and access. I strongly recommend you give it a try if you are in Kalamazoo. Michael, our tour guide, is a wonderful storyteller and knows his beer! I am now off to Bell’s Eccentric Café to meet up with a new friend I met at the Craft Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference!
Bell’s Eccentric Café
If you want to find a lot of cool Bell’s beer and enjoy live music, Bell’s Eccentric Café is your jam. Bell’s Eccentric Café is the brewpub in Kalamazoo where Bell’s enthusiasts can find great food and all of the delicious beers that Bell’s has on tap. There is an indoor bar area, a separate room for live music, and a magnificent outdoor beer garden.
Bell’s Eccentric Café is also where I am meeting Fritz Klug and Melissa Dekoff after my tour. Who is Fritz Klug? Fritz is a man of many talents and interests. Fritz is a Digital Content Specialist for Bell’s and one hell of a nice guy. We met at the Craft Beer Bloggers & Writers conference. Being avid lovers of baseball and beer, he and I bonded instantly. Fritz is a quirky dude, which I appreciate immensely. At one point in the conversation, he slams on the chatter brakes and looks up to the sky with great urgency. He exclaims, “Hey, that cloud is an elephant.”
Fritz and I meet at Bell’s Eccentric Café and round up some beers. I grab a sampler flight and we head for the patio. Fritz is incredibly passionate about Bell’s and loves the people he works with, giving me a complete history of the Eccentric Café and all the amazing events Bell’s puts on here. As we sip our beers, plenty of Fritz’s coworkers also gather on the patio to enjoy a beautiful August night. Melissa joins us as well as Alex Smith, a ridiculously talented graphic designer for Bell’s. Larry Bell has been successful by adding talented people to the brand. There is a genuine sense of family that I glean from talking to people who work for Bell’s. This is more than a job for these folks. They have bought into the passion that Bell’s has for creativity and pathfinding. It is inspiring to see employees talk glowingly and with reverence for the place they work.
As the evening passes, more beers and laughter follow. Fritz, Melissa, and myself head down to the Beer Exchange, a stock exchange-themed bar where the prices fluctuate based on what people are buying. My luck hits when the “market” crashes and the pint of Brewery Vivant’s Undertaker goes from $7.75 to $2.75. Things wind down and I must head back to my Airbnb for the night. My stomach hurts from laughing and I thank Fritz and Melissa for their company.
This day is truly a blessing; a wonderful brewery tour and great company with fantastic people. What a way to spend my first day in Kalamazoo. I will be indebted to Melissa and Fritz for lining up such a fun evening of beer excitement. I hope that they come to MN someday so I can do my best to repay their generosity.
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