Our History

Started In a Soup Pot, Now We’re Here

We’ve come a long way, friends. From humble basement beginnings all the way to national recognition, it has been a journey jam-packed with innovation and expansion. Here’s a sort-of succinct history of the universe, or at least the parts of it that relate to Bell’s.

1976-1985

From Homebrew Shop to Brewery

Bell’s Brewery is deeply rooted in homebrewing, our community, and sharing our craft with beer lovers old and new. Coming to Kalamazoo to attend Kalamazoo College, Larry Bell started homebrewing in the early 1980s and opened a homebrew supply shop in Downtown Kalamazoo in 1983. As more and more people were requesting samples of his beer, Larry began brewing commercially in a 15 gallon soup pot and opened Kalamazoo Brewing Co., which sold its first beer on Sept. 19, 1985.

1985

First Brewed: Amber Ale

The first Great Lakes Amber Ale (now known as Amber Ale) was brewed. For many local beer drinkers, this was the first craft beer they had and because of its early popularity, it’s still referred to as the “beer that built the brewery.”

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1986

Brewing Milestone

Beer production reached 135 barrels (1 barrel = 31 gallons). Originally self-distributed, Larry and a staff of nine others bottled and delivered everything for the next four years.

First Brewed: Third Coast Beer

An homage to the Great Lakes coastline, Third Coast Beer was crafted before the craft beer market really took hold in the United States. People were afraid of beer called “ale.” Even though it was technically a Pale Ale, it was dubbed a “beer” to be more approachable. TCB went to Larry’s Library in 2017.

1987

First Brewed: Porter

Our award-winning Porter bridges the gap between malty brown ales and heavily roasted stouts. Notes of chocolate, coffee and roasted barley are offset with just a slight hop bitterness. A perfect beer for all seasons!

1988

First Brewed: Kalamazoo Stout

The first Kalamazoo Stout, an American stout and one of our most classic recipes, was brewed.

1988

First Brewed: Best Brown Ale

The first Best Brown Ale was brewed. A deep malt body and American hop profile helps this beer bridge the gap between lighter-bodied beers and malty stouts.

1988

First Brewed: Cherry Stout

The first Cherry Stout was brewed, crafted with 100% Montmorency cherries grown in Michigan’s Traverse City region. Beers with adjuncts (non-malt sources of fermentable sugar) were uncommon at this point in time.

Cherry Stout Fun Fact

1988

First Brewed: Double Cream Stout

The first Special Double Cream Stout was brewed. Named after its smooth, creamy texture, this beer is brewed with ten different specialty grains and is completely dairy-free.

1988

First Brewed: Third Coast Ale

The first Third Coast Old Ale was brewed. An American barley wine, this beer is named after America’s “Third Coast” which surrounds the Great Lakes.

1989

First Distributor

At this time Bell’s was brewing so much (more than 500 barrels annually) that we needed a partner to help spread our products across Michigan. Rave Associates, based in Ann Arbor, became our first wholesaler and brought Bell’s to all corners of the state. In modern times, Bell’s has more than 200 distributors across the country.

First Brewed: Expedition Stout

One of the earliest examples of Russian Imperial Stouts in the United States, our first Expedition Stout was brewed in 1989. It is now the longest-brewed Imperial Stout in the United States.

1990

First Pour: Indiana

Brewing Milestone

Brewing capacity increases with the installation of a 2-barrel brew system.

First Pour: Wisconsin

Collage of images showing cans of Oarsman Ale, label for The Oracle, and a headshot of Larry Bell

1991

Bell’s Gets Eccentric

Bell’s celebrated its first Eccentric Day. At first a private party for employees, it grew over the years to be one of the most epic parties in craft beer. Every year guests are encouraged to “come as you aren’t” and showcase your “too weird for work” alter ego (the side of you that would never show up at the office). It’s a day of food, beers, and music celebrating inspiration, individuality, and creativity.

Staffing Up

At this time, Bell’s had five full-time employees.

First Pour: Illinois

1992

Brewing Milestone

A long way from the original soup kettle, a larger, 15-barrel brew system was installed. We still brew on this system to this day.

First Brewed: Oberon

First brewed as SolSun, Oberon Ale started a revolution in craft beer. It became one of the most iconic brands and introduced a whole generation of beer drinkers to craft. Oberon release day has become an annual celebration of friends, the approach of warmer weather, and the start of baseball season.

1993

June 11

Eccentric Café Officially Opens

Bell’s became the first Michigan brewery to open an onsite pub, the Eccentric Café at 355 E. Kalamazoo Ave, after Larry worked with the Michigan Legislature to change state law regarding breweries selling beer in tap rooms.

1994

Michael Jackson Pays a Visit

The acclaimed beer and whiskey writer (not the other guy) visited what was then known solely as the Kalamazoo Brewing Company, which helped boost the reputation of the young brewery.

