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Bell's in the Distance Now Merely a Mirage

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 22, 2007 2:58PM

2006_10_bells.gifIt's been nearly six months since Bell's Beer founder Larry Bell pulled his product from the Illinois market in a dispute with distributors over the Beer Industry Fair Dealing Act of 1982. Readers will remember that that specific law, enacted at the time to protect distributors from the loss of a giant beer account on the level of Anheuser-Busch or Miller should they decide to move to greener pastures, doesn't give mid-level craft breweries like Bell's much wiggle room for doing business that's more fair to them.

The Tribune weighs in on the story today, as the flow of beer from Kalamazoo has all but come to a halt, with places like Map Room and Hopleaf finally running dry of their Bell's supply. We talked about it briefly last month when we made Bell's Special Double Cream Stout our "Beer of the Week" selection.

One thing the Tribune article reminded us was that, had Bell decided to to business with Chicago Beverage Systems, we'd be gearing up for the arrival of Oberon again. Otherwise, there's a reason that the phrase "out of sight, out of mind" often takes on the level of sage advice. We can attest from personal experience that the loss of Bell's from the Chicago market — which was their fourth-largest market at the time — opens up opportunities for other breweries.

New Holland Brewing Company, for example, has capitalized big time on the loss of Bell's in Illinois with its Mad Hatter India Pale Ale, which has taken over tap handles across the city previously exclusive to Bell's Amber Ale. We're also seeing increased presences of selections from Delaware's Dogfish Head; Munster, Indiana-based Three Floyds; Warrenville's Two Brothers; Brooklyn Brewery; and Oregon's Rogue. We're sure that Goose Island isn't crying in their beer over Bell's leaving Illinois. Draft sales of their reserve Matilda ale, in particular, have skyrocketed since Bell's left the market.

While we still applaud Bell for making his stand (even some distributor reps we've talked to admit the BIFDA is an outdated law), the craft beer landscape isn't the same as in 1982. It isn't even the same as it was fifteen years ago, when Bell's was one of only a handful of craft breweries around. The breadth of selections and consistency of quality from other breweries makes it easier for beer drinkers to get over the loss of a prized Bell's selection. Even Bell himself seems to be resigned to that realization. The Tribune article notes that so many Illinois Bell's loyalists have taken the brewery up on their fifteen percent "bootleggers discount" that Bell plans on ending it at the end of the month, right before the annual Oberon rollout. He also insists that he wants to see his beers in Chicago again. Unless the BIFDA is amended or altered, or Bell finds a distributor that he feels he can trust, that's a long shot, at best.

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