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‘It’s Been Quite a Story’

Larry Bell

Larry Bell
Larry Bell has changed beer for the better

Even after 36 years in the business, Larry Bell still gets a kick out of seeing his beer as he travels the country.

For example, during a six–week trip he took to Arizona earlier this year to coincide with the Chicago Cubs’ spring training, Bell enjoyed a Two Hearted Ale from a golf course clubhouse. Since Bell’s Brewery is now the seventh largest U.S. craft brewery by volume sales, with distribution to 43 states, its portfolio of beers has become easier to find. But for the head of an empire that started in 1985 with $200 and a 15–gallon soup kettle, little moments still matter.

“It still gives me such a thrill to be so far away from home and to find my beer on tap, and it was delicious. It makes me giggle,” says the 63–year–old founder and president of Bell’s.

Over a series of phone interviews starting in June 2020, Bell discussed a range of topics, including the pandemic, his health, his community involvement, his philanthropy, his huge collection of brewery–related items, and his succession plan.

For many in the area, Bell’s biography and the origins of the brewery are well known. He moved from Chicago to Kalamazoo in 1976 to study history at Kalamazoo College. While working at the original Sarkozy Bakery, he was introduced to the world of grains and fermentation. He launched his home–brew store in July 1983 and sold his first beer on Sept. 19, 1985. In the decades since, Bell and his brewery have helped transform the country’s drinking habits and turn Michigan into one of the premier beer states in the nation.

David Ringler — the owner of Cedar Springs Brewing Co., just north of Grand Rapids, vice president of the Michigan Brewers Guild, and a Kalamazoo College graduate who worked at Munchie Mart during his college days — says he remembers drinking Bell’s beer in the early days of Bell’s Brewery, when it covered its brewing equipment with plastic cling wrap to keep undesirable elements from the atmosphere from getting into the brew. Ringler says Michigan beer owes a “debt of gratitude” to Bell for laying the industry’s foundation.

“If there’s anything about Larry that can be said, it’s that he does what he believes is right,” Ringler says. “Whether you agree or disagree, he’s going to do what he thinks is right. You’ve got to have a lot of respect for someone who lives with integrity.”

‘The right way’

Along the way to the massive growth of his company, Bell helped change outdated industry legislation and became entangled in several legal battles in many states — often over distribution agreements — developing a reputation as a confident, hard–driving businessman with his own unique set of standards.

Charlie Papazian, the author of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing (1984), is considered the godfather of home brewing after releasing his popular book on the subject in 1984. Papazian also founded the Association of Brewers and the Great American Beer Festival and was the long–running president of the Brewers Association, the Colorado–based trade organization promoting U.S. craft beer and home brewing. Papazian says he remembers hearing about Bell and his Cherry Stout despite Kalamazoo being “off the beaten track” of U.S. beer. It was “very extreme” to use fruit in beer in the late ’80s, Papazian says, and Bell quickly became known at brewing conferences and festivals.

“People kind of migrated to Larry. He was always telling stories. People loved to hear his stories. He was going against the grain and winning,” Papazian says during a phone interview from his home in Colorado.

Papazian eventually made treks to Kalamazoo, including one in 1993 to see Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, the first on–site taproom for a Michigan brewery. He returned several years later to take part in Eccentric Day, Bell’s Brewery’s annual winter celebration where people are encouraged “to come as you aren’t.” Papazian calls Bell a “leading maverick” in U.S. craft beer, particularly for his role in rather public battles with distributors.

“He’s fiercely independent,” Papazian says. “He has always been one of the leading advocates of doing things — I want to say two words at the same time — the right way and his way. And his way, more often than not, was the right way for him and his brewery. Whether it’s retailing or distribution or trade practices, he was above–board. (He was) going by the book in some ways but protesting in some ways that the book wasn’t written in a way that’s fair to smaller businesses. He pushed the envelope and oftentimes got things straightened out, whether that’s on a local level or an example for a national level as well.

“He wasn’t afraid to take people to task, whether it’s to court or whether it was contractual–type stuff. He did what he thought was fair and what was right for all parties, not just one–sided agreements. He took a stand and often won. That set a precedent, certainly in national beer–distribution laws. If it happened in Michigan and someone is willing to fight for it and win, other breweries in other states take note and use those incidents as examples.”

An eye on succession

Bell is proud of his brewery’s legacy of independence. In his early and mid–20s, Bell worked at the downtown Kalamazoo private dinner club The Park Club (he is now the president of its Board of Directors), in part to network with potential investors in his brewery idea and “to get paid and eat.” He washed dishes, ran the dumbwaiter and did food prep, he says. Bell’s had 60 shareholders in the brewery when it opened.

From 2005 through 2012, Bell sought to buy out shareholders to make the brewery a family–run operation. There were legal battles, but he eventually succeeded. He announced in early 2013 that the brewery was entirely owned by his family and that his intention was to turn it over to the next generation.

As the craft beer industry matured and distribution competition spiked, some prominent breweries, including several in Michigan, sold or partnered with larger, non–craft–beer entities. Not Bell’s.

