Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fighting Command and Control Capitalism in Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo Beer Exchange
211 E. Water St.
Kalamazoo, MI

“There really is a Kalamazoo.”

If you need an emergency souvenir at the Kalamazoo Airport, a t-shirt emblazoned with that saying is your only option.

That should give you some insight into the self-esteem issues this frigid West Michigan city must grapple with.

But like most small college towns, Kalamazoo has nothing to be ashamed of, hitting far above its weight with a vibrant downtown full of fun bars, brew pubs and thirsty college girls.

That’s a hell of a lot more than Detroit can claim.

Hitting up a few of those beer halls was at the top of my agenda.

But I had no idea my evening of beer drinking was going to turn into an economics lesson.

First on the list was Bell’s Brewery -- probably the best known brewery in all of Michigan.

Bell’s is most famous nationally for its Oberon wheat beer and Two Hearted IPA. As always, I was more excited to try some of the other two dozen brews on tap that I can’t find at my local Total Wine.

My fellow Suit and I each ordered up a flight of a half dozen beers, handwriting our selections on a preprinted list which I submitted to the bartender -- after standing in a long, loooong line.

Clearly efficiency is not a goal at Bell’s.

Every customer in the crowded brewpub has to stand in the same line every time they want a new beer.

Shouldn’t an important economic lesson be that if you have a crowd of people who want to hand you their cash, you make it quicker and easier for them to do so?

Indecisive out-of-towners like me ordering a dozen samplers probably don’t help to speed things up.

But a flight is the only way to go.

It increases the odds that I might reach that pinnacle of beer drinking -- finding that one life-altering brew so exquisite, so unique that it will go down as one of the greatest beers to ever grace Suit757’s liver.

That search is what forces me out of bed every morning.

Well, that and the fact that I have a job that requires me to get on a plane at 6am and fly to Kalamazoo.

I mean, I have to find a way to pay for all this life-altering beer after all.

And at $36 for a dozen five ounce samplers, we clearly weren’t getting any hometown discount from Bell’s.

My selection leaned toward the darker, heavier, more potent offerings, including an unassuming 9.5% alcohol barleywine named “Bull in a China Shop”, a toasty and hoppy “Experimental” black IPA and powerful black imperial “Expedition Stout”.

The “Third Coast Beer” was a crisp ale that served as a nice reprieve from the powerful dark brews.

Of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try Bell’s ultimate imperial IPA on draft -- Hopslam -- which lived up to its name.

But the whole point of this exercise is to learn something new. Discover a previously unknown brew that will help fulfill the meaning of my beer drinking life.

I take this stuff seriously.

So I can’t just sample some beers and enjoy the evening.

No. This is science. This is journalism. This is research.

All rolled into one sudsy experiment.

I had to declare a winner.

That honor went to Bell’s “Smoked Stout”, a malty manly beer with just the right amount of smokiness.

Wow. This would go great with some of Bell’s meat smoked on premises.

How about the brisket sandwich?

In all this excitement and science and stuff, I hadn’t paid much attention to the food menu.

Or the time.

So my fellow suit went to stand at the end of the long line with clear instructions -- food and a full pint of smoked porter.

Fifteen minutes later he finally reappeared with a couple beers -- and some bad news.

kitchen was closed.


What packed brewery in a college town shuts down the smoker at 9pm? Haven’t these people ever heard of beer munchies?

First rule of economics -- if you have a crowd of hungry beer drinkers on premises, sell them food!

Now I was irritated. And hungry.

My mood didn’t improve when I learned that before I could wander the streets of downtown Kalamazoo in search of sustenance, I had to go back and stand in that damn line again just to pay my $50 beer tab.

Now what?

After a series of texts to three different Suits who all spent their college years drinking beer in Kalamazoo, there was a consensus -- Kalamazoo Beer Exchange. Serving food until 11pm.

That works for me.

Housed in a cool looking old downtown warehouse, Kalamazoo Beer Exchange sported a nice selection of local and national craft beers.

Most interesting of all, the prices for the draft beers fluctuate every fifteen minutes based on supply and demand.

Suit757’s inner economist (Austrian school, of course) suddenly got very excited about this concept.

When the demand for a particular beer increases, the price goes up. When nobody is ordering it, the price goes down.

