Kalamazoo-brew: Larry Bell has built his Kalamazoo Brewing Co. on a foundation of good beer and loyal customers.
So small, in fact, that for the first few years his brewery was centered around the 15-gallon soup pot that served as his brewkettle. "We brewed for five years using industrial soup pots," Bell recalls, "and we managed to do about 5000 barrels one year."
That makeshift brewhouse is long gone, sold to a small brewpub elsewhere in the Midwest, and today's Kalamazoo Brewing Co. is a thoroughly industrial outfit, with two large brewhouses going round the clock, a well-equipped lab and shipments of over 15,000 barrels in 1996.
Two brewhouses? Yep. Kalamazoo's 15-bbl DME brewhouse produces beer destined for the bottling line, and a newer 30-bbl. DME system handles draught beer production. As it stands, 60% of Kalamazoo's production is draught, and 40% in bottles.
"We'll probably maintain two breweries indefinitely," Bell says. "For all the investment we put into it, we wouldn't get much for a used 15-bbl brewhouse. It's installed, it's here, might as well keep it going."
The company has collected quite a few fermenters as it's grown, most fabricated by Viatec of Charleroi, MI. "Viatec does a lot of food and pharmaceutical work," Bell says, "and they make stainless steel vessels of very high quality."
The brewery and the on-premise Eccentric pub are located in a collection of 19th century buildings in a post-industrial section of Kalamazoo, including a one-time railroad roundhouse for the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad, built in 1873. Although the roundhouse now stands empty, eventually it will hold additional storage space and coolers for the brewery.
Improvements are ongoing at Kalamazoo. The company's primary malt supplier, the Briess Malting Co., is helping finance a new malt storage silo, and a new mill will soon be installed to process the grain.
Kalamazoo's on-premise outlet, the aforementioned and aptly named Eccentric Pub, is not one of your shiny brass-railed Men's-Bar-at-the-Waldorf kind of pubs, but a unpretentious bare-walled taproom for people who like good beer. The pub attracts a loyal crowd every night, drinking an eclectic mix of Bell's products, most of them strong, flavorful ales. The company is especially noteworthy for its wide range of characterful stouts - Bell's Cherry Stout, Special Double-Cream Stout, Kalamazoo Stout, and Expedition Stout - and the robust Third Coast Old Ale, the last two both rated three stars by beer critic Michael Jackson.
The little pub will soon provide more than just malt beverages to its customers, with an expansion to include limited food offerings in the works. "Our primary focus will stay on the beer," says pub manager Fred Crudder, "but we'll have hot stuff and sandwiches, something good to put our name on. We'll do some fun stuff, some unique stuff." Kalamazoo has also added a new beer garden out back, complete with a budding grove of hops that will soon wend their way up an expansive pergola.
For off-premise sales, Kalamazoo's distributes through a mix of wine and beer outfits. "We have quite a few beer wholesalers," Bell notes, "although our top two or three distributors are wine houses. We are now an allied member of the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers. It's a very strong association, and we've realized that if we want to pass a bill in this state we've got to work with them on it."
Bell sees tough times ahead for the small brewery segment, given clogged distribution and retail channels and the continued flood of new breweries. "The shakeout is here," he says, "and it's starting now. The public has been overwhelmed with choice. It's getting easier just to grab a Bud and say the hell with it. I see the brewers that decided to go to the 100,000 barrel level are having to discount, but A-B, Miller and Coors know how to play that game, and I think they'll be the winners."
And as for Kalamazoo Brewing? "We'll try to get up to a nice stable 30,000 barrel level," Bell says. "There are some good economies of scale at that point, and we'll try and make some decent money and still have some fun."