Bell’s produced more than 461,500 barrels of beer in 2020, second only in Michigan to Founders Brewing Co., which sold 90 percent of its business to Spain’s Best Beer Inc., an affiliate of Mahou San Miguel Group, in January 2020.

“You want to start thinking about feeling old?” says Bell. “There’s really only a couple of us left who were the founder and president and are still the founder and president today of an independent brewery that doesn’t have an investor partner or hasn’t been sold. In the top ranks, there’s not many of us left.” He notes that the other is Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., in Chico, California, which opened in 1980.

Today Bell’s Brewery has two shareholders: Larry Bell and his daughter, Laura, who stepped down as CEO of the brewery in 2018 after almost 11 years with the company. She remains on its board of directors.

In January, Carrie Yunker, who has been with Bell’s for nearly 20 years, was named the company’s executive vice president. She started at Bell’s as a part–time receptionist while attending Western Michigan University and ascended to the role of director of human resources for Bell’s. Today Yunker is one of Larry Bell’s “Gang of Four,” the nickname he uses for his leadership team, which also includes Vice President of Operations John Mallett,

Vice President of Sales and Marketing Matthew Moberly and Vice President of Finance Lisa Miller. Collectively, they have about 60 years of experience at Bell’s.

Yunker says she has a “very honest” relationship with Bell and laughs when talking about his public persona — he refers to himself as an “ogre,” and one of his cars features a vanity plate that reads, “Mr. Ogre.”

“That facade, if you will, tends to be this thing where people are scared of him. I guess I’ve never experienced that,” she says. “I’m a very direct person in the moment, and I’m willing to speak up if I don’t think we’re doing the right thing or haven’t considered all the angles of something. That’s been a hallmark of how I grew up here.”

Last fall Bell started conversations with the Gang of Four about ways he could remove himself from some of the day–to–day details of running the brewery, Yunker says. He invited Yunker to lunch at The Park Club to talk about making her the executive vice president. She called the conversation “humbling.”

“His comment to me was, ‘I need somebody who doesn’t just know beer and brewing but will take care of all these people as I take a step back,’” she says.

She ultimately took the role because, she says, she “likes a challenge.”

“We are a really successful company,” she says. “We do things a little differently than particularly other suppliers do or other brewers do. It was really important to send the right message that those things are going to remain as a part of this succession and transition.

“Will we get better, faster, quicker? Absolutely, but we aren’t going to lose who we are at the core of what matters to us. This is a generational business. We don’t make short–term decisions.”

Bell says Yunker’s skill set and the skills of the rest of his Gang of Four give him confidence and comfort about the brewery’s future as the industry emerges from the pandemic. Bell’s leadership team met daily once the pandemic lockdown reached Michigan, scrambling to pivot to repackage thousands of gallons of beer that was destined for kegs into cans after bars and restaurants closed and packaged sales of Bell’s beer spiked. Bell’s established safety protocols at its Comstock brewery and downtown taproom to keep employees and customers as safe as possible. The company secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan in April 2020, when it looked as if as many as 132 of Bell’s nearly 600 employees could lose their jobs.

“All companies need to have people trained and in backup roles as things change,” Bell says. “Carrie has been with us almost 20 years. I think in this day and age having someone from HR is a great person to have as a leader right now. With all the things we are going through as a society, Carrie is well placed to be a great leader for the company. She has done a great job guiding the company through the pandemic and has good knowledge of other parts of the company. Certainly when you’re in HR, you’re involved in all the different departments. You have to understand what they do, why they do it. She’ll be learning a little bit more about some of the things I do. When I want to go to Arizona for six weeks, it’s great to know that someone is there that can be in charge.”

Making the community better

As Bell steps back a bit from some aspects of the brewery, his involvement in the community and his philanthropic efforts move ahead.

Bell has a long record of supporting a variety of organizations, either through his company or through personal donations. For more than a decade, Bell’s has sponsored events with OutFront Kalamazoo, ​​the nonprofit organization serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and its allies. It is also active in supporting youth organizations and the arts community. Bell is the president of the board of the Gilmore International Piano Festival as well as on the capital campaign committee seeking to raise $9 million to build a new facility for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo, on the old site of Grapevine Furniture, on Portage Road. He’s heavily involved in statewide efforts to protect Michigan’s water. And he recently became president of The Park Club.

Ben Zylman, the former marketing and development director for the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and an employee there for nearly 20 years, says he was shocked when Bell called him years ago during an economic downturn to offer financial help. Typically, it’s the person in Zylman’s position who does the asking, he says.

“Think about it,” Zylman says. “In your life, when is the last time someone you barely know completely out of the blue called you and said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’? It doesn’t happen! I think that’s what always impressed me so much. It’s the fact that he took the time to say, ‘Someone might have a need, and I might be able to help them.’ That’s what really impressed me.”

Shakespeare’s Pub co–owner Ted Vadella has worked closely with Bell and his staff during the 19 years his bar and restaurant have been located just a few hundred feet from the Eccentric Cafe.

