ESCANABA - More than three decades ago, brewing beer started out as a hobby for Larry Bell, now owner of Bell's Brewery, which sells specialty ales at grocery stores, Big Box retailers, restaurants, and taverns in 18 states.
Bell and his children, Laura and David, own Bell's Brewery, Inc., headquartered in downstate Comstock, outside Kalamazoo.
The company is purchasing property in Escanaba's Whitetail Industrial Park to construct a state-of-the-art brewery and bottling facility. The Escanaba City Council approved the sale of 3.16 acres for $30,000 Thursday.
Bell said it all began years ago when he started brewing beer at home in 1980.
"My home-brewing hobby got a little out of control and I didn't want to go to jail so I got a license to brew," said Bell following Thursday's meeting.
In 1983, Bell formed a brewing company and also operated a home-brewing supply shop. A couple years later, he opened the brewery.
The first year, the company sold 135 barrels of beer produced in a 15-gallon soup kettle. Bell's now produces 250,000 barrels of 20 different ales and beers each year.
Bell expects the business of brewing craft beer to continue to grow.
This year, Bell's first quarter has already seen a 25 percent increase in business which has averaged an annual increase of 20 percent, he said.
"Craft beer's on fire," noted the company president. "Brewing in Michigan has been good business. No brewery that's opened in Michigan has ever closed."
Bell described his company's specialty beers as a complex product of various ingredients brewed to make a pleasant experience for customers.
"Our ongoing goal is to brew thoughtfully, creatively and artistically," he said.
Bell's is already testing beer recipes to develop brands for the new brewery which will be called the "Upper Hand Brewery," Bell said. The name relates to how people explain where the U.P. is with one hand in reference to Lower Michigan shown with the other hand.
New local products will include "The Upper Hand Lager," "The Escanaba Black Beer," and "The UPA" which stands for "U.P. Ale."
"This is a new brewery, a new culture. We really want to sell this to the U.P. with the new brands," said Bell, adding the company wants the products to have a "U.P. attitude."
The local beer will not be sold below the bridge, he noted, saying, "They'll have to come here to get it."
Bell said he's anxious to break ground for the Escanaba project later this summer after the site plan is approved. He also has the option to purchase an adjoining parcel.
"This is exciting. It's like starting over," he added. "This will be the nicest brewery in the U.P."
Bell's currently boasts to being the 14th largest brewery in the nation and the oldest craft brewer east of Boulder, Colo.
In 2012, the company ranked seventh in the top 50 craft brewers in the U.S. for companies with an annual production of six million barrels or less.
Bell's expansion to Escanaba - an investment of $2.5 million - is part of a company-wide capital improvement project totaling $15 million.
Bell's has a brewery and cafe in Kalamazoo, a distribution center in Galesburg, and a brewery and corporate office in Comstock. The company currently employs just more than 200 people.
The Escanaba plant - a 10,000-square-foot facility - is expected to employ five people, said Bell.
Though Bell's Brewery has a pub in Kalamazoo, the Escanaba plant will not have an area where beer is sold to the public. The law allows the company to operate only one brew pub in the state, Bell explained.
Besides the sales in 18 states, Bell's products are also sold in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
Pike Distributors of Escanaba is the local distributor of Bell's ales and beers.
The products are sold at several locations in the area including Citgo, Elmer's County Market, Jim's South Side, the Grain 'N' Grape, Gust Asp, IGA, Kobasic's Grocery, Nano Seconds, Oak Bluff Grocery, Perrault's Market, Super One, Super Valu, Quik Food Mart, Walgreen's, Walmart, and White's Grocery.
Other locations which sell Bell's Brewery products include Baron's Bar, the Bluff Breezy Point Bar, the Buck Inn, Crispigna's, Ernies's, Escanaba Country Club, Hereford & Hops, the House of Ludington, the Ludington Grill, Nahma Inn, Pioneer Motor Inn, the Stonehouse, and the Terrace Bay Inn.
In addition to bringing in economic development to the Escanaba area, Bell's Brewery also plans to be a part of the community. Already, Bell's has volunteered to be a co-sponsor of Ladies Day at the U.P. State Fair in August.
Bell is a regular visitor to the region. He has local ties to Gulliver where his ancestors settled from Denmark. He owns a cottage in Gulliver and a cottage in Curtis, also.