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THE SHIFTY EPISODE 6: A CONVERSATION WITH LARRY BELL

In the season finale of The Shifty, we talk with Bell’s Brewery Founder and President Larry Bell about things such as the changing culture of craft beer, the artwork displayed in the Eccentric Café and a little Harry Potter. Larry and his brewery have come a long way since the early days of brewing in a 15-gallon soup kettle. We take a look at where we’ve been, how far we’ve come and where we’re headed in this episode.

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Transcript

Larry Bell: Let's pretend it's Harry Potter and they tried to send the organ by floo powder and things went wrong, right?

Nick Lancaster: Since this is the final episode of The Shifty we will have for you this season, we wanted to interview the man the whole brewery started with, Larry Bell. Larry sat down with us to discuss Bell's Brewery's history, culture, and more. I'm Nick.

Maddie Parise: And I'm Maddie. And for those of you who don't know, in 1983, Larry started a home brew shop called the Kalamazoo Brewing Company. During this time, he was brewing his own beer in a 15 gallon soup pot. When Larry's home brews grew in popularity, he decided to create his own brewery in 1985. Since then, Larry has turned Bell's Brewery into what it is today, a 100 percent family owned and independent craft brewery that distributes across the country and was named number one brewery in America by a survey conducted by Zymurgy Magazine.

Nick: Here's what Larry had to say.

Maddie: Can you tell us a little bit about what the culture of beer and home brewing looked like when you first get your start?

Larry: Well, when I first started home brewing early in 1980, the law had just been changed. Jimmy Carter had just signed that, so there wasn't a lot of anything out there. I still have a copy of my first book I bought down at, I think I must have bought that down at Dean's Market down on Portage Road, called The Malt-Ease Flagon which is not a real great name.

Maddie: Sounds very user friendly.

Nick: Pun based things are always the best.

Larry: Yeah. You know, there's not a whole lot of mentions of hops in there and so for home brewing, it was about using a two and a half pound can of malt extract and a five pound bag of sugar. And if you wanted a really strong batch, you used two five pound bags of sugar, which was like rocket fuel.

Maddie: Yeah.

Larry: I knew some about the American Homebrewers Association. So I think in both '83 and '84, I made bottle entries in and you can find a couple of certificates around the offices here at Bell’s that I got a from that. Beer, for the most part, those of us that were interested in beer, probably the most interesting things that were available would be imports. But if you knew somebody was going to be in California, I remember getting our hands on Old Foghorn from Anchor, the barleywine, and was terribly exciting. But there weren't, at that point, there weren't a lot of regional breweries around. I got my first commercial lesson by talking my way into the brew house at Stoney's Brewery in Smithton, Pennsylvania. I got to visit Geyer Brothers, which are both gone these days. So there was a little bit of regional beer still left and imports, and home brew was just really in its beginning stages.

Nick: I didn't even know that the American Homebrewers Association was around back then. I didn't realize that was still a thing.

Larry: Yeah, I'd have to look and see what year they were founded. But the first Great American Beer Festival was put on by the American Homebrewers Association. There is a poster back in one of these rooms that I have that names all the breweries that were there on the poster, but it was really, it was more about homebrewing.

Nick: Right, right.

Larry: And then it evolved as the industry grew into other organizations and yeah.

Nick: So you started the home brewing store 35 years ago. What does this milestone mean to you?

Larry: I'm old. Yeah. Every year those milestones get bigger and wow. It's a lifetime of being involved and being dedicated to it. I look at our homebrew store now and certainly, it's fun. I enjoy seeing the homebrewers in there and I think about some of the terrible homebrew that was made, and the great education that has taken place for the greater homebrew community. And there are people now making commercial style beer at home, which is a awesome. Those resources weren't available to us in the early days.

Nick: Right.

Maddie: So back when you started Kalamazoo Brewing, if someone had asked you, where will you be in 35 years, what would you have thought?

Larry: Well, I'm not sure I would have known what to think. I had two goals. Okay? I can remember saying these goals out loud as at least one other person. So these old regional brewers that I would go visit, they kind of say, "Listen, you want to do this, you can get yourself up to 30,000 barrels and stay there and you'll have a nice family business." Right? And so I wanted to make 30,000 barrels. That was my goal, and I figured it'd be reasonable at 30,000 barrels to personally make $100,000. So those were the goals that I was shooting for, and of course, it's been many years ago that we blew through 30,000 barrels.

Maddie: Right.

Larry: But you know, there's that same sort of thought that crosses my mind though. For them and their era, 30,000 might've been that number. For our era, so the question is, is it really about growth and is that the most important thing to you? And you will grow no matter what it takes and whether that changes your company, your ethics or whatever? Or is there a place that you can just be happy and you don't want to have to take on the Anheusers and Millers of the world and make great beer and have a nice life?

Maddie: I think it's also a matter of focusing more on quality than quantity. If your only goal is to hit a certain number, then your quality might be lacking. But if you focus more on, I want my customers to be happy, I want my employees to be happy.

Larry: Well, I'm not saying that you can't have both quantity and quality, but I guess some of that's how we define quality. There are things, just for me, we make all malt beer. Okay. We can start making two hearted with 20 percent corn syrup, so it costs less and we can charge less and make more of it, but we're not going to do that.

Nick: No. It would drastically probably affect the flavor of it too.

Larry: Yeah.

