Last month, I attended the 36th annual National Homebrewers Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich. While Grand Rapids may not have the cachet of vacation destinations like Disney and the Outer Banks, it was named "Beer City USA" for the last two years' running in a national poll. It was also named one of the 10 best vacation cities for beer lovers.

The week-long conference was attended by more than 3,000 of my new best friends, and included numerous educational seminars, a competition to crown the Homebrewer of the Year and the biggest party in homebrewing, Club Night. Club Night is a Mardi Gras-like beer festival that showcased more than 75 homebrew clubs (with many of their members wearing outlandish costumes) pouring hundreds of homebrews.

I also toured some of the outstanding breweries in the Grand Rapids area. Sadly, beers from breweries like Dark Horse, Arcadia Ales and Jolly Pumpkin aren't available or have limited distribution in our area. However, one of the breweries I visited, Bell's Brewing of Kalamazoo, is widely available in Pennsylvania. Its success story is different from many other breweries in the industry.

Larry Bell first worked in a bakery where he became fascinated with yeast and fermentation. In 1983, he opened the Kalamazoo Brewing Company, a homebrew supply store. Bell began to sell beer two years later. His first batches were brewed in a 15-gallon soup kettle and fermented in open containers covered with plastic wrap.

Unlike many craft breweries that enjoyed instant success, Kalamazoo Brewing struggled during its early years. The craft beer revolution had yet to arrive in Michigan. Bell and his nine employees bottled and distributed the beer themselves during the brewery's first four years of existence.

In the early 1990s, when the nation's taste began to turn from mass-marketed light lagers to locally brewed, flavorful craft ales, Bell's was poised to make a move. They found a distributor to further establish their footprint in Michigan and simultaneously expanded into new markets. Increased sales led to the construction of a second brewery in nearby Comstock in 2003. The brewery changed its name to Bell's Brewing in 2005 to reflect the name locals always called it.

Bell's brewpub, which opened in 1993, was the first brewery in Michigan allowed to sell beer by the glass. I visited the brewpub - the Eccentric Café - twice during my stay. In addition to outstanding pub fare, it featured Bell's stand-by beers and many one-of-a-kind brews that aren't available outside the pub, such as pale ales brewed with experimental hop varieties and stouts and porters aged in bourbon and rum barrels. The café also features live music several nights a week. If there's ever a reason to go to Kalamazoo, this is it. Enjoy the selections. Cheers!

Oberon: This seasonal release is Bell's interpretation of a summer ale. Oberon pours hazy orange with mild aromas of citrus and malt. The flavors are of orange and bread. A large dose of wheat in the grain bill provides some mouthfeel to prevent it from becoming too watery. The beer finishes nicely - crisp, with an unexpected hint of hops. Oberon is also an excellent introductory beer for light lager drinkers who wish to experience their first craft ale.

Two Hearted Ale: Who says being a bridesmaid is a bad thing? "Two Hearted," named after the Two Hearted River in the upper peninsula of Michigan, has been ranked the No. 2 beer in the country by a major brewing magazine for the past five years running. This IPA is a celebration of Centennial hops. The color is golden with a foamy tan head. Like an unassuming Midwesterner, it's nicely balanced, not aggressively overhopped, like some West Coast IPA's. The flavors and aromas of grapefruit and pine from the hops co-dominate with just a hint of malt and caramel. The lingering bitterness cleanses the palate, making one yearn for yet another.

Porter: Not the most original name, but this is one of my wife's favorites. Porter pours dark brown with a medium tan head. Aromas are of coffee and semi-sweet chocolate. It has a solid mouthfeel with bitter flavors of coffee and roast balanced by caramel, chocolate and malt sweetness. Its rich, silky and long-lasting finish makes this one of the easiest drinking porters on the market.

Kalamazoo Stout: A dose of black malt gives this stout an opaque color and mocha head. Lots of aromas are present - chocolate, roast, caramel and raisin, to name a few. The body is lighter than the color suggests, enhancing drinkability, even during warmer weather. The flavors of caramel, molasses, coffee, chocolate, roast and licorice exist in harmony. This kind of complexity is usually found in much more alcoholic Russian Imperial Stouts. For those who want more coffee kick, Bell's also makes a Java Stout version that's infused with coffee.

Expedition Stout: This selection is a ringer, a seasonal Russian Imperial Stout that won't be available until October. When you see it, grab a six-pack, and let it age at cellar temperature. It pours jet black with almost no head. The aromas are of chocolate, coffee and vanilla, with a touch of alcohol. The mouthfeel is heavy, yet velvety. Complex flavors of sweet malt, roast, espresso and plum that will mature like wine over the years are balanced by a huge hop presence that will also mellow with time. Expedition packs a wallop at 10.5 percent alcohol. As with other strong beers, savor this one from a brandy snifter at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

(The Brew Dude is published every other week on the Food and Drink Page. For comments, suggestions or questions, email Mark Pasquinelli at thebrewdude@newsitem.com.)