Larry Bell on Two Hearted Ale
On the Friday afternoon of the 1999 Great American Beer Festival, I found myself on the floor of the event with a crisp hundo in my pocket and wearing a hop adorned crown, drinking from a Tiffany beer mug that was full to the brim. The beer in the mug was Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, the inaugural winner of the Alpha King Challenge, a circus atmosphere sideshow to the festival that had been thought up by Bill Owens.
Ten IPA’s had been entered that first year, nine from the hopcentric west coast and mine. There was more than a bit of surprise when Two Hearted won, even though the ale had captured the IPA silver medal at the 1998 GABF. As I was savoring the beer from my newly won crystal, it wasn’t long before security spotted me and approached.
“Excuse me, Sir, but you can’t drink from that mug on the floor. That’s not authorized and waaay too full.”
“But I’m the Alpha King,” I replied, knowing full well I was about to be booted from the fest, “I can do what I want.”
“Sir, I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave.”
I downed the Two Hearted and said, “Fine, I just won a hundred dollars and I’m going to enjoy Denver! “
And off I went.
In 1997, one of my brewers, Rob Skalla, made an IPA using just a single hop, Centennial, and in true Rob fashion, he fermented it to 7% alcohol, according to the style guidelines, top of the scale for IPAs at the time. When it came time to keg up this trial brew, a name was needed and that marketing decision fell to me.
Back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, we had made a beer called Two Hearted Ale with English malts and hops from Wisconsin. The labels had featured various well-known fishermen and, overall, the project was not a huge success, so eventually it was shelved. I believed enough time had passed that we could resurrect the name and attach it to this new brew. Better still, I had a portfolio of trout fishing images from the artist whose family were shareholders in the company and selected the image that we still have to this day. I love that we have never drastically refreshed the label, as it still has the look of labels from the early days of the craft movement.
Two Hearted remained a seasonal brand for us for many years, since in the summer we were too busy making our best seller at the time, Oberon. It wasn’t until 2004 that it became a year-round brand because it was requested as a wedding present by my third wife when we got married that year.
While credit is due to Skalla, Two Hearted owes a lot to John Mallett, as well. In the early 2000s, Mallett was able to tinker with the fermentation schedule of the beer and coax more complexity and deliciousness out of the simple ingredients of this brew. Mallett also put us on the path to being first in line at most hop farms for Centennial selection each fall.
At the crux of what these two gentlemen created is a delightful synthesis of flavors between our house yeast and the Centennial hops, or as I have often said regarding these two ingredients, 1+1=3.
Two Hearted has gone on to win many awards since my cocky younger days in the ‘90s. I believe that it has been Bell’s commitment to quality ingredients, process and packaging that has made it a consistent, shelf stable ale that continues to shine. It embodies the adage less is more and really shows what can be done by skillful brewers using great ingredients.
Two Hearted is a source of pride for the brewery employees and for our corner of Michigan and I look forward to sharing one again with folks at the GABF, a summer beer festival, the beer garden or whatever bar we my find ourselves in that day.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.