Nick: Hoping to learn more about Bell's Brewery? Check out the action firsthand with the tour at our Comstock or downtown Kalamazoo locations. Tours are available Wednesdays through Sundays. Learn more about tour times and reserve your spot today at bellsbeer.com/tours.

Nick: So I guess after all these years, is there a particular beer that you found to be your favorite?

Larry: That's one of my least favorite questions. I used to, back in the day, say they're all my children and I love them all equally. People didn't like that answer. I like Q Falls a lot. Q Falls is very personal for me because it came to me in a dream. The whole thing came to me in a dream. So that's a special fun one. I have a soft spot in my heart for Amber Ale, especially on draft. It built the brewery in the early days.

Nick: Whenever I'm downtown, every once in a while I'll look up and be like, I haven't had an amber in a while. And that's like, it always tastes the best whenever it's like ...

Larry: Yeah. It's very food friendly. I guess that some of my favorites.

Nick: Alright.

Maddie: So the Eccentric Cafe is a big part of what we do. Can you tell us a little bit about the art that's down there?

Larry: So when the cafe opened in June of '93, the two sort of main tenants that we opened up on where there's no smoking and no TV. And so the idea being, you're going to have to talk to people in here. You can't just veg out watching TV. So over the years it's gotten filled up with stuff. And as I travel, I collect various pieces of art. Some of them, you see an artist that you can't get something. No, maybe you order something or paper ephemera. And masks. If I can find masks or facial carvings or something, then I try and collect that sort of stuff. So it's just a hodgepodge of old things. There is no TV, but if you're sitting next to somebody at the bar, they might say, "What the, what is that up there?" Oh yeah. First time here? Yeah. What is all this stuff? And it starts a conversation between two people, right? So that you're socially interacting, which that's what the pub should be all about.

Maddie: What's your favorite piece of art down there?

Larry: Oh Gosh, there we go with favorites again. I don't know that ... I couldn't say that there's any favorite down there. There's all kinds of good things. I've got some flags from winning Bayview, the Bell's Beer Bayview yacht race. I don't know. Have you ever noticed the organ down by the stairs that lead to the courtyard?

Nick: It's like disassembled, right?

Larry: Well Bruce, who used to work for us for many years, and Bruce who wrapped the polls with the rope. I said to Bruce, "This old organ was left in the car port at the house I bought," and I said, "Bruce, here's what we're going to do." I said, "Let's pretend it's Harry Potter and they tried to send the organ by floo powder and things went wrong." And Bruce said, "Well, I've never read Harry Potter." And Bruce is a little older than me. I said, "Okay Bruce, let's imagine it's Star Trek and they're using the transporter and things got screwed up." Oh, I totally know what to do now. Now, I'm onboard.

Nick: Yeah, that's funny.

Larry: There's all kinds of fun things there.

Nick: So beer is obviously a big part of what we do and a big part of your life, but I feel like our fans have heard the history a lot. I guess what we want to know is in 2018, what does Larry Bell want to talk about?

Larry: How I can get some more hours in my day. Yeah. That's kind of how this week is going. For me, I have other things that I'm involved with. So tomorrow I'm giving a speech in front of 400 people at a financial conference, and I'm hosting a political candidate on Thursday night at my home. Thursday morning by 10:00, I just learned at lunch today I have to submit written testimony to a Senate committee, US Senate committee that I'm testifying in front of on Monday morning before I get back Monday night to attend a Heart Association dinner, which I have a leadership role in. So that and the Chicago Cubs, we can talk about those things.

Nick: That is wild. I could not imagine trying to pull all that off in a week.

Larry: Yeah, a lot of stuff going on.

Maddie: Yeah. So obviously since Bell's has become so popular, it's pretty common to go out and see someone wearing a Bell's t-shirt or Bell's sunglasses. Is it weird seeing your last name everywhere when you go out?

Larry: Whenever I see it, it just gives me a thrill. We were going out to dinner in Chicago up in Andersonville the other night and some guy was wearing a hat. I yelled out the window of the cab at him. You go into Wrigley Field down at the baseball game and we're in line to get some draft Oberons and here's this group of young women ordering Oberons. I give them my card and they go, “So, what are you, like president or something?” Well, actually yeah. “Oh my God, you are. Oh we love your beer.” No, that never gets that never gets dull, seeing somebody. And I always thank them. Because we don't, you know, there are certain brands of beer that you could probably go to any mall in America and buy their logo clothing. We don't do that. So when you see somebody that's wearing a logo hat or a t-shirt or something, you know, either A, they've been to the General Store to buy it or B, they cared enough to actually try and make an order online. Right?

Nick: Either way, it all comes from here.

Larry: Yeah. So they're probably involved with the product pretty well.

Nick: Right. So I guess in wrapping up, what's the most important thing that you've learned since this all started? Since opening the brewery?

Larry: I think patience. When you have a business with lots of employees and lots of vendors and suppliers and customers, things go wrong and people come to you with ... It's a disaster. Small business, your best day can be followed by your worst day, can be followed by your best day. Things usually aren't as dramatic is as they first appear and just being patient and taking a look at all things and figuring out how to weather through the conflicts that happen.

Nick: Awesome. Well, I think that'll do it for us. Thank you for coming in and speaking with us.

Larry: Absolutely.

Maddie: Thank you so much to Larry Bell for talking with us today. I'm Maddie.

Nick: And I'm Nick, and you've been listening to The Shifty. Cheers.

Oberon Day 2019

Reach for the sun beginning March 25!

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