First Brewed: Bell’s Pale Ale

One of the earliest Bell’s beers, Pale Ale was renamed Midwestern Pale Ale in 2012. That recipe used barley from the Bell’s Farm (no longer affiliated with the brewery) in Shepherd, Michigan and the original label featured a painting of the barn and silo by a local Kalamazoo artist.

1996

Beer Garden in Bloom

This outdoor space beside the Eccentric Café officially made its debut. It has grown by leaps and bounds ever since, hosting events and concerts by popular artists such as Bruce Hornsby, George Clinton, Billy Strings, Greensky Bluegrass, and Kurt Vile.

1997

Brewing Milestone

A brand new 30-barrel system gets installed.

First Brewed: Two Hearted

The first version of Two Hearted debuted in the late 1980s as a Pale Ale brewed with English malt and Wisconsin-grown hops (the two “hearts”). The Two Hearted we know and love today debuted in 1997 as a winter seasonal. In 2003, it became a year round offering and surpassed Oberon as Bell’s best-seller in 2013.

2001

Comstock, Here We Come

Bell’s purchased five acres in Comstock Township, Michigan, seven miles east from Bell’s original downtown Kalamazoo brewery. This new land soon became the home of Bell’s main brewery. The Kalamazoo location continues to brew experimental and exclusive beers for the Eccentric Café and is open for tours.

First Brewed: Java Stout

2002

December

Comstock Construction Complete

Equipment was moved in at Bell’s new Comstock brewery and the first beer was brewed.

2003

First Brewed: Winter White Ale

The first Winter White Ale (now Bright White Ale) was brewed.

Comstock Brewery Open for Business

Bell’s Comstock brewery opened about seven miles east of Kalamazoo on a 32-acre site. The original footprint was just over 35,000 square feet. The construction brought John Mallett to Bell’s, who would oversee brewery operations for the coming decades.

Keg Line Installed

Our Comstock Brewery received an additional way to package Bell’s beer through keg line automation.

2004

First Brewed: Hopslam Ale

The first Hopslam Ale was brewed.

2005

New Brewery, New Growth

Our Comstock Brewery expanded for the first time, but not the last. Construction continued in stages from here on out.

2006

Quality Focus

An Anton Paar instrument for measuring alcohol, density, and estimating calories was installed in the Bell’s Quality Lab.

First Brewed: Lager of the Lakes

Lager of the Lakes, our year-round bohemian-style pilsner, was first brewed.

First Brewed: Octoberfest

Spending a full six weeks fermenting, the first Octoberfest Beer was brewed as a flavorful session beer perfect for fest season.

First Brewed: Consecrator Doppelbock

The first Consecrator Doppelbock, a traditional doppelbock and Bell’s General Store exclusive, was brewed.

2007

Cellar Expansion

The first fermentation cellar expansion at the Comstock brewery was announced.

First Brewed: Black Note Stout

Black Note, one of the most sought-after stouts in Bell’s history, was first brewed.

First Brewed: Bourbon Barrel Aged Expedition Stout

A 12-month barrel-aged version of our award-winning Expedition Stout, Bourbon Barrel Aged Expedition Stout was first brewed.

2008

Brewing Milestone

More than

 100,000

 barrels shipped in one year.

First Brewed: Hopsoulution

The first Hopsoulution Ale was brewed.

First Brewed: Christmas Ale

Our holiday-themed Scotch ale was first brewed.

Picture of Bell's Christmas Ale bottle and label
Collage of images showing cans of Oarsman Ale, label for The Oracle, and a headshot of Larry Bell

2010

First Brewed: Oarsman Ale

Oarsman Ale grew out of a desire to explore the tradition of session beers, trading intensity for finesse while still creating a flavorful experience. A groundbreaking beer when it was released, Oarsman was removed from our year-round lineup in 2019 and is currently retired.

First Brewed: The Oracle

The Oracle was developed from a one-off batch brewed for the Craft Brewers Conference that was called “Big Head San Diego Style Ale”. 

Larry Bell wins Brewers Association Recognition Award

Larry was honored at the 2010 Brewers Association Achievement Awards for Bell’s innovative brewing and dedication to the industry including acting as a driving force with then Denver mayor (now US senator) John Hickenlooper for the creation of American Beer Month (now American Craft Beer Week). 

2011

The Eccentric Cafe Reopens

After $3 million in renovations, our Eccentric Café reopened, transformed into a state-of-the-art music venue with expanded restrooms, additional seating options, a transformed Beer Garden, a new patio, and a new main entryway.

Collage of images showing construction, can and bottle of Golden Rye Ale (now known as Smitten)

2012

First Brewed: Smitten

Golden Rye Ale (now known as Smitten) was originally part of a series of rye beers released in 2010, and it was part of our seasonal lineup (spring release) from 2013 through 2017. It returns on occasion as a draft option.

Brewing Milestone

200,000 barrels shipped in one year.

New Brewhouse

This expansion included a brand new American-made 200-barrel brewhouse, fourteen 400-barrel dry hop fermenters for Two Hearted, as well as grain storage and geothermal field installations.

