Every spring, Larry Bell—owner of Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery—makes a pilgrimage to Arizona for beer events, some time in the sun and, of course, to get a firsthand look at his beloved Cubs during Spring Training. I caught up with Bell on his last day in Phoenix to talk about baseball, his alter ego, commercials and some pretty exciting developments at the brewery (Spoiler alert: Cans).
Now that you’ve had a chance to check out the roster, how do you rank the Cubs’ prospects this year?
I’ve got low expectations. It’ll be another rebuilding year. I think there’s some good talent there, but they’re still a couple of years away from building the young kids up, and our farm system, to where we’re going to be contenders on a regular basis.
I imagine you have pretty good seats at Wrigley Field.
For 11 years, I sat in section 104—that’s, like, way down with Ferris Bueller. Last year I got my first upgrade ever, to section 105. This year I’m going to sit in 115, halfway between home and third.
Wrigley is Old Style country, but if you could get Bell’s in there, which beer would you pick?
It would be Oberon, for sure. The Washington Nationals, a few years ago, picked up bottles of Kalamazoo Stout, which is one of my favorites, but you know, for sitting around watching a baseball game? Usually it’s Oberon in the parks. My No. 1 on-premise account in the summertime in the south side of Chicago is the Chicago White Sox. My wholesalers are always texting me, ‘Enjoying an Oberon down at Cellular Field. How are things at Wrigley?’ As much as I love the Cubs, Wrigley probably has the poorest beer selection of any park I know.
Are you a hot dog and Old Style kind of guy?
If I’m in the park then, yeah, I’ll drink Old Style. In fact, I now have an alter ego called Walter J. Hildebiddle. Walter sports a lot of Old Style pins going back to when it was just $2. You should see it. I invented Walter last year because we had to do something to have fun. So, now and then, Walter gets dressed up in his Cubs stuff and his big Harry Caray glasses.
How often do you—or Walter—make it out to games?
Probably 25 games a year. But, my wife and I just bought a new house five blocks from Wrigley—you can see the lights from our top deck. Actually, the president of the Cubs lives in the next block. I figure, he and I will be packing our lunches, walking to the games together and I’ll give him some pointers.
I heard you’re planning to attend every home game in 2014.
Yep, I announced that to the staff last year, just to get everybody’s head wrapped around it. It will be the 100th anniversary of Wrigley and I figured that one time in my life, before I get too old, I’d do it. I might be doing a little blogging about it.
Looking back, what’s your favorite memory as a Cubs fan?
The greatest opening day for the Cubs, ever, was 1969 when we played the Phillies. The game went extra innings and the Phillies took a 6-5 lead. I was there with my Dad, and my Dad said ‘We got to start walking to the car, but we’ll walk in the park to the other corner.’ Willie Smith came up and cracked a two-run homer and the Cubs won 7-6. Any broadcaster will say that’s the greatest opening day ever for the Cubs.
Speaking of history, when did that commercial on your website originally air?
That aired in 1996. We were the first craft brewery to have an ad on broadcast television. There were others on cable, but not broadcast. We were going to play it during Letterman down in Washington, D.C., and they returned our check and said they wouldn’t play it because it had too many anti-social behaviors. On Letterman, for god’s sakes! We blew up four accordions that day filming it. The agency was calling around finding accordions and they get this guy:
[Shop owner]: ‘Yeah, I got three of them.’
[Agency]:‘We’d like to buy them all.’ ‘
[Shop owner]: All right, can I ask what you’re going to do with three accordions?’
[Agency]: ‘We’re going to blow them up.’
[Shop owner]: ‘That works for me. I’m a piano player.’
The owner of the production company was gone and we weren’t supposed to do pyro in that shot. I was manning the fire extinguisher.
I hear you’re opening a sports bar back in Kalamazoo for Chicago fans.
It’s Chicago-biased, but that doesn’t mean it’s all Chicago. We get so full up with beer tourists on the weekends and everyone’s having their samplers. I’ve got guys that say, ‘Bell, I love ‘ya but I don’t want to come down on the weekend with all those people having samplers. I just want to come and hang out, like normal.’ So, I’ve got a bunch of Cubs stuff: Flags that have flown over Wrigley, seats from the park. We’re working on that.
You’ve released Hopslam this year, Oberon is about to launch: What’s left for 2013?
We’ve got a bunch of projects going on at the brewery. We’re working on putting in a canning line. That will probably take about a year to get it all done, maybe not quite that long. We’ll certainly can Oberon and Two Hearted and then we’ll go from there. We also like to have a couple surprises up our sleeve, so, you know: We’re bringing one brand back as a fall seasonal this year, which hasn’t been seen in a long time.