Four decades ago.when we lived in Michigan, we would always return from our west coast summer vacation with a case of Coors. At the time, the Golden, Colorado product wasn’t available east of the Mississippi. So, when we invited neighbours over and shared a few cans from our case, everyone thought we were serving some rare and wonderful nectar. Until the cans ran dry, we were the heroes of the nieghbourhood.

Now that we live in the west and spend our summers in northern Michigan. Coors is available everywhere and doesn’t seem to taste half so wonderful as it used to. It isn’t necessary to bring any of it home, and I doubt if any of my beer drinking neighbours would want me to.

The beers from Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan, became my drink of choice this summer. And, when the vacation was over and it was time to head home, we packed an assorted case of their various beers to take home and share with our beer loving friends. None of them had heard of Bell’s Brewery. The products are only available in 17 mid-Western and Atlantic coast states and in Arizona.

Larry Bell, who had been a homebrewer and then owner of a home-brew supply store, founded the brewery — one of the earliest microbreweries in Michigan — in 1985. He began using a 15 gallon soup kettle to brew his product, but continued to expand until the now state-of-the-art brewery produces well over 100,000 barrels annually (that’s around six million six-packs a year). Bell’s is the eighth largest microbrewery in the United States.

We tasted five different beers, ranging from the light coloured and light bodied “Lager of the Lakes” and finishing with the hearty “Bell’s Best Brown.” Here are some of my neighbours’ responses.

Lager of the Lakes, a 5 per cent ABV pale American lager, is listed as the tenth best in its category by Beer Advocate. Light gold and effervescent, it is light bodied, crisp, and clean. One taster, noting that it had just the right amount of bitterness, remarked, “it just what it’s supposed to be .. an awesome summer beer.”

Oberon, a 5.8 per cent ABV American wheat beer, is probably the top summer seller of all of Michigan’s microbrews. Named after a character in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it is a rich golden colour and pours with a cloudy, yeasty haze. Not so sweet as some wheats, is has spicy and orange notes.  Another taster remarked, “I’m a wheat beer person; I’d give it top marks.”

Although Bell’s Pale Ale (5.2 per cent ABV) is listed as an American Pale Ale, this one tasted more like an English version of the style. “There’s more maltiness to the style than I’m used to — but that’s good.” Medium bodied and golden in colour, it is more balanced, with less hop bitterness than the American styles.

Big Two Hearted Ale, named after a northern Michigan river featured prominently in a Hemingway short story, is a fairly hefty 7 per cent ABV medium bodied American IPA brewed with generous amounts of Centennial hops. But it’s in no way a hop bomb. Malts provide a balance to the hops. Medium bodied, it has a clean, but light hop finish. “I like the fact that it seems gentle in your mouth,” remarked one taster.

We ended our tasting with Bell’s Best Brown, an English style beer, that pours a rich brown with a frothy head. It has roasty, chocolatey notes, but not the sweetness one associates with the classic example of the style, Newcastle Brown. That’s probably because the hops give an understated bitterness that prevents the malt flavours from becoming cloying. One taster remarked that it was a little rich for him during this warm summer day, but said that if I went back to Michigan in the late fall, I should bring some back for him to try.

The tasting finished, all agreed that Bell’s beers were excellent. “When are you going back to Michigan?” I was asked. I wondered at first if, as in my Coors tasting days, I was only popular as long as I was serving hard-to-find beer. I prefer to think that it was because they hoped that I’d soon be bringing back the Bell’s.

If you’re travelling in the Midwest, you might want to check www.bellsbeer.com, to see where the product is available. If you’re travelling along Michigan 28, on your way to or from Ontario, Econofoods of Marquette and Hillside Party Store of Munising stock lots of Bell’s and other very good Michigan beers.

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