Beer Safari: Bell’s Brewery

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I don’t know that I’d recommend Kalamazoo, Michigan as a vacation destination in and of itself. I’m sure it’s a fine community, but there’s just something about it that vaguely reminds me of my hometown of Green Bay, which is never a good sign. And their promotional slogan of “You’ll be back. We promise,” strikes me as vaguely ominous.

But Kalamazoo has a not-at-all-secret weapon in the form of Bell’s Eccentric Café, a taproom like no other. “Utopia, right?” noted a friend of mine who hails from the area. It is. It truly is.

Bell’s started out as the Kalamazoo Brewing Company, a homebrew supply shop, in 1983. They started brewing and selling beer in 1985, and changed the name to Bell’s in 2005 since that’s what everyone called it anyway. The majority of the brewing is done at a facility in Comstock, Michigan, but the Kalamazoo location still has the original brewery gear for small batches, plus a store and the Eccentic Café.

There’s sort of a Willy Wonka thing going on when you explore Bell’s… first you wander in and see the funky, spacious taproom. “Oh, how nice,” you say. And then you wander outside to a nice little fenced-in dining area with picnic tables. “How pleasant,” you remark. And then you peer around a corner and find yourself standing in the middle of an utterly spectacular urban park. “Holy shit,” you exclaim. It’s a trip, man. And you get to drink some ridiculously good beer while sitting there. It’s a brewing oasis.

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About that beer… The Eccentric Café features a number of beers that aren’t available anywhere else. These are test batches, new concoctions, that sort of thing. On this particular day there were two brews labeled simply as “Experimental Hop 2014 2” and “Experimental Hop 2014 3.” You can get a tasting flight, of course. As you should. It would be rude not to.

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I don’t recall exactly which beers I had on this flight… I know that I had both of the experimental hop brews, as well as Larry’s Latest Pale. And something called Baron Von Nordwestlich, which the internet tells me is a Kölsch-style beer. There may have been a barrel-aged stout as well. My notes are sketchy, as I was too busy drinking in the wondrous atmosphere surrounding me.

Most of the rest of the Bell’s experience has faded in my memory. There was a tour, a perfectly fine tour that focused on the history of the brewery and the small test batches that are still brewed on site. There was a gift shop with glassware and sweatshirts and home brewing supplies, bless ’em. But all that paled in comparison to the insanely adorable outdoor drinking garden. That may well have made the Michigan trip worth doing all by itself. Go there while the weather is still fine. Go, for the love of strong drink, go!