Five Stouts, and the Man Who Makes Them

Bell's Brewery sells an assortment of products in the Washington area.
Bell's Brewery sells an assortment of products in the Washington area. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Are there any beer drinkers who still believe the myth that dark beers are created when brewers rinse the gunk from their tanks?

Larry Bell doesn't care. As founder and president of Bell's Brewery Inc. (formerly Kalamazoo Brewing) in Galesburg, Mich., he might be the only craft brewer to regularly produce five distinct, oily black stouts.

Last year Bell withdrew his products from Illinois outlets after a dispute with his Chicago wholesaler, freeing up beer for the D.C. and Northern Virginia markets for the first time in more than a decade.

Bell's Kalamazoo Stout-- a year-round product, while the others are cold-weather seasonals -- is full-bodied but smooth, without the acerbic, burnt taste that mars some stouts. It's full of coffee and chocolate flavors, with a hint of anise from licorice sticks added to the brew kettle.

Bell's Cherry Stout has the same depth, but with a tart, fruity backdrop from Michigan-grown sour cherries that makes it a sweet-and-sour dessert beer, perfect with cherry cordials or Black Forest cake.

Most stouts smell a little like a Starbucks from the roasted barley and highly kilned specialty malts, but Bell's Java Stout actually incorporates Sumatran coffee. The effect is a little like downing a triple espresso.

Bell's Expedition Stout is immense, with a color and viscosity evoking motor oil, an enormous malty/fruity taste (of plums, raisins, purple grapes, anything dark) and an alcohol content almost three times that of draft Guinness. Bell recommends pairing it with Stilton cheese and walnuts or mixing it with champagne for a "black and blue."

Bell's Special Double Cream Stout was temporarily out of stock at press time, but Bell's Porter almost qualifies as a sixth stout, with a flavor recalling baker's chocolate and a roasted aftertaste.

Bell's Brewery also produces a wide range of paler beers. Altogether, about a dozen Bell's brands are available in the D.C. market, according to wholesaler Martin Wetten of Hop & Wine Beverage in Lorton. More are coming.

Bell began brewing in 1985, using a 15-gallon soup pot for a brew kettle and plastic trash cans for fermenters. He has since graduated to a 50-barrel brewhouse.

From a business perspective, it might make more sense to focus on fewer brands. But Bell protests: "What do you mean I make too many stouts? I used to do twice as many!" Indeed, at a 2001 tasting at D.C.'s Brickskeller restaurant, Bell supplied 10 variations, including one dosed with ginger root, nutmeg and maple syrup.

Bell returns to the Brickskeller (1523 22nd Street NW, 202-293-1885, for a pair of tastings March 7-8, and Brickskeller owner Dave Alexander says Bell "is bringing some incredible beers" for the encore.

Greg Kitsock can be reached

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