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Bars celebrate return of Bell's Oberon

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

The green beer season has passed, and in Michigan, late March means the return of a favorite orange brew: Bell's Oberon.

Based in Kalamazoo, Bell's Brewery makes a variety of products year round, but it's the Oberon Ale that fires up craft beer lovers. It even has an official release date — Monday — and some Michigan bars and restaurants aren't wasting a single second by holding midnight release parties.

"Consumers see Oberon as an annual sign of spring," says Rick Lack, executive vice president of Rave Associates, which distributes Bell's products across southeastern Michigan. "While it is a summer beer by premise, its release date is the single biggest sales push we see for any one item in our industry."

Lack said the release "is truly a phenomena" based on how excited people are to see it back, year after year.

Lack says Oberon is versatile and appeals to every kind of bar and restaurant in the state. He also considers it a crossover beer that appeals to people who don't consider themselves craft beer drinkers.

"There is no bar or restaurant that is not a target, nor that does not want it," he said. "Oberon deserves a lot of credit for being the beer to help a lot of domestic beer drinkers discover the world of craft beer."

Rave Associations delivered Oberon to 1,881 accounts last year, which was a record for them. They have a goal of 2,000 accounts this year.

One of those accounts is Ashley's in Ann Arbor. Owner Roy More and his partners have been hosting Oberon parties on the release date for years. Folks dress up and vie for the title of King and Queen of Oberon, and they count down the moments until they're allowed the first sips of the season's golden ale.

"Our history with Bell's goes back to day one distribution for them," says More, who also owns an Ashley's in Westland. "(The brewery's founder) Larry Bell used to deliver kegs in his pick-up truck."

One Eyed Betty's beer bar in Ferndale also will release Oberon at the stroke of midnight Monday. Other parties are planned for later in the week all around the state.

For all the good feelings surrounding the release of Oberon and Bell's — which brews more than 300,000 barrels a year and is distributed in about 20 states — this year's celebrations come with a bit of controversy. The brewery recently engaged in a federal trademark dispute with a tiny brewery in Sylva, North Carolina, Innovation Brewing, which makes about 500 barrels a year.

Bell's is claiming the rights to the term "innovation." They've used the slogans "bottling innovation since 1985" and "inspired brewing" and say that Innovation Brewing's name could confuse costumers. Some have called for a boycott of Bell's.

Earlier this month Bell's Brewery posted a response to the complaints on social media saying the company is "doing our best to continue working through this as amicably as possible and are hopeful we can find a mutual resolution." A longer statement was also posted to bellsbeer.com/blog.

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

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Oberon events in Metro Detroit

Ashley's Ann Arbor: Crowning of the King and Queen of Oberon and poetry contest, Bell's Hopslam at 9 p.m. and Oberon at midnight. 9 p.m. Sunday. 338 S. State, Ann Arbor. (734) 996-9191.

One Eyed Betty's: Oberon release at midnight, plus crowning of King and Queen of Oberon. Midnight Sunday. 175 W. Troy, Ferndale. (248) 808-6633.

Oberon Pub Crawl in Ann Arbor: Starts at 11 a.m. Monday at Fraser's Pub and hops to another location each hour, ending at Bill's Beer Garden at 8 p.m. Fraser's is at 2045 Packard, Ann Arbor. (734) 665-1955.

The Oak Cafe: Celebration of Oberon's release, plus other Bell's beers. 6:30 p.m. Monday. 1167 Oak, Wyandotte. (734) 283-8380.

Big Bear Lodge Restaurant: Discounts on Oberon, plus appetizers, games and prizes. 7-9 p.m. Monday. 25253 Telegraph, Flat Rock. (734) 782-6600.

Terry's Terrace: Oberon celebraiton with prizes from Bell's Brewery. 6 p.m. Wednesday. 36470 Jefferson, Harrison Township. (586) 463-2671.

Union Woodshop: An Oberon release party and Bell's tap takeover including Double Cream Stout, Smitten Golden Rye Ale, Lager of the Lakes and more, with Bell's representatives on hand with swag. 4 p.m. Thursday. 18 S. Main, Clarkston. (248) 625-5660.

Ciccarelli's: Oberon release party with other Bell's products. 5 p.m. Thursday. 46793 Hayes, Shelby Township. (586) 247-2223.

Clubhouse BFD: Oberon release and patio opening with photo booth and Oberon-battered fish and chips. 5 p.m. Fri. 2265 Crooks, Rochester Hills. (248) 289-6093.

Pete's Place: Oberon on draft along with other Bell's products like Two Hearted Ale, Cherry Stout and Third Coast Ale. 6 p.m. March 31. 12245 Telegraph, Taylor. (734) 374-0088.

The Grange Kitchen & Bar: A five-course beer dinner featuring Bell's beer paired with food from Chef Brandon. 6:30 p.m. March 31. $75. 118 W. Liberty, Ann Arbor. (734) 995-2107.

Foran's Grand Trunk Pub: Bell's beer appreciation night. 5 p.m. April 1. 612 Woodward, Detroit. (313) 961-3043.

Oberon Facts

■Oberon is made by Bell's Brewery, which was founded in 1983 as the Kalamazoo Brewing Co. It began selling beer in 1985.

■Bell's began producing Oberon in the early 1990s under the name Solsun. The label was changed a few years later after legal action from a Mexican brewer that had a product with a similar name.

■The name Oberon comes from the king character in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Founder Larry Bell once played this character in a school play, according to a 2012 interview with MLive.

■If someone offers you an Oberon at Christmas, check the date on the label. The beer only has a shelf life of about six months.

■Oberon's alcohol by volume is 5.8 percent, slightly above average for a wheat beer.

■Last summer was the first year Oberon was available in a can. Before that, it was only bottled or kegged.

■Oberon is vegan.

Melody Baetens