The arrival of Bell’s Brewery in New Mexico led to plenty of special tappings and tap takeovers. One of those took place in Santa Fe, at an establishment that is becoming a go-to place for craft beer lovers.
“Bell’s reputation precedes it,” said Josh Johns, co-owner and cicerone of Fire & Hops Gastropub. “I’m always on the lookout for new beers to bring to Santa Fe, and I’ve been impressed with what I’ve tasted from Bell’s before.”
Bell’s recently raised some eyebrows when Zymurgy, a magazine dedicated to homebrewers, named their Two Hearted Ale as the best beer in America. Bell’s finally took over the lead spot that Russian River’s Pliny the Elder held for eight straight years.
I’ve had Bell’s in the past, while traveling in Arizona and in the Midwest. I remembered the Two Hearted Ale (American IPA, 7.0% ABV), but not much beyond that. So, I was looking forward to tasting a wider swath of what they’ve been brewing when I sat down with Josh at the tap takeover last Wednesday at the restaurant.
Elsewhere in Santa Fe, the Piñon Pub at Whole Foods Market was tapping their Best Brown Ale (5.8% ABV) and Violet Crown was set to tap a few the following day. My choice was a simple one of where to go, however, because Fire & Hops has been a favorite local haunt since they opened their doors three years ago, and Josh’s presentation of the craft brews he serves up is always impeccable.
All of Bell’s primary brews are stylistically classical, yet their smaller-batch experiments show a willingness to explore. The Kiwi Gose that I sampled was fruity on the nose and tart, retaining the kiwi flavor all the way through. The staples that will be available in New Mexico regularly will delight the purists among us. The Two Hearted Ale was clean, balanced, and smooth. There’s nothing particularly hop-forward about this IPA, though it has a full profile while drinking it, the slightly bitter aftertaste does not linger. I do love a hoppy IPA, but find that more classically balanced ales like this one are easily drinkable. That’s why Two Hearted Ale will likely be on regular rotation in this hop-head’s repertoire.
Brushing aside the known quantity of the IPA, I suddenly found myself a stout fan. The Kalamazoo Stout (6.0% ABV) is an American-style stout with lots of coffee on the nose and a great mix of bitter coffee and dark chocolate on the tongue. Both flavors stick while drinking it, and they don’t fade. That’s long been my beef with stouts that can’t hold what they promise at first taste, but it’s not the case with Bell’s take on the classic American stout. It also has a nice foundation of hops, which is possibly another reason why I liked this brew so much.
Next up, the Amber Ale (5.8% ABV) was, again, classically American. Very smooth, with a beautifully rich amber color, it’s a highly drinkable ale. Clean, with just the right amount of bitterness provided by the underlying hops, its most notable feature is the slightly toasted caramel flavor. This was a favorite in my party of four, and it’s a welcome addition to the current lineup of amber ales we have available here in the state.
Finally, the surprise hit of the evening was Bell’s excellent Lager of the Lakes (Bohemian Pilsner, 5.0% ABV). A true-to-form Czech-style pilsner, this immediately shot me back to the streets of Pilsen and Prague in the Czech Republic. Seriously, it’s that good and that authentic. The crisp hop profile is balanced by an even-tempered malt. Hoppy on the nose, it’s refreshing and immensely sessionable. This will be my new go-to pilsner, I predict.
Sliding into the seat next to me, Bell’s national sales manager Tina Anderson told me that their head brewer was trained in German techniques, and that’s why it shows through so clearly with their pilsner.
“The Lager of the Lakes will be going exclusively into cans in February,” Tina said. And, more of their experimental series will find their way into cans at the same time, she added.
Tina, who is based in Atlanta, has been with Bell’s for eight years now after successfully recruiting them for a distributorship in Georgia. At the time, she was an area brand manager and took a leap of faith when Bell’s entered the state by going to work exclusively for them. She had tried their Two Hearted Ale at GABF and loved it during her tenure in Colorado working for Vail Resorts. That’s where her love of craft beer blossomed, after getting to know Ska and Oskar Blues breweries back in the late 90s.
When asked what she’s been drinking lately, Tina named the Oarsmen Ale (Tart Wheat Ale, 4.0% ABV) and called it her go-to, lounging-at-the-lake beer. She said it’s tart and refreshing without being overly astringent like a sour.
Switching gears, I asked Tina about the label graphics. While each of them were interesting in their own right, there didn’t seem to be a cohesive theme. She said the owner, Larry Bell, supports a lot of local artists in the Michigan area. The famed trout on the Two Hearted Ale is from a watercolor he bought, as is the artwork on the Amber Ale label. The Kalamazoo Stout features rotating sketches of locals from Kalamazoo, drawn by a taproom regular who was a third-shift worker and who would sketch anyone who bought him a burger and a beer. Larry bought the entire set, and the sketches will rotate as the graphics when the stout is canned.
What’s next for Bell’s, closer to their Michigan headquarters? Even though they just completed a $52 million expansion at the Comstock location, they are adding new tanks to accommodate their experimental forays. Larry’s Latest is one of the first to be packaged from their new Innovation Series, which these new tanks will support. Their second location, the Eccentric Café in Kalamazoo, continues to be a busy hub for locals and supporters of their beer.
Tina said she noted a synchronicity between Bell’s local focus and homebrew roots, and New Mexico’s hyper-local beer community. Bell’s is not distributed in Colorado as of yet, as they’ve put their faith in us instead to carry their growth. After the sampling at Fire & Hops, I think we’ll rise to the challenge.
Note: look for a deeper dive on Fire & Hops Gastropub later this fall.