Bell’s Oberon, One of Craft Beer's Earliest Legends, Is Still Drawing Crowds
Over two decades after the seasonal ale was first released, it's still sparking seasonal interest.
The craft beer world has changed quite significantly since 1997, the year Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery rechristened its Sol Sun wheat beer as Oberon. Nowadays, the trendiest breweries make what they want when they want, not necessarily sticking to a seasonal release schedule (or even offering year-round staples). But in the ’90s, almost all craft brewers had their regular year-round beers and then a group of seasonal beers that were only made at certain times of the year. And like the changing of the calendar itself, beer lovers would wait with enthusiasm for their favorite seasonal releases, often rushing to grab the first six-packs as soon as they were released or the freshest possible pour on draft.
Bell’s Oberon is one of the earliest examples of this excitement. By modern standards, the idea of craft beer drinkers going bonkers for the annual release of an easy-drinking American wheat beer might seem quaint. Wheat beers, once a staple of the craft beer scene, have generally fallen out of favor. But a generation ago, craft breweries were fewer and farther between, and for much of the country, Oberon was more of a word-of-mouth legend than a beer they had actually tried. “Around the time it became Oberon, people started to become more excited and interested in craft beer,” Laura Bell, now CEO of her family’s brewery, told Craft Brewing Business back in 2013. “Thanks to Bell’s drinkers and craft enthusiasm, it turned Oberon into this phenomenon for us.”
Bell’s is now America’s seventh largest craft brewery and 16th largest brewery overall, according to the Brewers Association, and the brand’s beers, once hard to find outside of Michigan, can now be found in over 30 states. Still, as recent data from the beer locator site BeerMenus shows, Oberon still sparks plenty of interest. This year, Oberon was officially released this past Monday, on March 26, and it quickly became the most added beer on menus tracked by the site. Meanwhile, proving it’s not just bars that are into stocking Oberon, people looking for the beer on the site also jumped nearly 15-fold.
Clearly, though craft beer has continued to evolve, many beer lovers like to stick to the classics. “Oberon is the first day of spring here in Kalamazoo,” Bruce Billedeaux, a local Oberon devotee, told Michigan’s MLive.com. “This beautiful orange, sunny beverage brightens everybody's mood here in this town. It is a holiday in West Michigan.” Sounds like a tradition worth keeping.