All of this is tracked on a big stock exchange electronic score board above the bar that I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off of.

Did I tell you I was an econ major in college?

Yeah. Pretty exciting stuff.

Even cooler still, our waitress informed us that occasionally there will be a “Market Crash” when all the beer prices tumble to bargain levels. Despite my eager anticipation, that never happened the entire two hours we were there.

Supply and demand is the most foundational of all economic principles. Virtually all of economics branches off from this basic concept.

Being the shrewd economist I am, I quickly strategized that rather than ordering a local brew like Bell’s, perhaps I could maximize the return on my investment by going for a more obscure beer that might be in less demand.

Sure enough, Green Flash Double Stout out of San Diego seemed to be priced well at just $5.25 per pint. A strong 8.8% sweet malty brew like this was a virtual steal for five bucks.

Sure enough, after I ordered it, the price jumped up to $5.50.

Then fifteen minutes later it dropped back down to $5.25.

And stayed there the rest of the night.

Huh? Shouldn’t there be a bit more volatility in this beer market?

My Milton Friedman deep inside me grew suspicious that maybe this “free market” might not be so free after all.

After ordering a Penny Dreadful, a dark 6.8% beer from Brewery Terra Firma out of Traverse City, I soon realized that all the beers were trading in a very narrow range of about 25 to 50 cents.

This is no free market after all!

It’s like Chinese command and control capitalism. What the ChiComs call a “Socialist Market Economy.”

It has the façade of a free market but the prices are actually set by the central government and never trade outside a narrow band.

Just like the interest rates set by the Federal Reserve.

Or the Yuan that the Chinese hope will replace the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency after the Fed finishes its mission to destroy the buck.

I was soooo disappointed.

Kalamazoo Beer Exchange is a neat concept, but like our supposedly American capitalist system, it would only work properly if the central authorities let it operate freely.

Otherwise the fluctuating prices of the beer are just an irritation.

Unfortunately, the food did nothing to cheer me up.

The steak nachos with their crispy baked tortilla chips and pile of sautéed onions and peppers, tomatoes, sour cream and guacamole weren’t too bad -- except for one very serious problem.

There was virtually no steak on my steak nachos.

Dude. First rule of Econ 101: Do not cheat Suit757 out of his meat if you expect a good review!

The “Blue Plate Special” was a sausage and peppers pizza for ten bucks.

It sounded like a good deal, but ended up just as further real life evidence of yet another important economic principle: You get what you pay for.

Forget eating this pizza with my hands -- the way God intended pizza to be consumed.

In fact, it was so soggy, a knife and fork wasn’t enough.

A straw would have been a more appropriate utensil to eat this damn thing.

The more of it I attempted to slurp down, the more irritated I got.

And the marginal pleasure I derived from each additional beer I consumed seemed to lessen with every sip.

Could this be the “Law of Diminishing Returns” setting in?

Considering how much high potency beer I had consumed and the approaching midnight hour, I don’t think there was any question.

It was time to go back to the Best Western.

I was learning yet another important economic lesson.

Kalamazoo Beer Exchange and Bell’s Brewery could learn some lessons too.

You can’t fight the basic laws of economics. Sometimes you just have to obey them.

Rating: Wouldn’t Wear Shirt if They Paid Me.

Kalamazoo Beer Exchange on Urbanspoon


  1. Just out of curiosity, what night were you in town? That doesn't make up for the food at TBE, but it might explain the pricing. I've seen beers fluctuate widely on weekends and market crashes happen about every 20 minutes....on weeknights, there tends to be less action.

    As for Bell's, it would probably surprise you that they've gotten better than they used to be with ordering. I tend to avoid the place after 6:00 any night of the week, but I love the place for lunch. Easy to get to the bar and drink and the food has gotten pretty great over the last couple of years.

    1. Thanks for the tips!

      We were there on a Tuesday night. I'm guessing you're right -- you'll get a bit more trading action on a busier night.

      Next time, I'll take your advice and just stay at Bell's -- and get there before they shut down the smoker!

  2. You need a economic lesson!?! Check out the photos you posted! Yella pils for $2.50 and Snapshot for $2.75 so over priced! Come on man where did you go to college???