“Larry Bell was a visionary in our industry long before anyone saw it as a business model,” Vadella says. “Craft brewing was for hobbyists and garage weekend warriors. Then this guy comes out of nowhere in our little town and creates an alternative to macro beers. It amazes me how he continues to stay ahead of the game not only in quality control, but social issues that have proven to be so important to the way society works. He isn’t afraid to take chances with his beer or his beliefs. He pushes for our community to be better.”

Beyond the world of beer and aside from his community involvement, Bell has found a reconnection with the outdoors. Unlike others who found solace outdoors during the pandemic, Bell had motivation that wasn’t entirely driven by pandemic–induced cabin fever. It was also driven by a health issue: He announced earlier this year that he had recovered after a fight against kidney cancer in the summer of 2020 and the removal of one kidney.

Partly in response to this experience, Bell set a goal to hike about 270 miles, of which he’s completed 260 miles so far. He revealed his plan by posting a video on his Facebook page that referenced his health recovery and announced that he was donating $30,000, to be split equally among the National Kidney Foundation, the North Country Trail Association and the Bronson Health Foundation.

Now, he says, his goals include doing puzzles, visiting the Upper Peninsula, traveling with his wife, Shannon, golfing, and following the Cubs. He has some brewery–related projects he’s contemplating, including creating a sports–bar–like space at the Eccentric Cafe and a distillery at a building he owns in downtown Kalamazoo. He’s also talked with local historians and museum officials about putting his immense personal collection of brewery items, maps and historic documents into galleries for the public.

“I have been toying with the idea of a museum for all the stuff I collect, because the wife is not going to put up with it too much longer with all the crap that’s all over the place,” he says.

Looking ahead at the industry

Bell is predicting leaner times in the future for craft beer. During the last several years, sales of craft beer have slowed from their meteoric pace of five years ago, which Bell says was an unsustainable pace. Add the pandemic to that inevitable sales slowdown, and Bell says he is already seeing a leveling off of action nationwide. Kalamazoo, in particular, has seen several brewery closures in the last three years.

“We’ve reached the plateau of overall craft beer,” Bell says. “It’s not the rah–rah days when we were growing 20 percent every year. There’s still some growth, but that growth is nothing compared to the number of new players coming into the marketplace. The pie is getting cut up thinner and thinner and thinner. We’ll definitely see some fallout.

“We’ve seen that already in Kalamazoo, in Michigan, and around the country. There will be a thinning out of the marketplace, especially for those breweries that rely on taproom sales. Those of us who have big packaging facilities will be OK.”

Yunker says her immediate attention at Bell’s will focus on bringing employees back into the workplace after the pandemic.

Also, in the next 12 to 24 months, with the dozen 800–barrel fermenters from Germany that arrived at the Comstock facility in July, the brewery is looking to make bigger plays nationally and enter into new markets, particularly on the West Coast, Yunker says. These plans include expanding in areas of the Pacific Northwest, where the vast majority of North American hops — one of the four main ingredients of craft beer — is grown and a high percentage of the population drinks craft beer.

Bell’s, as it always has, is taking a measured approach to breaking into new states. It can be a slow, deliberate process with the intention of creating lasting relationships, not simply a money grab, says Yunker.

Offering what home brewers consider the No. 1 beer in the country should help matters too. Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, an India pale ale, has been named the best beer in America for four consecutive years by the magazine of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA), based on votes by home brewers.

“Two Hearted has a ton of run room, and we’re going to go after it,” Yunker says. “Two Hearted is going to push people right out, people we love and adore, but we’re coming and selling Two Hearted and Oberon — that’s the portfolio we have. We’re going to do that kindly and respectfully, but we are going to get after it.”

‘We changed beer in America’

Papazian, the author and home–brewing pioneer, called Bell’s “one of the shining lights in the United States as far as craft beer is concerned,” and Bell says his own role in the national and statewide beverage revolution is a point of pride. Michigan ranks sixth in the nation in number of breweries, with nearly 400 of them, according to the Brewers Association. Michigan’s craft beer industry is responsible for $914 million in labor income and a total economic impact of over $2.5 billion, according to the Michigan Brewers Guild.

“The No. 1 thing is that all of us that did this craft beer thing, we changed beer in America and the world and it’s never going back,” Bell says. “We changed it for the better. We were able to blow it up and bring good beer back.

That’s been a remarkable thing.

“You think about all these numbers and all these breweries that have opened — we’ve done a lot of good for so many communities because these breweries in many places have taken old buildings, fixed them up and helped bring back neighborhoods. They tend to be community–based and pretty charitable.

“It’s been quite a story.”

About Bell’s Brewery

Founder and president: Larry Bell

Started: As Kalamazoo Brewing Co., which opened in 1983; became Bell’s in 1985

Number of employees:  More than 500

Locations:  Comstock Brewery, Upper Hand Brewery (Escanaba) and Bell’s Eccentric Cafe/General Store (Kalamazoo)

Number of beer types:  More than 90 in 2021

Beer shipped in 2020: More than 465,000 barrels

John Liberty

John Liberty began his professional career as a journalist, but now he’s “a craft beer ambassador” and says the two vocations aren’t really so far apart. Liberty, a former Kalamazoo Gazette entertainment writer, and Aric Faber created West Michigan Beer Tours in 2013 to allow people to experience the area’s growing craft beer industry.

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