Bell’s Brewery’s Funvitational
Bell’s sophisticatedly quieted the trolls’ noise Sat, Sept. 12, 2015. They threw an impressive, well-executed 30th birthday party for themselves at Homer Stryker Field, home of the Kalamazoo Growlers, in Kalamazoo, MI. At its conclusion, the overwhelming general consensus on the field (and at the afterparty) validated “Funvitational” as a legitimate word and beer fest. If Rachel Ray can get EVOO into Merriam-Webster’s, Funvitational just earned its right to its own definition, too.
The buzz about the event was abundant when it was announced, particularly for two reasons: 1) Bell’s had never done anything to this supposed magnitude before, at least to my knowledge, and 2) They invited, at that time, 80+ breweries from across the U.S., many of which have never seen distribution in MI.
I wanted to go for both reasons. I snail mailed my ticket application and handwritten personal check to their instruction the day after they announced their ticketing lottery system. A painless but anxious handful of weeks later, my two tickets arrived. They were die cut, splattered with an invigorating, welcoming rainbow of colors reminiscent of the widely popular The Color Run and accented by slick foil stamping. The effort they put into the tickets alone was enough to win me over even before they published the tap list.
...and then, the tap list hit Facebook and all the trolls starting stirring their collective pots of piss from under the bridge near the safe crossroads of social media anonymity and thread shitting. Sure, would we (i.e. all those who committed up front, applied for tickets and pre-paid) have loved to see all 80+ breweries bring their A game to the baseball field with perhaps two of their biggest beers or specialty one-offs? Without a doubt. Was it Bell’s’ fault? No. Are attendees generally privy to the tap list at at the time tickets first go on sale at other multi-brewery beer fests around the country? No. Did Bell’s already offer a very generous program of twelve 4-oz.-pour tasting tickets plus $8 in food vouchers? Yes. [Sidenote: Kudos to Bell’s for doing this - a very responsible, smart move, by the way.] Ok then, silence! Anyone who bitched because a brewery wasn’t bringing the beer they felt entitled to is probably hoarding a half case of it in their cellar anyway. Is the experience itself worth nothing? In second grade, my nephew’s teacher taught her students: “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” Stop whining, kids.
Mother Nature was on everyone’s side with a comfortably warm, mildly sunny late summer day. Aside from the five minutes when she teased us with a barely noticeable soft sprinkle, the vibe in the air had the makings of what was probably going to be a pleasant surprise to everyone. As my +1, Joe, and I approached event central, Funvitational volunteers were politely directing all traffic - cars to the parking lot, foot to the football field and bicycle to the valet. Yeah, bike valet. Another nice touch by Bell’s. I know my cyclist friends like John Shoemaker appreciated the nod.
Bell’s literally put in the extra time paying attention to the details by establishing a registration period from 12-4p. That cushion concurrently resolved multiple potential frustrations before they even had a chance to become issues. Before the festival gates opened at 4p, attendees had plenty of time to get acclimated. That translates into a four-hour bottle share, among other benefits - knowingly planned by the organizers, and seemingly organic to the guests.
Around 2p, as Joe and I walked onto the cushy football field, located conveniently across the parking lot from Homer Stryker Field, volunteers pointed us to the branded Bell’s tents at the far end zone to check in. We waited zero minutes before two overwhelmingly sweet and welcoming ladies tore off the perforated stubs of our tickets and exchanged them for the fest’s survival kit: fabric wristband (unlike any event I’ve attended), spine-bound program book with drink and food tickets, bumper sticker (I ultimately “lost” mine, anyone got an extra?) and tasting glass. They explained everything we needed to know before having to ask. They encouraged us to join the bottle shares anywhere on the field; the box of bombers I was carrying was an obvious sign that we came prepared to partake. And although a very subtle mention, they pointed to the front of the line where everyone would eventually be led onto Homer Stryker Field and matter-of-factly told us: “We’ll be letting in everyone in order of where the line starts because we’d like anyone who’s spent time waiting in line the longest to be the first ones on the field.” Unable to find anything wrong with that statement, Joe and I grabbed our supplies and headed for the bleachers.
