The Session for May is hosted by Reuben Gray from The Tale of the Ale.
In Session 87, I want you to give your readers a history lesson about a local brewery. That’s a physical brewery and not brewing company by the way. The brewery doesn’t need to still exist today, perhaps you had a local brewery that closed down before you were even born. Or you could pick one that has been producing beer on the same site for centuries.
The only thing I ask is that the brewery existed for at least 20 years so don’t pick the local craft brewery that opened two or three years ago. This will exclude most small craft breweries but not all. The reason? There’s not much history in a brewery that has only existed for a few years.
Lucky for me I practically live next door to the oldest brewery in Michigan.
This lesson in history actually began because of a beer bottle. I know what you might be thinking, how can a standard brown bottle say anything about history. If it were just a brown bottle I would agree with you.
Actually, it turned out my mother had a bottle from the Kalamazoo Brewing Company. Bell’s when it first started out was originally Kalamazoo Brewing Co. But when you really look at this bottle, it becomes obvious that it is much older than Larry Bell’s baby. This meant I had to do a bit of searching.
My first stop was to Bell’s general store to see if anyone there had seen something like this. While there we talked for a few minutes about the original Kalamazoo Brewing Co. that existed before Prohibition. Not a lot of information but enough to know that the bottle came from that original brewery.
Next stop was to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Not as fruitful as I would have liked but there was still a bit to be learned there. First and foremost, my bottle is in better condition than the ones they have (score). Another tidbit was the date of the bottle. Because of the amount of bottles in circulation it is difficult to pin point an exact date on the bottle. Closest date available is more a circa date to say when they might have been in use.
This lead me to my (currently) last stop; the local history room in the Kalamazoo Public Library. This lead me to an article from 1982 from the Antique Trader Weekly. The article’s main focus was on some of the breweriana from the brewery, but there were a few historical tidbits that I found interesting for my research. The main bit was the detail of the years that the brewery existed: 1860 to 1915. In the grand scheme of beer history it was around this time that Anheuser Busch was in its infancy.
The Volstead Act (prohibition 18th Amendment) was ratified in 1919, but Kalamazoo was a leader in shutting down booze. The city shut down their breweries in 1915. As with many other breweries in the US, Kalamazoo Brewing Company did not come back when Prohibition was ended in 1933.
It wasn’t until 1985 that a brewery would live again in Michigan. That was the year that Larry Bell took a chance with the name Kalamazoo Brewing company again. In downtown Kalamazoo, less than a mile from its original location, he opened the home brew shop and small brewery that would eventually become Bell’s Brewing. This was a time when opening a brewery that provided something other than light lager was a crap shoot at best.
As many of us know now, Bell’s has outgrown their humble roots. The expansion of their production facility grew from a 50 barrel brew system to now a 200 barrel system. One of their biggest beers Oberon has become a spring ritual for many throughout the nation.
Time for a pint…