Just two months old when the company began, Laura Bell, has been named chief executive officer of the brewing dynasty her father founded in 1985. Originally known as Kalamazoo Brewing Company, Bell’s Brewery is now considered to be the seventh largest craft brewery in the United States.
The elevation of his daughter from vice president to CEO, is just the latest in a long list of accomplishments for Larry Bell, whom many consider to be the godfather of the brewing industry in Michigan.
While attending Kalamazoo College in the late 1970s, Larry took a job at Sarkozy Bakery, which led to an interest in yeast and fermentation. That, in turn, inspires him to brew his own beer.
By 1983, this new passion leads to the opening of a homebrew supply store under the name of Kalamazoo Brewing Company. By 1985, using just a 15-gallon soup pot, Larry creates and sells his first commercial beer.
The business takes off and just one year later, the company is producing 135 barrels, which is approximately 4,185 gallons of beer. Within just four years, the total is 500 barrels, and sales have extended throughout the state of Michigan and beyond.
Next up, in what may be the dawn of the culinary tourism age in Michigan, the Eccentric Café opens, marking the first time a Michigan brewer opened a pub on site. This would later become a destination for beer lovers around the country, especially on release dates of popular seasonal brews like Oberon.
By 2003, to meet rising demand for its products, the company opens a new brewing facility in Comstock, on 32-acres, about seven miles east of Kalamazoo.
Fans of the company allegedly referred to it affectionately as Bell’s for years (rather than Kalamazoo Brewing Company), so in 2005 it officially becomes known as Bell’s Brewery, and is formally reincorporated as such in 2006.
In 2011, following a boon in culinary tourism, the Eccentric Café reopens after a $3 million renovation. The result is a state of the art music venue, beer garden, patio, and much more seating. Events at the brewery are now almost a daily ritual. The same year, the American Homebrewers Association rates Two Hearted Ale as the second best beer in the nation.
Meanwhile, the growth in popularity and demand for Bell’s products leads to an expanded brewery in Comstock. The facility increases the company’s brewing capacity from 180,000 barrels to 500,000 barrels per year. The new version is equipped with state of the art brewing technology, including an expanded grain-handling system and a 200-barrel brewing system. The grain system allows brewers to mill 2,000 lbs. of grain in approximately 4 minutes, versus the old system which took an hour to mill the same amount. By 2014, a canning line and two 800-barrel fermenters are also added.
At the same time, the organization launches Upper Hand, a new brewery and packaging facility in Escanaba. Operating as a division of Bell’s, it is an entirely separate brewery. Upper Hand produces a completely different line of beers which are currently distributed exclusively in the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin.
Laura Bell takes over the operations and planning for the company at a time when it continues to hit new heights. Expansion is on the horizon again, and honors for its various creations abound. A new specialty stout is also set to debut in the fall.
Fans wishing to get a closer look and deeper understanding of the operation for themselves can take tours at both the Kalamazoo and Comstock facilities.
For those eagerly anticipating their first taste of the year of a seasonal favorite, the 2017 release schedule is:
Hopslam – January
Consecrator Doublebock – February
Oberon – March
Pooltime – May
Quinannan Falls India Pale Lager – June
Octoberfest Beer – September
Special Double Cream Stout – September
Roundhouse India Red Ale – September
Expedition Stout – September
Third Coast Old Ale – September
Cherry Stout – November
Christmas Ale – November
Eccentric Ale – December (only available at Bell’s General Store and Eccentric Café)
As the new era begins, Larry Bell will continue as the company’s president and remain active in various projects, including long-term planning and overseeing the overall direction of the business with Laura reporting directly to him.
Laura is a co-owner of the brewery, and started working there full-time in 2007. She has spent time in sales, beer production and marketing. As vice president, she oversaw the brewery’s Business Insights, Government Compliance, Marketing, Sales and Specialty Brewing departments.