Bell’s breaks ground

ESCANABA – Ground was broken Friday to ceremoniously commence construction of the Upper Hand Brewery on Airport Road in Escanaba. Local community leaders and brewery club members attended.

Actual construction of the beer-brewing and bottling company, a division of Bell’s Brewery of downstate Comstock, will begin next week in the Renaissance Zone at the Delta County Airport.

Bell’s Brewery President Larry Bell said Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony was the first he’s ever attended despite being in business for 30 years. He expressed appreciation for the cooperation of everyone involved in bringing the brewery to Escanaba.

Bell said the $1.6 million project will take time in acquiring the license, constructing the 11,500-square-foot building, opening the facility and brewing the beer.

“There’s lots of work ahead,” he said following the ceremony. “We have to make the beer and sell it.”

Bell’s products are currently sold in stores and taverns across the region. Bell has plans to manufacture local products with a U.P. attitude such as “The Upper Hand Logger,” “The Escanaba Black Beer,” and “The UPA” which stands for “U.P. Ale.”

During Friday’s ceremony, Bell announced Gunlach Champion will be the general contractor on the project. Gunlach Champion President Jim Ebli said work on the structure will being next week and continue through the winter on the five-acre site. The facility should be ready for operation by next spring, he said.

Delta County Economic Development Alliance Director Vicki Schwab introduced Bell to those in attendance, and said the new business will impact the local economy, create jobs and diversify the county’s manufacturing base.

Schwab thanked Bell for his vision and bringing “the recipe of success” to the county.

Delta County Administrator Nora Viau said the Upper Hand Brewery is the third company to set up shop in the county’s Renaissance Zone.

The zone was created in 2002 to develop the property as a means to support the county airport, Viau explained. The new business is an indication the economy is improving, she added.

City Manager Jim O’Toole anticipates the distribution of Bell’s products throughout the region will help bring attention to Escanaba and stimulate the city’s growth.

“The Upper Hand Brewery is going to have a huge impact on the local economy,” said O’Toole.

The new brewery is part of a company-wide expansion and renovation project at Bell’s. In addition to the local construction, Bell said the company is investing $15 million in its main brewery downstate including a new fermentation cellar, new refrigeration space, and a wastewater treatment facility.

Bell has been involved in the brewery business for more than three decades. What started out as a hobby for him turned into a successful company with product sales in 18 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

Bell’s is the 14th largest brewery in the nation and the oldest craft brewer east of Boulder, Colo. In 2012, the company ranked seventh in the top 50 craft brewers for U.S. companies with an annual production of six million barrels or less.

Bell’s employs more than 200 people at a brewery and pub in Kalamazoo, a distribution center in Galesburg, and a brewery and corporate office in Comstock. The U.P. plant is expected to employ five people.

The brewery in Escanaba will not sell beer directly to the public but will offer plant tours and free beer samples.

Bell said he is keeping track of current legislation that would impact his business. Michigan House Bill 4710 would allow brewpubs in the state to have an interest in up to six locations, provided they do not produce more than 18,000 combined barrels of beer a year, according to a September Mlive article. Current law allows brewpubs to operate three locations and produce a combined 5,000 barrels a year. Two other bills impacting the craft beer industry in Michigan are also currently being considered in the state legislature. One measure would increase the limit on the number of barrels produced by a microbrewery from 30,000 to 60,000. A third measure would allow licensed brewers producing more than 30,000 barrels of beer a year to operate two tasting rooms instead of just one. Bell’s is one of only two licensed brewers in the state producing this much beer.

According to an article in the Detroit News, Bell’s recently opened a new location in the Grand Rapids area. The new pub is located at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143,