2013

Apr. 25

Introducing Upper Hand Brewery

Construction began on our first ever sister brewery, Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba, located within Michigan’s upper peninsula.

First Brewed: Sparkleberry

The first Sparkleberry, an American interpretation of a Belgian-style tripel brewed with raspberries, was released at Kalamazoo Pride in 2013 to celebrate our sponsorship of the event.

First Pour: New York

Quality Focus

Our first full-time microbiologist is hired as part of the Bell’s quality team.

Collage of pictures showing various Bell's images, such as the Sparkleberry label
Top image showing the hop yard. Bottom image showing cans of Oberon being filled with beer

2014

Can Line Installed, Hop Yard Planted

Upper Hand Begins Brewing

Upper Hand Brewery, a division of Bell’s and an entirely separate sister brewery offering a completely different line of beers in Michigan’s upper peninsula, officially opened for business.

Brewing Milestone

300,000 barrels were shipped in one year.

Expansion

The first of our 800-barrel fermenters was installed.

2015

First Pour: Louisiana

Quality Focus

Construction in Comstock continued—the Cube (a.k.a. our waste water treatment facility) came online. Plus, our Quality Lab added ICP (inductively coupled plasma) for measuring water quality and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) for the analysis of beer DNA.

Best and Brightest

Bell’s Brewery was first voted one of the Best and Brightest companies to work for in the U.S.!

And since we’re so proud of this honor, we’re just gonna leave these other Best and Brightest awards right here, too :

  • West Michigan’s Best and Brightest 2015-2021
  • Best and Brightest Companies to Work for in the Nation 2015-2020
  • Best and Brightest in Wellness 2016-2020
Images showing (1) the quality focus and (2) the Bell's team
Image showing the Eccentric Cafe
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Eccentric Café Kitchen Expansion

The 150-square-foot kitchen that served the Café’s guests for more than 20 years got fully redone and reopened with a brand new, expanded bar and additional draught options.

First Brewed: Double Two Hearted

The first Double Two Hearted Ale was released with everything you love about Two Hearted, but doubled (including 2.5X Centennial hops)!

Image showing the Eccentric Cafe
Image showing people clinking glasses together
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Happy 30th Anniversary Bell’s Funvitational

How do you celebrate 30 years of Inspired Brewing? You invite breweries from all over the world to your hometown for a beer festival like no other. More than 4,000 people attended, and more than 200 beers were poured—many had never been tapped before in Michigan!

Our 30th Anniversary Ale, an American Imperial Stout was also released to commemorate the occasion.

2016

Expansion

Construction is completed on a brand new Bottling Hall, warehouse space, additional fermentation space, employee care areas, and Logistics Center.

2017

More Dry Hoppin’

Sixteen 400-barrel dry hop fermenters are added to Cellar A.

First Pour: Texas

2H = No. 1

After seven years of being ranked #2, American Homebrewers Association members voted Two Hearted Ale as the #1 Beer in America! Bell’s was also named the #1 Brewery in America!

First Pour: New Mexico

Beer First Brewed This Year

Arabicadabra

Am I Right or Amarillo?

2018

Still Growing

Twelve additional 800-barrel fermenters were installed. Other construction projects were completed, including yeast propagation system upgrades, two pilot brew systems, and a specialty packaging line installation.

Quality Focus

Bell’s had its first publication in the Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC).

First Pour: Colorado

First Brewed: Official

We made it Official in 2019 with the release of our Hazy IPA.

2019

First Brewed: Flamingo Fruit Flight

The first Flamingo Fruit Fight, a passionfruit and lime tart ale, was brewed and released. This marked the launch of a new brand family that celebrates fruity flavors like raspberry, pomegranate, and lemon-lime.

2020

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Bell’s

Bell’s strengthened its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through several initiatives: Hiring a full-time DEI specialist, forming a DEI committee, evaluating our culture and communication, introducing anonymous reporting, and sponsoring Kalamazoo’s Black Arts Festival.

2021

Carrie Yunker Promoted to Executive VP

Carrie K. Yunker was named the Executive Vice President of Bell’s Brewery, Inc., overseeing all aspects of company management. She had been a Bell’s employee for 20 years, first working as a part-time receptionist.

2021

John Mallett Scholarship Announced

In celebration of Bell’s Vice President of Operations John Mallett’s 20th anniversary with the company, a scholarship was established in his name to assist individuals wishing to undertake studies with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas.

Hop Quiz—Two Truths & a Lie Edition

 

Which one of these is NOT a real Oberon variant?

 

Uberon: Oberon’s bourbon barrel-aged cousin.

Nope, this one’s the real deal.

Tropical Oberon Ale: a mango, guava, and passionfruit take on the classic.

Nah, this was really available in 2021 and ‘22.

Oktoberon: fermented for six weeks, this Oberon is ready for Oktoberfest.

Yup, it’s fake! Oberon in the fall? Yeah, right.