This is the third interview in a series spotlighting coworkers who make Bell’s the brewery it is. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
If you’ve enjoyed a Bell’s beer in the past few decades, Kevin probably was part of a batch or two. After being a brewer for 25 years 30 years, Kevin recently became the head tour guide of our Comstock and Kalamazoo brewery tours. We sat down to talk to him about the changes at Bell’s over the years, changes in his career, and how beer brings people together.
Thanks for chatting with us today, Kevin. First, can I call you Stuch?
Absolutely. That’s preferred.
Great! So, Stuch, preparing for this interview, the thought crossed my mind: You’ve probably spent more time at our brewery than anyone else who’s still working here.
Probably. Yeah. I think that number is close. I don’t know anyone that’s spent more hours at the brewery than I have. I’ve had many different shifts here at the brewery from 5 am start time to working third shifts, some second shifts as well. My first gig at the brewery was washing kegs, and my weekend was Tuesday, Wednesday. So, I’ve kind of seen it all.
When did you start working here at Bell’s?
I started in 1996. Basically, the story is I was politely informed by Western Michigan University that they would no longer be accepting future enrollment from me, and my oldest son was 7 to 8 months from joining us in the world, so I needed a job. My next-door neighbor worked at the brewery and said they were always looking for help. So, I went down the next day and talked to the packaging manager at the time and got my first job here at Bell’s washing kegs.
What was it like at the brewery then?
It was the Wild, Wild West, really. It had the moniker of “Bell’s Home for Wayward Boys.” [Laugh] It was a group of about 20 folks in their 20s, mostly male, and we all really enjoyed craft beer. It was really laid back and a lot of fun. We were really excited because we were young, enjoyed beer and were making some of the best beer around. At the time when the brewery started (1985), there were only around hundred breweries in the whole country, and now there’s well over 9,000.
So, you saw the brewery grow into what it is today. How did you see that happen?
It was driven by community. Our friends would tell their friends: Hey, my buddy’s a brewer at Bell’s, let’s go check out their beer. Kalamazoo being a college town has really helped Bell’s as well. When they leave, they always wondered where they could get Bell’s. People want to rally around that sense of community. And we were driven to make product locally to share with our community. We were passionate about the product we were making, which is easy to do when you make amazing beer [laugh].
But craft beer wasn’t always a sure thing. When did you realize that Bell’s was something special?
As a longtime employee, I’ve always stood by what we were doing, but I knew that we hit it when we started construction on our 50-barrel brewhouse in Comstock. Our original downtown Kalamazoo brewery wasn’t built to make beer, and we always dreamed about having a space that was designed to be a brewery, with drains at the low points of the floors.
So, when we started construction out here at Comstock, I was like: we did it. And that was 20 years ago. It was a significant financial commitment. It really felt like we’re going places. This is what we’ve all wanted. And the growth hasn’t really stopped, we’ve added a 200-barrel brewhouse, an innovation brewery, warehouse space, a new bottling line and two new can lines.
A lot has changed, including your role. A couple years ago you started leading tours at the brewery. What’s it like to show people around a place you’ve spent so much time in?
To be honest, I was really nervous when (Executive Vice President) Carrie (Yunker) asked me about leading tours. I’m a brewer. I come to work, talk to my friends and coworkers, but that was it. Speaking in front of people wasn’t my job. The idea was nerve-wracking, but after some self-reflection, I realized everyone who comes on tour wants to see the brewery. And that got me excited about it. It’s been really great, and I didn’t know I was going to enjoy it as much as I have. I didn’t know that was going to be a thing after 27 years at the brewery, but I absolutely love seeing people’s enthusiasm on a daily basis. It’s gotten me more excited than ever about what we’re doing.
Sometimes, hearing how important our brewery is to others is a reminder about the impact our work has.
It’s really gratifying to show someone around that’s never been at a brewery before and see how big their eyes get when they see all this equipment. And then we share our history and views on sustainability and diversity, it shows them we’re more than just the beer we brew. They come up after the tour and thank us for being such a great company.
There’s something about our beer that brings people together. The fact that we have people who travel across the country to see where their favorite beer is made is always a good feeling.
I see it on tours when a fan comes across another fan’s enthusiasm and love for the brewery. There’s an instant connection. We have strangers that have never met before, and by the end of the tour they’re sharing e-mail addresses: they just made a new friend.
There are so many stories of someone meeting their best friend or life partner because of one of our beers.
If the common thread is craft beer, then Bell’s could be the matchmaker. With all the years that I’ve been here, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of that, even with coworkers. They meet, fall in love, get married and have children, all because of our beer.
But beer can be the common thread for a lot of things in life, right? Let’s sit down, have a conversation and if both parties want to have a beverage, why not have a beer? I can imagine a lot of deals and handshakes have been made at the Café over a beer.
The Eccentric Café is a special place. I always see family and friends coming together and reconnecting over a beer.
At first, the Café was mostly coworkers and regulars. Then as we slowly became more popular, the Café got bigger, and more people started coming. But it has always been a safe space for people to come together. It wasn’t just for the brewers, but everybody. Bell’s was always known as being open to all, a place to come and be who you are. Just knowing that if you want a beautiful space to rent out for a wedding or whatever, you know you can do it there, it’s going to be a safe space.
After all these years of working here and seeing Bell’s grow, what’s something you want people to know about this place?
I’ve said this for a long time, but we hire amazing people. That’s why it’s such a great company to be a part of. Big picture, our sense of teamwork and the love that we have for one another. The larger a company gets, the harder it is to have that, and I hundred percent believe everyone is fully behind and supports one another here. It’s the community we’ve created, but also the Kalamazoo community we’re a part of. The sense of family and teamwork out here at the brewery and our commitment to our giving back to the community and being heard and seen in the places that we need to be.
As you know, Inspired Brewing has been our tagline for years. What inspires you?
It’s my family, that’s what gets me going. I get jazzed up when I think about them and try to make them proud, lead by example, and take my experiences from the brewery to be a better son, father and partner.
That’s great. I’m sure we could talk for hours, so let’s do this again!