This failed jazz drummer began making craft beer—and a fortune—35 years ago
Larry Bell has become one of the most successful craft brewers in the country, producing America’s top beer three years running. And he’s done it all in Kalamazoo, a town in western Michigan that’s about the size of Wilmington and far from Chicago and other big-market Midwestern cities.
Bell attended Kalamazoo College in the late 1970s and afterward tried his hand at various things, including baking, drumming and teaching, but he couldn’t see turning any of those pursuits into a career.
“For one thing, I wasn’t very good at any of them,” the 61-year-old says with a laugh. “I knew I needed to go in a different direction, although I wasn’t sure what that was at the time.”
He had also become an avid home brewer and decided to give that a shot. He traveled around the Midwest, visiting various breweries and picking the brains of their brewmasters, and then, in 1985, decided it was time to open his own operation back in his college town.
Bell’s first small batches of beer were made in a 15-gallon soup kettle and the ingredients were fermented in plastic garbage pails. Now, Bell’s Brewery employs more than 550 people and produces more than 400,000 barrels of beer a year. Its brands are sold in 41 states (including Delaware) and Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale has been voted the best beer in America the last three years by the American Homebrewers Association.
Bell’s has expanded since then, including the addition of a state-of-the-art brewery in nearby Comstock.
And Bell has done things his way, which isn’t always the normal way. His first real success, Oberon Ale, got its name because he played the part of Oberon, the king of the fairies, in a sixth-grade play. And every year, Bell’s Brewery celebrates Eccentric Day—filled with music, food and, of course, beer—when employees are encouraged to “showcase your alter ego” and dress and display sides of themselves they don’t bring to work.
In fact, when Bell opened a tavern/restaurant at his brewery in 1993, he named it the Eccentric Café.
He lives with his wife and three children in Kalamazoo, which is where we recently caught up to him for a telephone interview.
O&A: You went to college as a history and political science major and you also worked in a bakery and considered a teaching career. So, when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Bell: Actually, I wanted to be a jazz drummer in downtown Chicago. I was in a small group when I was in high school and I also did some radio work—I had my own jazz show on public radio, a 50,000-watt station. I love jazz, but, thankfully, beer pays a lot better than jazz.
O&A: And it certainly pays better than teaching.
Bell: I actually [student] taught school in central Mississippi for a quarter in a pretty poor area of the state. That cured me of wanting to be a teacher.
O&A: It’s become part of craft-brewery folklore how you started out by brewing your first beer in a 15-gallon soup kettle. Did you envision the success you’ve had, and what were your initial goals?
Bell: My original goal was to get to 30,000 barrels a year and make $100,000 a year. That would have been perfect and it certainly sounded reasonable at the time. But at first, we were just trying to stay alive—just making payroll and keeping the heat on and staying alive.
O&A: At what point did you realize you were a success and paying the heating bill was no longer a problem?
Bell: We probably turned the corner and were profitable by 1991, ’92. At that point, we were confident that we were going to make it. But the first five or six years were pretty lame, and there wasn’t the market out there for craft beers that we have today. And then, in ’93 we opened the first craft beer bar in Michigan where you could buy beer by the glass. That really started to change things for us and that’s when things really took off.
O&A: You’ve stayed in Kalamazoo and even expanded your business there. Was there ever a temptation to move to a bigger city with a larger market for your product?
Bell: Actually, the original plan was for us to travel north to an even smaller town, Traverse City, but my life changed a little bit and we ended up staying in Kalamazoo. And it really doesn’t matter where you’re located as long as you have a good plan and a good product. And I think most craft breweries have one thing in common—we’re all active and have pride in our communities, whether it’s a big city or small town.
O&A: You have an annual “Eccentric Day” at your brewery, when employees are encouraged to dress, well, eccentrically, and you even named your in-house restaurant the Eccentric Café. Are you eccentric?
Bell: [Laughs]. I’ll let others be the judge of that. My first wife named the café and I guess it was what she thought of my personality. I guess we’re all eccentric in our own ways and we celebrate the diversity of the individual here. Everybody is different and everybody has something different to contribute and we encourage that. People can’t grow unless you give them the room to do it.
O&A: You’ve obviously had a lot of successful beers. Has there ever been a time when you were wrong about a beer that you thought was going to be successful?
Bell: [Laughs again] Everybody in the beer industry is wrong at some point—we’re probably wrong more times than we are right. And sometimes it’s a good beer that just doesn’t hit the public’s fancy. But then you hit that glorious one…
Q&A: You hit it really big with Two-Hearted Ale. Did you have any idea it would become so popular?
Bell: Absolutely not. We didn’t think it was going to get embraced like it has. We knew it was a good beer and we really liked it, but there’s no way to predict how well a beer will sell until we sell it. And this one has really sold well.
O&A: Two-Hearted Ale was voted the second-best craft beer in America seven years in a row before it was named the best, and now you’ve been No. 1 for three straight years. What was it like to finally get over the hump and become No. 1?
Bell: I have no idea why that change in voting happened, but we’re obviously honored to win three years in a row—if we were a sports team, we’d be a dynasty. The biggest thing is that it’s really important for the employees to get that sort of recognition. It gives them an affirmation of what a good job they’re doing. We’ve never really tooted our horn about that [being No. 1] before, but after a third year in a row the wholesalers are begging us to do it.
O&A: Like all craft breweries, especially successful ones like yours, you have to balance growth and diversity with staying true to your roots. How have you managed that?
Bell: In the late ‘90s, when there was a big proliferation [of craft brews], we saw a lot of customer confusion. Beer drinkers are pretty promiscuous—they’re often looking for new experiences. On the other hand, they also like to know what they can trust, from a quality standpoint. And that’s where a brewery like ours does really well. We have a great team that likes popular trends and likes to try new things, as long as it fits in with our ethos and our culture. People know they can count on us.