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AUG/SEP 2005 | REGIONAL | EAST COAST

Twenty Years of Eccentric Beers : Bell’s Brewing Celebrates in Kalamazoo
By Lucy Saunders

 


Eccentric Café
315 E. Kalamazoo Ave.
(269) 382-2338

Food Dance Café
161 E. Michigan Ave.
(269) 382-1888

Kraftbrau Brewery
402 E. Kalamazoo Ave.
(269) 384-0288

Olde Peninsula Brewpub
200 E. Michigan Ave.
(269) 242-2739

Sarkozy Bakery
335 N. Burdick St.
(269) 342-1952

Shakespeare’s Pub
241 E. Kalamazoo Ave.
(269) 488-7782

Union Cabaret and Grill
125 S. Kalamazoo Mall
(269) 384-6756

 

KZOO is the cryptic name on bumper stickers sold at Bell’s General Store. Historians call it the “Celery City” in homage to early Michigan settlers who planted celery in marshy fields by the Kalamazoo River. But this could be the year to proclaim Kalamazoo the “EccentriCity,” as founder Larry Bell celebrates his brewery’s 20th anniversary with a big party — and even bigger plans for expansion.

Bell is tapping new markets in nine states, spurring expansion of the production brewery in Galesburg co-managed by Brewmaster John Mallett, and renovation and expansion of the Eccentric Café pub in downtown Kalamazoo. On September 9, Bell will ring in festivities for the anniversary celebration with music, food and plenty of fresh beer.

Bell’s Best Brown, a smooth malty ale, launches in September. But this year, be sure to splurge on the last of the summer seasonal pale wheat ale, Oberon, in 5-liter keg-cans. “The cans are imported from Germany and were delayed in shipment, so we may have the mini kegs on the market until the end of the season,” said Bell. And Two Hearted Ale, winner of the first Alpha King hops challenge, is a year-round brew well worth sampling from the tap at the Eccentric Café.

So plan an expedition to Kalamazoo. Start on Saturday morning with coffee at the Water Street Coffee Joint, a funky café right around the corner from the Eccentric. It features a rotating display of local artists’ work, as well as offering the luscious Palazzolo’s gelato with flavors such as Lavender Honey and Bourbon Caramel. Be sure to pick up some hazelnut biscotti from Judy Sarkozy’s bakery on Burdick Street, which opens at 7:30 a.m. (this is where Larry Bell began his career as a baker, pushing bread loaves in the 90-year-old brick oven with a baker’s paddle). The biscotti are crisp and light, with a mélange of chopped hazelnuts in the batter and a thick coating of sesame seeds on the exterior for crunch and contrasting color.

Kids in tow? Then take a quick trek out to the AirZoo, sort of a theme park devoted to aviation and space exploration with replicas and real aircraft on display. Thanks to an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution, the AirZoo also gets visiting exhibits such as “Surfing the Wind,” a collection of aerodynamic kites from around the world.

If traveling solo, stroll the downtown mall, a brick-lined stretch of sidewalks opening onto restaurants and boutiques. Kalamazoo’s downtown offers a refreshing number of independent retailers and antique dealers. Food Dance, tucked inside an office building, is a wonderful spot for breakfast, lunch or brunch. The menu features homemade soups, Bruce Aidells’ sausages, Zingerman’s Bakehouse breads from Ann Arbor and fresh produce in season from local farmers. It serves several Michigan brews, including ales from neighboring Arcadia Brewing Company and New Holland Brewing Company.

The Union Café and Cabaret is noisy at night with cabaret and live music, but lunch there is quite serene, with a menu of seasonal soups, sandwiches and salads. I sampled an Italian salad with mesclun, chopped veggies and capicola, tossed with just a smidge of balsamic vinegar dressing, and grilled panini on the side. Shakespeare’s Pub, named after the defunct fishing-tackle-maker that built the art deco building, offers more standard pub fare and about 16 taps.

Other craft breweries in the area include the Arcadia Brewing Company of Battle Creek, worth the 25-mile drive for its burgers and English-style ales. In Kalamazoo proper, there are brewpubs such as the Olde Peninsula on Michigan Avenue, Bilbo’s Pizza (an extract brewery near Western Michigan University) and Kraftbrau on Water Street, which is popular with the collegiate crowd for its live music and poetry slams served up with German-style brews.

But you’ll want to save room for the food and beer at the Eccentric Café. Though the menu includes standard pub fare such as grilled sausages, hot dogs, veggie burgers and soups, the chalkboard menu lists far more exotic fare to match the wildly funky décor. On my last visit, the kitchen offered specials such as grilled rattlesnake and veggie kabobs, a toasted sandwich with spicy grouper and toppings, and brewhouse snacks such as pretzels with Bell’s beer mustard. Tap lines include seasonals such as Oberon and Cherry Ale, plus year-round staples such as the Pale Ale, Porter, Amber Ale, and the celebrated Two Hearted Ale. By 2006, the new brewery will include expanded parking on site for the Eccentric Café and a renovated facade.

On September 9, Bell will ring in festivities for the anniversary celebration with music, food and plenty of fresh beer.

Though the production brewery in Comstock Township does not offer tours, the new corporate brewhouse facility will be amazing. Much of the gorgeous stainless equipment came from the original Eureka Brewery, an early collaboration between Anheuser-Busch and chef Wolfgang Puck. Though the Eureka Brewery and Restaurant closed in 1991, the brewhouse is hardly out of date, as it now rolls out 20 different brands of Bell’s beer, seven of them year-round.

It’s a highly automated facility with computerized controls; automatic keg-filling lines operated by David Bell, Larry’s son; and a quality-control lab filled with snazzy new gear such as a high-speed gas chromatograph for analyzing ester profiles.

“We have to build a new annex to make room for the 400-barrel fermenters we’ve ordered,” said Bell, “because they certainly won’t fit through our existing loading dock. We could barely squeeze in the 200-barrel fermenters.”

In May of this year, Kalamazoo Brewing sold almost 6,000 barrels, a record that put the company well on track for annual sales in excess of $10 million. Truly, Bell’s Beers are a resounding success for craft brewing in the Great Lakes.

NOTE: If you are planning on staying overnight in Kalamazoo, there are hotels such as the Radisson and Holiday Inn, and the Henderson Castle, an enormous 11,000-square-foot Victorian manse for plush B&B stays. The central-city.net site will let you build your own itinerary for downtown destinations, complete with maps.

Lucy Saunders edits beercook.com and brewgrill.com.

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