My first encounter with summer nectar, well craft beer in general, was in high school. I rummaged around my Dad’s beer cooler, looking for a couple beers to snag for a party. As I was rifling through the same old stale red and white cans, something in the back caught my eye. Vibrant yellow rays reached out to me as if I was a mosquito being drawn to the light. I pushed away all the rubbish and found a vivid, zestful sun glowing right back at me from the back of the cooler. Knowing I would surly be reprimanded for my actions, I threw two of ’em in my backpack and moseyed on my way for the night.
Now I can’t recall the events of that night, or if I had even gotten into trouble, but the one thing I do remember is cracking off that wonderful orange cap, pressing the bottle to my lips, and tasting euphoria. From then on Bell’s Brewery has done nothing but provide me with great times on the Great Lakes. My summers in Marquette were filled with mini kegs dug into the sand on McCarty’s Cove, looking out onto mother Superior. We even managed to bring a keg of Two Hearted on a camping trip to the famous Two Hearted River for a weekend of canoe keg-stands and pure Michigan bliss.
So, when I was given the opportunity to tour the brewery and learn more about Oberon, I jumped in my car and pointed it east toward Kalamazoo. The brewery is tucked away a couple minutes outside of Kalamazoo in Comstock. I met up with my tour guide for the afternoon, Laura Bell, Director of Marketing for Bell’s Brewery and daughter of the brewery founder, Larry Bell. She guided me to Bell’s Production Facility, which is over a massive 100,000 sq feet. As I entered the brewery, I was immediately hit with that delightful aroma of beer brewing. The combination of all those wonderful ingredients boiling together still stings my nostrils at every whiff.
Oberon has been a staple for Bell’s Brewery and Michigan summers for many years now. Brewing this wheat ale started around the mid 90’s, and was actually called “SolSun,” before legal action was taken against them from the makers of El Sol, a Mexican brewing company. “The name Oberon comes from my dad, who played Oberon in high school for A Midsummer Nights’s Dream” Laura informed me as we looked down at huge barrels, brewing this delicious drink.
To my surprise, I found out that Oberon can be enjoyed year-round in Florida, Arizona, and Puerto Rico, but for the rest of us it’s a seasonal beer, making summers that much more enjoyable. “We have two beers that have specific dates they are released. Bell’s Christmas Ale and Oberon. We have it released the Monday before opening day for baseball season, so they can be enjoyed at the ball park,” Laura explained to me. There is only one vendor that serves it at Comerica, so in between innings, make sure to scope out the spot and grab a few.
As we made our way around the brewery, Laura showed me the bottling area, the last spot Oberon sees before it’s capped up and shipped around the country. Laura explained to me that they are opening up a canning line in the near future. ” We are going to be canning Oberon as well next summer. They will come in four packs and will be 16 oz cans.” This will be prime for beach sessions, camping adventures, and canoe trips.
Our last stop on the brew tour was to check out the first phase of the production plant which was opened in 2003. As we walked in I heard a familiar tune be blasted over the loud speakers as the workers brewed away. It was Greensky Bluegrass, one of the first house bands at the brewpub in Kalamazoo’s Eccentric Cafe. I had the privilege of seeing them play in Boston this past summer when I was living on the East Coast. They now tour all across the country and are pretty heavy in the music festival scene. This summer you can find them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Electric Forest, and Forecastle in Louisville, and they are even playing at the historic Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado along with Railroad Earth and Galactic.
When it was time for me to leave, I thanked Laura for the experience because it was one I won’t forget, and we talked about seeing each other at the Tigers opening day in a of couple weeks. She pointed me to the Eccentric Cafe so I could quench my hearty thirst from witnessing all this beer being brewed, and I made plans to catch up with a dear friend who lives in the area. If you have not had a chance to make it to the brewpub, you need to put it on your list. This beer haven, which was the location of the original brewery, was the first Michigan micro-brewery to open an onsite pub in 1992 and has a patio, beer garden and their own music venue, The Back Room. With twenty beers on tap I felt like a kid in a candy store.
As my tour ended there was only one thing left for me to do. I jumped in line and was immediately struck with the almost impossible task of choosing what to drink first. I went with the Quinannan Falls Lager, which is a 6.5% dry hopped lager. Crisp to the lips, this beer took me right back to the Upper Peninsula. I imagined myself standing in front of the infamous falls, ankle deep in cold Michigan waters. It even had a nice dry, hoppy bite to it, which is not common in your traditional German pilsner. When my friend arrived we found ourselves nestled in the back corner, catching up and reminiscing. While we were chatting, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Laura leaning at the bar, speaking with friends as if it were just another day at the office. ” My dad always said that there were two unofficial holidays in Michigan, opening day for hunting season, and Oberon Opening Day.”