2011-07-23 / People

Bayview Sailor, Sponsor Larry Bell Is Curtis Resident

Karen Gould

Larry Bell holds the title sponsorship of the Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race. Mr. Bell also will be sailing in the race onboard Details, a 70-foot Santa Cruz owned by Lance Smotherman. ( 
Photographcourtesy ofBell’s Brewery) Larry Bell holds the title sponsorship of the Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race. Mr. Bell also will be sailing in the race onboard Details, a 70-foot Santa Cruz owned by Lance Smotherman. ( Photographcourtesy ofBell’s Brewery) “It looks like a good year for barley,” said Larry Bell, a Michigan entrepreneur and Mackinac County property owner who has turned his beer-brewing hobby into Michigan’s oldest and largest brewery. It includes a farm in Sheperd, where some of the ingredients are grown. This year his company, Bell’s Brewery, is the title sponsor for the Port Huron to Mackinac Island yacht race, known as the Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race.

Mr. Bell and about 2,500 other sailors are expected to be aboard 221 sailboats when sails are hoisted and the journey north begins Saturday, July 23, with the first boats expected to arrive here Monday, July 25, all subject to wind conditions.

He is looking forward to it with some apprehension, he admits.

Mr. Bell will be sailing aboard Details, a 70-foot Santa Cruz owned by Lance Smotherman of Harrison Township. The vessel placed second in the Turbo Division of the Chicago to Mackinac

Race earlier this week.

“I’ve never been on a sailboat for an overnight trip,” he admits. “It’s a great opportunity. I’m thrilled about it. There’s a little trepidation. It’s just something I’ve never done before, a bit of the unknown.”

In the meantime, Mackinac Island bars and restaurants are waiting with plenty of Bell’s Beer in stock, including at Grand Hotel. Beer sales have doubled this year, he said, for the company’s private label brew that it produces for the hotel, called Big Porch Ale.

Additionally, his company sells beer in 18 states and Puerto Rico, and bottles more than 20 different brands of beer. Some are test and unique brews served in his bar and restaurant in downtown Kalamazoo.

A Mackinac County resident and a voter here last fall, he divides his time between homes in Chicago and near Kalamazoo and his two cottages in the Upper Peninsula, in Curtis and Gulliver, where he is refurbishing a family cottage that his grandmother built in 1949.

He likes promoting tourism in the Eastern Upper Peninsula and believes his race sponsorship will benefit both local businesses and his brewery. He is thrilled to have the title sponsorship slot for the race. With two summer places here, he occasionally tosses around the idea of starting a business here, although he remains noncommittal about any future projects.

Mr. Bell has been brewing beer 26 years ago, but not as a business, at first.

“I basically outgrew my home brew hobby and started what amounted to a legalized home brewery back in 1985,” he said. “I started out with a 15-gallon soup pot and plastic garbage pails for fermenters.

“Those first years were quite a struggle, but we persevered through. Now we’re Michigan’s oldest and largest brewery.”

The brewery, with corporate offices in Galesburg, is in the midst of a $20 million expansion project. Today the company employs about 150 people and is known for its summer “Oberon,” a wheat ale, and “Two-Hearted Ale,” among many other premium brews and specialty brands.

“We’re the oldest craft brewery east of Boulder, Colorado,” he adds.

A craft brewery is determined by three factors. Production must be is less than 200 million barrels a year, which is how the federal government defines a small brewery. The business must be independent and not owned by a larger brewery. Traditional means the use of all malt, rather than less expensive ingredients like corn or rice.

Bell’s has been a Bayview Mackinac Race sponsor since 2009, but this is its first year as the title sponsor, and as Mr. Bell calculates, it will be the first of many years to come.

“It’s a size of a commitment that we’ve never made before and maybe a little bit big for us,” he admits, “but we thought that it was a great opportunity and one that we would grow with and grow into.”

Years ago he wanted to be involved in race sponsorship, but at that time Bayview had a beer sponsor.

So in the meantime, the company became a sponsor of the Mackinac to Manitoulin race, the MacMan Challenge.

“Because we do so much business on Mackinac Island, we get a lot of support from the bar and restaurant owners and consumers,” he said. “Unfortunately, that [Mackinac to Manitoulin] race ended in Canada, where most of the drinking happened, and we don’t sell beer in Canada.”

The Bayview race provides a marketing opportunity for his company that also helps promote tourism in the north, he said.

“This [race] is one of the great tourism events that features Mackinac Island,” he said. “The one thing that’s really great to me is all the support that we get from the business owners on the Island and the Eastern U.P., too. It’s a lot for us to do something like this and it’s that kind of support that really makes it worthwhile for us.”

Last year, Pure Michigan was the title sponsor of the race. The only other Michigan-based business that has held the lead role was the Chrysler Corporation in 2007.

“I think it’s kind of neat,” said Mr. Bell. “I guess I’m a little proud that we have a Michigan business sponsoring this iconic Michigan race. I like that aspect of it. I think that’s good, and proper.”

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