Bell’s Brewery, Inc.
Style: American Wheat
I’ve been contemplating this one for some time, as I’ve began to throw a few opinions up on the pages of this fair site. I wanted to hold off, however, until the “new” batch of 2010 arrived in stores. Part of the fun of Oberon, it should be noted, is listening to everyone say how “different” this year’s version is, although I doubt there really is much difference aside from natural variation and quality control.
Anyway, this should be interesting, as I’m sure this review will ruffle a few feathers as I decided to pour myself a glass of fresh Solson … err, Oberon.
The story of Larry Bell’s Kalamazoo Brewing Company, later Bell’s Brewery, is relatively well known. As mentioned in my “About” introduction, he’s a fellow Kalamazoo College Fighting Hornet and began his labor of love in 1983 as a Michigan pioneer, with a home brew shop that quickly morphed into a brewery.
Bell, along with a Detroit area restaurant called Traffic Jam & Snug, was instrumental in getting the laws changed in Michigan to allow brewpubs and microbreweries—an excellent decision by state lawmakers in a state that now hosts over 80 brewing enterprises and generates millions in tax revenues for the state, not to mention the jobs and economic stimulus provided by the industry. The vast majority of this benefit, of course, belongs to Bell’s Brewery as they’ve become the Midwest’s largest brewer.
It may surprise some Bell’s fans, however, to know that their early reputation was built on stout seasonals—not summer wheats—as they have long produced a wide variety of the darker ales, often using local ingredients such as Michigan grains, hops, or cherries. In fact, every November 1st is a stout celebration at the Eccentric Cafe.
While their flagship offerings have always included their Pale Ale, Amber, IPA and Porter, one of their other early seasonals was a summer wheat ale called Solson, produced opposite of their winter seasonal Best Brown. Based on the some of the German wheat beers Larry Bell had sampled as a college student, it was brewed around a 30 percent wheat mash and fermented using an alt yeast. Served unfiltered and often with an orange or lemon, Solson’s following grew quickly, as it was obviously an “easier” drink than the more aggressive stouts or bitter beers to many macro-beer palates.
As its reputation grew, lawyers for Mexican brewing giant Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma noticed. They produce a beer called Sol that they felt was infringed upon by Bell’s Solson label, particularly as both included a rising sun logo. Rather than fight, Bell’s changed the name to Oberon.
Oberon is now huge and is their top selling beer, with annual release parties at local taverns and beer stores each spring. You know a beer is ubiquitous when I can purchase a six pack at Walmart, accompanied by the stupid smiley face logo promoting a price drop to $7.54 per six pack (don’t ask me why I was at a Walmart, but it wasn’t intentional).
Having long consumed it, I was obviously familiar with the beer. I never drink it with friggin’ fruit, but that’s just me. Oberon pours pale orange or dark straw in color and the head dissipates quickly. The body is thin and there is a soft citrus aroma on the nose. The first sip strikes the upper palate with a shock of bitterness and the taste rolls back on the tongue with all the grace of a used gym sock. It lingers on with a mix of bitterness, acidity and dirty laundry. While much of the distastefulness can be covered up or balanced with the slice of orange, the same can also be said of a Corona or Sol with a lime. This really isn’t an honestly pleasant quaff.
While I don’t mean to be overly harsh, because the beer is palatable, it’s certainly not even close to being worth all the fuss it generates. In fact, it’s below average, particularly for what is supposed to be a “refreshing” summer wheat beer … instead, it’s stringent and way too bitter. There are many, many better tasting and more consistent choices out there, in my opinion.
While I love Bell’s Brewery and the vast majority of their offerings—and I adore wheat beers—this just simply isn’t one of them. Even though I’m obviously in the minority in that opinion judging by Oberon’s sales