I’m starting off this post with two quick disclaimers.
(1) I’m going to spend time talking about a brewery that’s outside of Cincinnati and is pretty large -- but they make excellent, accessible beer.
(2) This post is going to be a fairly long read. However, I think it may be worth your time if you are fan of craft beer. I recently had the pleasure of touring the Bell’s production brewery just outside of Kalamazoo, Mich., on the return-leg of a vacation with my family.
How this all came about was kind of cool and I walked away flat out impressed with the gang at Bell’s.
Rule No. 1 – Don’t be an Internet troll beer snob
I do my best to live by the rule above as a person who is completely absorbed with craft beer. What’s a beer snob to me? Someone who cannot enjoy a beer unless it is only known by precious few, has a very limited production and distribution, and features some obscure ingredient or process.
The beer snob will see a well-made beer as a “shelf dud” that isn’t worthy of their time, money, or liver. It’s someone that has taken much of the fun out of enjoying a good beer. Put them behind a keyboard where they are suddenly an expert on everything in the universe and this is why we can’t have nice things.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way – I acted like a beer snob earlier this year. I made a complaint to Premium Beverage Supply about the fact that they were distributing Hopslam with two different bottling date about a week apart. My own naive assumption was that week of aging had destroyed the delicate onslaught of hops in my beer.
Thankfully, Premium and Bell’s themselves kindly suggest I was full of shit. Not one to believe the professionals, I obtained a bottle of the week fresher beer and performed my own exbeeriment. They were right and I was wrong. The big people that they are at Bell’s, they welcomed a random Cincinnati beer blogger to stop by anytime to check out their brewery.
That long-winded explanation is why I’m reviewing a brewery that is 5 hours from home and probably won’t be visited by many. However, what I learned at Bell’s is that they take their beer very seriously and they make a ton of beer.
If your ADHD is already kicking in, here’s the moral of the story. They care immensely about the quality, stability, and taste of every beer they produce. From Oberon to Black Note to Oarsman – quality is measured and monitored. Be confident when you purchase Bell’s locally that its probably pretty damn close to brewery fresh.
Steady Growth Leads to HOLY MOLY
Their original homebrewshop founded in 1983 has since grown into a small production brewery, tap room, live music venue, beer garden, and soon to be classy beer-centric restaurant. I won’t spend too much time on this other than to say I’m impressed in how long they were able to operate out of a functionally inefficient space.
My guide walked me through the smallish space with a 7bbl brewhouse that focuses on taproom exclusive production. Although, they also recently installed foeders to work on their sour game – check out Queen City Drink’s piece on Rivertown’s foeders if you aren’t familiar this piece of brewing equipment. This was interesting to see but a shorter than 10 minute drive down the road to Comstock, Mich., is where the real magic happens.
You might mistake the production brewery for any other large concrete warehouse in an industrial park, except it has enormous fermenters busting out of the ceiling. If you still werent sure, you know as soon as you open the front door this isn’t an Amazon sorting facility.
No, you walk right into a 200bbl brewhouse that is actively at work. They can fill up one of Rhinegiest’s tallest fermenters plus have plenty left over in a single batch. The hustling fellas at Rhinegeist have to crank out multiple brews in a single day to come close to filling up one of those. This behemoth spends most days churning out Two Hearted and Oberon – their biggest sellers.
It is an immensely impressive rig that was custom built by a German manufacturer to Bell’s exacting standards to focus on energy recapture and brewing efficiency. It’s good for the environment and it’s good for business. It is also an intricate series of tubes, and augers, and pipes, other widgets that get grain from the silos to the kettle and the wort to the fermenters.
I won’t bore you all too much with a step by step walk through this mammoth facility but the highlight of the tour was the hops room. It was an approximately 15 x 20 walk-in refrigerator chock full of hops of any number of varieties. Probably a year’s supply for some of our local breweries lasts less than a week for them.
Immediately, your nose gets hit with that seductive, pungent aroma of hops. Cascade, Saaz, Nugget, Centennial, any many others. It’s important to note that all hops are kept temperature controlled from hops farm to brewery to ensure freshness and quality is maintained. As I was told, not all big craft breweries take that step.
Another fun fact – they have their former workhorse 50bbl brewhouse, a spare part from Bud or Miller, still in operation brewing their fun stuff. You know, boring stuff like Black Note (I’m still trying to find a bottle of 2014!!) or the new Planets Series (this will be awesome).
Overall, this is just a gatekeeper for their centrifuge, 100, 200, and 400 barrel fermenter farm that sits behind. Also in the fermenting area? Boatloads of barrels! A smorgasbord of spirits and wine barrels with many different beers encased inside.
Next stop is their humungous canning, bottling, and kegging operation. Again, I’ll be brief on the details but the canning line is an impressive complex that cans multiple cases at a time.
The bottling line is equally impressive with minuscule gaps between fill and cap to ensure no oxygen or infection permeates the bottle. An x-ray machine checks for fill quality and will dump rejects off the line.
When I visited, there were two lonely reject low-fills as hundreds of bottles zoomed down the very noisy line.
Quality is Job Number 1
I’ve mentioned it a few times throughout, but beer quality is a primary focus at Bell’s. This is evident from their equipment and processes. They have a huge lab space with one of the only machines in the world that can actually measure true IBU as opposed to loose calculations or personal perception.
They know chemically how each beer turns out -- however, they also rely on the human factor to make sure that chemical makeup is appropriate.
They have a testing room that anyone can visit up to twice per day to try a variety of blinded samples. Their sensory manager has tasting records on every single employee for up to the past ten years.
This data allows them to reliably understand how everyone perceives different components of different beers and then they can detect when anything goes awry with a beer.
I mentioned the speed of packaging and lack of exposure to elements. However, once it is in the container they then ensure it stays cool all the way to their distribution network.
They want to the beer to be at optimal condition from the kettle to fermenter to keg to glass. Now, they lose all control once it hits the retailer’s hands but they try to ensure it has the best possible chance.
All-in-all I was completely blown away by their attention to quality, breadth of product, and massive volume produced on such a consistent basis.
I think I had kind of taken them for granted as just a regular good brewery but I have a new found respect for Bell’s and I suggest you give them a shot as the beer you get will likely be in brewery-fresh shape.
I owe Bell’s and Premium a debt of gratitude for taking the time to set me straight. Cheers!