KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — Sitting outside his lake house in northern Michigan, Larry Bell passed the time on a recent Thursday afternoon sampling a few of his brews. He played with his dog while choosing the label art for a new beer that will feature the pet’s picture.
“She’s going to get her own beer,” Bell told the Kalamazoo Gazette . “She’s a yellow lab, she gets a golden ale.”
It hasn’t always been this easy for one of Michigan’s original beer crafter, who started his business more than three decades ago that has grown into a powerhouse brand and expanded distribution into most of the U.S. The company plans to be in every state in the future.
Today, Bell remains at the helm of the company.
His daughter, Laura Bell, served as CEO for more than a year until she stepped down from the position in May and the company is not planning on hiring a new CEO at this point, Bell said. Laura Bell remains a shareholder, he said.
“I continue as I have always been since day one, president of Bell’s,” he said. “In essence, the buck has always stopped with me and that’s how it continues to be.”
The company has a great team of senior leaders, Bell said.
“We’re pretty happy in the space we’re in with the team we have,” he said. “I’m in charge.”
Bell’s Brewery produces more beer sold in Michigan than any other Michigan brewer. Bell said Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids puts out more total barrels nationally, though he doesn’t seem to mind.
“The revolution started because we didn’t want to have beers made with corn and rice and we stick to our guns on that. We’re not going to start making beer with the cheaper ingredients just to chase volume,” Bell said.
The industry has seen tremendous growth since Bell incorporated his business in 1983, though he is seeing a flattening out of the growth line in craft beer that has impacted both big and small players in the industry, he said.
Bell’s is striving to stay at the top, and he believes the keys are quality and innovation, he said, some things his business and the industry as a whole in Michigan, are known for.
“We’re not the new shiny toy in the box, which there are thousands of right now, but then on the other side of the equation, you’ve got the big breweries who have bought up crafts, who are trying to muscle us off the shelves,” he said.
Two Hearted is Bell’s Brewery’s top seller, Bell said, and if the beer was its own microbrewery it would be the 13th largest in the country, he said.
In Michigan in the summertime “Oberon is rocking it,” he said, and Amber Ale, which helped build the business, continues to be the third most popular beer.
Bell’s personal tastes change over time, he said. He was drinking an Upper Hand Light, a Laughing Fish, both from his Upper Hand Brewery, a division of Bell’s that opened in 2014, while relaxing up north. He had a six pack of Quinannan Falls, a Bell’s dry-hopped lager, in the fridge.
The company passed its 35-year milestone in 2018.
“People probably don’t realize what the early days were like when we had nothing, couldn’t make payroll and were talking to bankruptcy attorneys,” Bell said.
They washed bottles and labeled them by hand because they couldn’t buy bottles, he said, calling it a shoestring operation at first.
Today, the brewing operation is much more sophisticated, employing robotics as part of the production process. Bell said the business produces more than 400,000 barrels per year including out-of-state sales.
“When I started, I did everything. I was the employee,” Bell said. “My job has changed, but the thing I’ve always liked about the brewing business is that it’s so multifaceted.”
Science, art, politics and agriculture are all a part of the business, he said. The brewery also has an entertainment business, with a beer garden and indoor concert venue that has made a name in Kalamazoo as a mainstay for artists in a variety of genres, from bluegrass to rap.
“There’s a lot of different parts to it to keep me interested,” he said.
The business has given Bell opportunities to become more involved in the community, he said. He recently became the vice chair of the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, he said, an event that he and the brewery has supported, also brewing special beers for the occasion and hosting concerts at the eccentric cafe.
Thanks to Bell’s Brewery and a number of other businesses, Michigan has made a name for itself in the brewing world. Bell said he has watched some of the new breweries growing in Michigan and has seen some brewers buying supplies at his general store.
Elsewhere in Michigan, Bell said the Lansing-area brewery Old Nation Brewing Company caught his attention when its New England IPA, M-43, made a big splash on the scene.
Michigan’s top 50 beer brewers, based on 2017 in-state sales
That innovation is part of what makes Michigan a special place for beer.
“We’re known, along with a handful of other states, for our beer quality and innovation,” Bell said. “I think in the eyes of the nation, Michigan is certainly young leader.”