By the 1980s American beer had become a famously homogeneous mass produced Pilsner-style light lager, with little variation among the leading brands. While beer consumption at the time was at the highest rate in US history, the top ten brewers in the United States accounted for 93% of the total domestic beer production, leaving little room for the few that could then be classified as “craft” beer breweries. Still, a young Kalamazoo entrepreneur went into the brewing business, armed only with a recipe, a 15-gallon soup pot, and a $200 birthday gift from his mom.
Today, Bell’s Brewery, Inc. is the largest craft brewer in Michigan and ranks among the top 10 in the nation (by sales volume), employing more than 330 people with the capacity to produce more than 500,000 barrels annually. Others have since followed suit, placing Kalamazoo at the forefront of the craft brewing movement with its annual Kalamazoo Beer Week celebration and significant nationwide recognition, including a nomination for “Beer City USA” in 2013. The following year, U.S. News & World Report named Kalamazoo among the eight underrated beer cities in the world.
Larry Bell, along with Kalamazoo’s many other fine brewmasters, follow a long line of local brewers and maltsters, reaching back to the early nineteenth century. In fact, the art of crafting fine (and some perhaps otherwise) beers and ales can be traced to Kalamazoo’s earliest days as a frontier village.
Early Home Brewing
Much of the beer that was sold and consumed in Kalamazoo before the 1870s was almost certainly of local origin. American beers, mostly British-style ales at the time, had been brewed stateside since colonial times, but beer as a product didn’t travel well, especially in those days. These early American ales were highly susceptible to heat, light, and motion, and as a result they tended to sour rather quickly. Before the latter half of the 19th century when inventions like pasteurization and refrigeration made it practical to bottle and ship the product over greater distances, beer was for the most part a purely local product.
Many of the first brewers in Bronson (Kalamazoo) Village were do-it-yourself operations. Recipes published locally during the summer of 1838 gave instructions for “cheap and agreeable table beer,” made with water, molasses and yeast. “Spruce Beer” was made by adding spruce oil or twigs and leaves to the same basic recipe. Some advocated brewing with the shells of green peas, which were said to closely resemble malt. Others added wintergreen and sassafras. A simple recipe for “very excellent sugar beer” called for water, sugar (or treacle), yeast and hops. The brew was “fit for drinking in a week,” but the writer cautioned that “this beer [would] not keep any length of time.” (Safe to say that today’s local brewers aren't apt to resurrect this recipe anytime soon.)
No matter what recipe was used or what quantities were made, brewing supplies were readily available in nineteenth century Kalamazoo. By 1837, hops extract (wholesale & retail) could be found at Dr. Starkey’s Medical Store on Main Street, “nearly opposite the Land Office.” Barley was grown locally, and could be purchased at Edwards’ Grocery Store, also on Main Street. The going rate in October 1837 was 62½¢ per bushel.
Brewer’s thermometers were found at J. P. Clapham’s Drug Store, and by the 1860s, the Roberts & Hillhouse City Drug Store was selling large quantities of extracts of roots expressly for beer making. By the end of the decade, A. C. Wortley was advertising “a large and varied assortment of barometers, intended expressly for the use of brewers.”