The early risers were already comfortable, casually passing bottles around to anyone reciprocating within arm’s reach. After a solid hour of cruising through sharing and sampling about ten different beers, we claimed our place in line, probably within the first 100 people. We were starting to warm up from the sun that was making itself known and of course the ten samples that were starting to kick in. We got in line behind two ladies we didn’t know. It took me all of thirty seconds to introduce myself and offer to share more beer. Right away, Tammy and Amy were our line buddies. We split two 22 oz. stouts and exchanged phone numbers so we could rendezvous later.
What was easily 2,000+ people in line by the time it engaged promptly at 4p, we all marched double-file with our respective line buddies to exit the football field like well behaved little school kids who didn’t want to get in trouble and get held back from recess. As we fast shuffled through Homer Stryker Field’s gates onto the concourse, security and volunteers greeted us with high-fives. Lots of high-fives, and smiles. And, “Welcomes.” And, “Have a fun time today, enjoy, cheers!”I don’t care who you are, if you don’t like high-fives or smiles, something’s wrong. I made the short girls reach extra high and the tall guys go low. Then, we were on the field.
The Detroit Party Marching Band won over Joe instantly. These dudes and chicks were the soundtrack to everyone’s walk-on music. Imagine your typical marching band. You know - the ones with the stereotypical band nerds with the flutes who actually don’t listen to any music that’s not printed out on sheets? Now, forget that, and picture the exact opposite - twenty or so soulful, eccentric musicians with individual flared style getting down to their own funky instrumental versions of rock, pop, hip-hop and otherwise iconic tunes. They weaved throughout the festival grounds serenading us all with more cachet than a mariachi band. And I dig mariachi bands.
Bottle share: check. High-fives: check. Fresh entertainment: check. Beer in hand: no check. My first (and second) were whales, Perennial Artisan Ales’ Abraxas and Maine Beer Company’s Lunch. Tick, tick. Honestly, after those two I probably could’ve gone home happy because they were that satisfying, buttt… there were of course more on my list, designated by a two-tiered, green and yellow highlighter coded system because I’m crazy. Fortunately, Joe couldn’t have been any cooler about helping me tackle all the beers I wanted to conquer.
I’ve never been to Hawaii, but Maui Brewing Company’s Double Overhead DIPA tasted exactly like I imagined Hawaii to look, smell, taste and feel. It was a mouthful of bursting bright, juicy, tropical fruit, sunny, crisp island air so much that I could almost feel a fragrant bouquet of lei orchids around my neck. I now have another reason to visit. Mahalo.
Aside from providing all the beer you’d ever need, Bell’s kept us entertained with giant-sized skee-ball and bags. Joe was pretty hopped up when he entered us in a round of skee-ball with the friendly couple behind us in line, assigning himself the nickname Dabiabolical. No, not diabolical. It was the beer talking, and everything the beer said was hilarious. Then, Dabiabolical signed us up for bags. We went 2-1, but got someone’s pretzel necklace out of the deal, so really 3-1. Regrettably, we somehow managed to not ride the vintage carnival ferris wheel. It reminded me of American Horror Story’s Freak Show, but with less murder. We made up for it though with more beer. I think I drank my weight in Surly’s Todd the Axe-Man.
As the festival came to a close, Larry Bell appeared on a modest platform in the middle of field. It was personal, intimate. He spoke sincerely, thanking his Bell’s family and the enthusiasts who’ve supported them for the last 30 years. As he concluded with a crowd-wide toast, the lights at the field went out and we applauded. Everyone thought it was a wrap. Nope. Cue the surprise fireworks. My birthday is on the 4th of July, and I was impressed by the icing on their cake.
Bell’s owned the field yesterday, and knocked it out of the park with a walk-off home run. Happy birthday to them, and here’s hoping they don’t wait another 30 years to throw a party like that.
Photo credit at top to the mighty whale slayer, Matt Van Dyk