at Belmont Station
True confession: I don’t recall the very first time I tasted Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.
I can pinpoint it to a definite … era. Maybe even a year. Here’s the really embarrassing part: I live in a part of the country where Bell’s doesn’t (yet) distribute, so you’d think I’d have a better memory of my first time with the Flagship beer I have chosen to write about this year.
What I do remember: it was the late 1990s; I was working for a company based in Minneapolis; and a colleague who shared a love for “micros” (as they were called at the time) laid one on me when I was visiting headquarters.
I might not remember the moment, but I do remember the beer: grapefruity, piney, softly malty, perfectly balanced and incredibly delicious. I might’ve gushed a little, which was enough to alert my Minnesota co-workers to my new beer crush. For a blissful few years, between my visiting HQ and co-workers coming to Portland, I had a nice little pipeline of Two Hearted provisions.
What I didn’t know back then was that, according to founder Larry Bell, the beer I was crushing on bigtime was not the original Two Hearted, but what he calls “Two Hearted 2.0.”
“The original (Two Hearted) was made with English malt and Wisconsin hops—those were the two hearts of the beer,” Bell says.
“That was back in the late 80s/early 90s. It was a beer that wound up not working out for us and was discontinued.”
Several years went by until a brewer, Rob Skalla, wanted to make an all-Centennial hopped beer. The Two Hearted name—in reference to both the Two Hearted River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and, according to Bell, the two-part Hemingway short story, Big Two-Hearted River, was resurrected. Version 2.0 proved to be a big hit as a seasonal, and was the first beer to be crowned the victor in the Alpha King Challenge, an IPA contest that dates back to 1999.
Others must have felt the same way I did about Two Hearted, because in 2004 it graduated to year-round status and, as Bell says, “has been on a tear ever since.” Crediting now-Vice President of Brewing Operations, John Mallett, for making fermentation tweaks to the beer along the way, Bell says part of Two Hearted’s appeal lies in the synergy between the ingredients.
“I have always said that Bell’s yeast plus Centennial hops equals three,” he says. “The two really work well together.”
A job change meant my Two Hearted supply dried up and it was several years before I got my hands on one again. I credit our neighbors who brought over a Two Hearted after visiting family back in Michigan. I popped that puppy, and it was like coming home.
Things had changed a wee bit since I took that first sip of Two Hearted those many years ago. In a magical, Alice in Wonderland-esque tale, I fell down a craft beer rabbit hole and wound up becoming co-owner one of the oldest and most highly respected beer stores/beer bars in Portland, Belmont Station. So, while brainstorming events for when the Craft Brewers Conference visited in Portland in 2015, imagination fueled by that recently smuggled bottle of Two Hearted, I invited Larry himself to my establishment. Of course, a Meet the Brewer event without beer would be blasphemous, so Larry would simply have to bring us some Bell’s.
To be fair, this wouldn’t be the first time Bell’s had entered the Portland market for an event, as it was occasionally on tap at the Oregon Brewers Festival in those halcyon days of the early craft beer boom. And it was through what we in Oregon call a “festival permit,” which allows beverages not normally distributed locally to enter the state for a short, time that we were able to get Bell’s for the CBC.
I had no idea how many transplanted Midwesterners lived in Portland! It seemed like every single one was at Belmont Station that fateful evening in April, some wanting to simply sip on some beers from home, others desiring six-packs to go. But everybody was there to meet Larry Bell. In the way that only beer can bring people together, guys wearing Michigan shirts were toasting folks with Ohio State gear on, and people were plopping down next to strangers, only to wind up hanging out with them all evening, exchanging contact information before heading home with big smiles on their faces.
Since we were bringing in a number of out of state brewers during the CBC, I was concerned that our customers might not know who the guests of honor were, and to this day, I have no idea how I talked Bell into wearing a gold paper crown – think: Burger King without the branding – to alert people that they were among brewery royalty. (This proved to be a thing for a while at Belmont Station, to such an extent that #belmontcrowns was actually trending on Twitter for a hot minute.)
As the night of the Bell’s event wore on, the line continued to grow outside, to the point that at one stage it extended more than three city blocks. Hearing of the wait to get inside, Bell decided that the least he could do was go outside to hang with them.
Imagine: Larry Bell traipsing along the sidewalk with a gold paper crown on his head saying hello to all the fine people waiting in line. This lasted well into the night, and at closing time, there was still a throng of fans, now friends, hanging out with Larry, who continued to look splendid in his #BelmontCrown.
At least by then, everyone had made it inside.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.