from today's Chicago Tribune:
Bell's beer headed back to Chicago
By Jim Kirk | Tribune staff reporter 9:44 AM CDT, July 31, 2008
Bell's Brewery Inc. beers are headed back to the Windy City nearly two years after the company pulled its brands out of the Chicago market following a nasty dispute with a distributor.
Comstock, Mich.-based Bell's Brewery on Thursday announced new distribution agreements with Central Beverage Co., Schamberger Brothers and Skokie Valley Beverage Co. that will mark the return of Bell's brands in Chicago beginning Friday.
Bell's, makers of Oberon Ale, Bell's Amber, and Kalamazoo Stout, left the Chicago market in late 2006 after a fight with its distributor at the time, National Wine and Spirits Inc., which had sold the rights to distribute the Bell's brands to another distributor, Chicago Beverage Systems. Illinois state law basically forbids beer companies from jumping to one distributor to another without a buyout or some other agreement. Instead of paying, Bell's owner and co-founder Larry Bell decided to pull his brands out of the state even though the market accounted for more than 10 percent of his sales.
At the time, the battle drew national attention and headlines. Craft brewers like Bell have complained for years that state laws favor distributors and mass brewers while hurting small brewers' ability to grow, especially in big markets like Chicago. But few have taken as dramatic action as Bell by abruptly pulling out of a key market.
Larry Bell risked litigation when he returned to the Chicago market in 2007 with new brands under a different label. He may face more of a showdown with the return of the Bell's brands, observers here say.
"I love Chicago and there's no big city I spend more time in,'' said Bell, a native of south suburban Park Forest. He added that he doesn't believe he will face a court battle when the brands return to area bar taps.
Executives at Chicago Beverage, which is owned by Rosemont-based beverage and foodservice giant, Reyes Holdings, could not be reached early Thursday.