A few minutes before midnight, at a basement-level bar in downtown Kalamazoo, an anxious crowd gather to celebrate Michigan’s most anticipated drinking holiday. No, it’s not St. Patrick’s Day. It’s Oberon Day. A petite brunette named Monica stands on stage wearing a purple velvet cape and holding a scepter, having just been crowned Queen of Oberon Day after writing a winning acrostic poem devoted to Bell’s Brewery’s signature wheat beer. At the stroke of twelve, that golden nectar would start flowing from the taps. It was the moment they’ve been waiting for all winter.
“Long live Oberon and long live Kalamazoo!” Monica yells into the mic. Everyone in the bar cheers.
I first heard about Oberon while visiting my boyfriend in Kalamazoo. He dragged me through the snow to witness the power of an otherwise average beer that brings the West Michigan college town to a standstill.
It all started in 1991, about six years after Larry Bell first started selling his stovetop-cooked homebrew commercially. Bell, a rabid Cubs fan, wanted to make a beer to commemorate the start of baseball season, and, with it, the unofficial start of summer. Originally called Solsun, until Bell lost a trademark dispute with the Mexican beer Sol, the simple, four-ingredient beer is named for Shakespeare’s mischievous fairy king—a role the notoriously eccentric Bell performed in his sixth-grade play. To this day, it’s always released the Monday before Opening Day.
In sunny states, Oberon is available year-round, but in places more prone to seasons, it disappears by the end of the World Series. This enforced scarcity is a clever marketing ploy for Bell’s, as Oberon Day has become an ever-bigger deal in the sun-starved Midwest.
The morning after the tapping party, the boyfriend and I pull up to the Bell’s taproom to find out what happens at the first official day of Oberon season. It’s 9:08 a.m. when we walk in, and the place is already packed. Two guys in their fifties had staked out the prime seats in middle of the bar: Joel, an IT guy at Western Michigan University, and Bruce, a mechanical engineer. They both took the day off work to be here and clearly planned to stay all day.
"My boss understands," Joel explains. "I do it every year.”
“Heck, Oberon Day is in my corporate calendar, like a holiday!” says Bruce, grinning.
Brewed with 60% barley malt and 40% wheat malt, Oberon is relatively boozy at 5.8% ABV. It gets a touch of spiciness from Hersbrucker and Saaz hops and a citrusy zing from Bell’s house ale yeast. Whether or not to serve it with an orange slice is a topic of much debate in Michigan and another story. Bell’s also brews a mango-habanero Oberon; Überon, aged in local whiskey barrels and clocking in at a 9.3% ABV; and Titania, an unfiltered dry-hopped wheat ale named for Oberon’s mythical sister. A few years ago, a local doughnut shop Sweetwater’s got in on the action by whipping up an Oberon Donut just for the occasion.
The hype over Oberon Day has even spread across the lake to Chicago, driven mostly by expatriated Michigan alumni.
“It’s massive day for us, probably our top beer event of the year,” says Mark Tolliver, general manager of Sheffield’s in Chicago, which has been observing Oberon Day for close to 20 years. “We’ll do 17 half-barrels in five hours, snow or not.”
Once you live in the Midwest for a while, Tolliver explains, you can understand why people go crazy for a beer that so much as suggests summer, even if the brew itself is nothing earth-shattering.
“The liquid’s good, but it’s means way more than that,” Tolliver says. “It’s almost like New Year’s for some people.”
This year, Oberon Day falls on March 26. Events are planned in cities throughout Michigan and as far away as Minneapolis, Indianapolis, DC, Omaha, Cleveland, Queens, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Even bars in places where winter isn’t really a thing—such as Houston, Memphis and New Orleans—are joining in, hosting Oberon-themed bingo parties, trivia nights and more. Oberon Day has a hashtag and its own UnTappd badge. The Bell’s store does brisk business selling Oberon-branded pint glasses ($5), lip balms ($1.50), cycling jerseys ($75), patio umbrellas ($120) and beach towels (sold out). And if you happen to live outside Oberon’s ever-expanding distribution area, Bell’s has even provided a recipe on its website so you can clone the beer at home.
I fully expect to find Joel and Bruce at their regular seats at the Bell’s bar, just where I left them, no matter the weather. The year I attended Oberon Day, it was snowing outside, but you’d never have known it by looking at those two. When the bartender dropped that long-awaited first pint of mango-habanero Oberon in front of Bruce, he took a long slug and smiled, some foam still sticking to his bushy mustache.
“Tastes like spring!”