Bell's BreweryBusinessChicago

Bell’s Beer Back In Chicago, Distributor’s Lawyers Smile…

Bell’s Brewing of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has confirmed the recent rumors that it intends to return to the Chicagoland market with two ‘new’ brands as early as next week. The brewery is shipping its ‘new’ Kalamazoo Amber Ale to six bars in the Chicago area, including Brixies, the Clark Street Ale House, Lemmings, the Northside, the Handle Bar, the Silver Cloud, and the Twisted Spoke. The beer should be on tap at these locations, barring any foreseen circumstances, by Tuesday December 4.

Now I use ‘new’ and circumstances foreseen because Bell’s is using this limited release to test the waters of Illinois distribution and franchising law with these brands. The former Kalamazoo Brewing Company stopped shipping beer to Illinois a year ago because of a dispute with National Wine & Spirits, the company that has the rights to distribute Bell’s Beer in Illinois. The brewery’s brands, long a fixture in Chicago’s better beer scene, disappeared from the market after owner Larry Bell decided to end his relationship with a NWS which acquired the rights to the brand after Bell’s former distributor was bought out.

There has been much debate among Chicago beer lovers about the laws governing Bell’s possible return to the Chicago market. The dense Illinois franchise laws appear to restrict a brewery’s rights to switch distributors. Some argue that the laws should be interpreted to allow for a brand to return after a year’s absence from the market.

With this return, Larry Bell is trying another approach. He says that he has released three new beers specifically for the Chicago market that are not subject to the prior distribution agreement. The new beers, offered under the Bell’s Brewery name, will include the Kalamazoo Porter, the Kalamazoo IPA, and the Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale. The labels read, “Brewed especially for the people of the great state of Illinois.?

To some, including the distributor’s lawyers, it may appear that these new releases look similar to the Bell’s Porter, IPA (or Two Hearted IPA), and Amber, all products that were popular in the Chicago market. Whether the new beers and their flavors bear any similarity to the old beers will likely be subject to many glass clinking debates.

On the Beer Advocate website, Bell posted his thoughts on the situation and the new beers.

Bell’s continues to work on a way to return to Illinois. NWS (owner of the distribution rights) won’t return my call. I have had discussions with other wholesalers and there is a possibility that we would return, but not with any brand we currently produce. However, we, and any new distributor we have, are likely to be sued at the point of reentry by NWS. Illinois franchise law is complex and not always favorable to breweries. Add in corruption and the bad guys at NWS and you’ve got a sticky situation. Chicago is my home town and I would love to sell beer there again. It IS being worked on, so please be patient.

In an interview with Crain’s Chicago Business, Bell said,

“This is a different beer,” he says. “These are not the beers that were assigned to them.”

Barring a court injunction order, Bell’s ‘new’ beers will certainly be welcomed by members of the Chicago better beer scene.

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