How a 15-gallon soup kettle launched a revolution

Bell’s Beer: How a 15-gallon soup kettle launched a revolution

Before Internet 2.0, consumers were force-fed their marketing on a one-way street. Here it is, come and buy it. As we all know, that changed and now the consumer calls the shots. This was similar to the beer industry in the 1970s. After prohibition, only 300 breweries emerged to renew their brewing. More than 800 breweries died during that dreadful time. Between 1933 and 1982, about 700 breweries were reduced to close to 50. Your choice of brew was very limited.

The beer gods smiled on us in 1982, when six brand-new microbrewers emerged across the country. A small group of beer drinkers wanted better beer and to make it taste perfect, they had to make it themselves. In small batches. In their homes. One such patriot was Kalamazoo College student and former Sarkozy Bakery employee Larry Bell.

A dedicated home brewer, Larry borrowed $200 from his mom and in 1983, opened his homebrew supply store under the name Kalamazoo Brewing Company. For two years, he perfected his brewing, but due to Michigan law, could not legally sell it. Larry lobbied hard to get the laws changed and on September 19, 1985, he could legally sell his beer across the state. His first batch of retail beer was brewed with a 15-gallon soup kettle.

By 1986, he was producing 135 barrels. In 2016, Bell’s is up to 400,000 barrels.

Today there are over 4,500 breweries in the United States. Bell’s is the seventh largest regional brewery.

Inspiration

Laura Bell, Vice President of Marketing and daughter of founder Larry Bell, spoke to Intercom at our September 2016 lunch program. Laura oversees Bell’s Business Insights, Government Compliance, Marketing, Sales and Specialty Brewing departments. She literally grew up in the business, taking her turn at bottling and labeling as a child. At first, business was so good, they couldn’t fulfill their orders. But marketing was needed and Laura was responsible for building this department from the ground up.

The main difference with Bell’s compared to other breweries is the way they connect with their customers. Many Bell’s drinkers become brand ambassadors. It’s not just beer; it’s a lifestyle.

Bell’s tells their story through three main functions. Inspiration is the first.

Their inspiration for beer comes in many ways. One way is through dreams. Larry Bell thought of “Quinannan Falls Special Lager” while dreaming of waterfalls one night. “He woke up, wrote down the recipe and went back to sleep,” said Laura. “He woke up the next morning, called his brewers and said hey, you’ve got to make this.”
Most of their beers come from non-traditional methods. Most bigger breweries try to create a beer that fits a certain demographic. “What do males, 25-35, with disposable income want to drink and how do we make a product that directly impacts and speaks to them,” Laura commented. Bell’s strategy is 180 degrees from that. If you asked Laura what their target demographic was, she would reply “Everybody that likes beer.” Putting their customers in a box is a limited opportunity.

Besides dreams, inspiration for beer also comes from the arts, literature and most importantly, raw ingredients. Meeting with hops farmers is key to getting the best ingredients they can for their beer. They routinely visit the farms, smell all the hops and pick the ones that best meet the Bell’s standards.

Intention

Bell’s makes a strong effort to intentionally engage their customers and meet them where they are. They sponsor numerous events and make sure that actual employees are on hand to answer questions. “Beer is fun,” said Laura, “and people connect with beer.” They get Bell’s tattoos, they proudly display their logo on bumper stickers and clothing. It’s not just beer; it’s a culture. Bell’s marketing has also been limited over the years to direct interaction. They’ve only made one TV commercial, back in the 1990s with ad agency Traver Rhorback and Lawrence Productions.

Integrity

One of Bell’s mottos is “safety, quality and morale.” They don’t discount their beer simply to make a sale. “We make a great beer and sell it for fair price.” Some buyers in the business believe (falsely) that beer is free. Give them the first batch free and we’ll see how it goes, they think. “We don’t play that game,” Laura said. Integrity demands quality and quality delivers.

This type of integrity follows through to their hiring practices. Their interviews are focused on “cultural fit,” not titles. This month all employees participated in Skills Week. They shut down the brewery and all attended various seminars together. New programs that are developed feature their employees. It’s not just beer; it’s a family. Bell’s is also committed to staying in Kalamazoo. It’s the perfect cultural fit for them.

So, let’s raise a pint to Bell’s and another strong local story that continues to get better with age. Cheers!

By Curtis Cunningham, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Lawrence Productions and a board member of InterCom.