Watching the beer wars

16 December 2007
Categories: Chicago

Larry Bell has big, big hops.

Last year, as described in this excellent Chicago Reader article, the Illinois distribution rights to the Bell’s Brewery brands were sold from one distributor to another. This was a perfectly legal transaction made possible by an outmoded but fully active law that protects distributors’ rights over those of the breweries, a law that made sense when all breweries were gigantic megalopolies, but which is utterly skewed when it comes to microbreweries and small craft brewers such as Bell’s.

In meeting with his new distributor, Larry Bell became concerned that his wide variety of brands would not be adequately marketed in Illinois, and that they would get lost among the Very-Big-Name Brands the distributor also carried. Rather than (as he saw it) suffer under this new regime, Bell chose to exit the Illinois market entirely, effectively killing around 10% of his total business (most of it in Chicago) for the sake of principle.

As a Michigander I’m a fan of Bell’s beers. Now an expat living in Chicago, I was saddened by the loss of the opportunity to purchase Bell’s here—a choice I had long taken for granted—but respected Bell for his stand against the distributors, who in my opinion have grown to be as all-powerful as the breweries were back when the Beer Industry Fair Dealing Act was written. In solidarity, I tried to remember to pick up some Bell’s whenever I returned to the Great Lakes State.

Now, a year later, Bell’s has returned to Chicago—sort of. Larry Bell (and his legal team) found a loophole in the law, one that implies new brands—not merely extensions of existing brands, as Heineken found when it tried to bring Heineken Premium Light here under a different distributor—are not subject to prior distribution deals. With that in mind, Bell’s Brewery has created three new brands under a “Kalamazoo” name: Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale, Kalamazoo Porter, and Kalamazoo IPA. By leaving the Bell’s logo as well as the Bell’s name off the label (except for the “Brewed and bottled by Bell’s Brewery, Inc.” at the bottom), and by using new brewing recipes, they have followed the letter (and perhaps the spirit) of the law and have managed, so far, to bring the Amber Ale into the city via a new distributor.

Of course, the former Bell’s distributor has threatened not only to sue, but to make the legal battle as protracted and expensive for Bell as they can.

This evening we stopped at one of the dozen or so purveyors of Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale and sampled a couple of pints. It’s very tasty. Heavy on the hops, like most Bell’s creations, making for a somewhat bitter finish that’s close to an IPA. But leading into that is a rich, creamy smoothness that I think is superior to Bell’s standard-issue Amber Ale. It is well worth seeking out. I’m looking forward to Kalamazoo Porter—and especially Kalamazoo IPA—coming to town.

What impresses me most about Larry Bell is not his fearless stance against the distribution syndicates, nor his audacity in creating new brews specifically for the Illinois market.

It’s the fact that the new label for Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale depicts a close-up shot of the classic 1887 Michigan Central Railroad depot in downtown Kalamazoo. Clearly visible in the shot is the sign over the depot’s main platform which reads, in part, “Kalamazoo—Chicago, 138 miles.”

Big hops.

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