USA & Australia: Bells Brewery agrees to sell to Australasian beer company Lion
Bell's Brewery is selling. Its leader, Larry Bell, is retiring. And with that, a changing of the guard is about to take place at Michigan's largest and oldest independent craft brewer, the Detroit Free Press reported on November 10.
Bell who founded Bell's in 1985, brewing its first beers in a 15-gallon soup kettle and later inventing several hallmark beers such as the Two Hearted Ale and the Oberon Ale announced he is selling his company to Australasian beer company Lion, a subsidiary of Japanese beverage conglomerate Kirin, for an undisclosed amount in the coming months. Lion also owns Colorado's New Belgium Brewing among its portfolio of international craft beer brands.
The move will ultimately combine Bell's, the 16th-largest overall brewer in America by sales volume in 2020, and New Belgium, the 11th-largest, into a "new American craft beer leader," though both will retain their brands and beers.
While the leadership team at Bell's will not change and neither will day-to-day operations at its Comstock-based facility and Kalamazoo-based Eccentric Café and Shop, the craft brewing titan will move forward without Bell, the pioneer of craft beer in Michigan and as influential of a figure as any in what has blossomed into one of America's richest beer states, with more than 400 operating breweries. He announced his retirement at the company's annual all-employee event.
"I first incorporated the company when I was 25 in 1983," Bell told the Free Press, referring to what was originally The Kalamazoo Brewing Company, Inc., a homebrewing supply store that began selling its own beer two years later. "I've been CEO of the company for 38 years. That's a long time. It's a great career.
"But there comes a time that you have to decide what you're going to do. And last year, I dealt with my old friend cancer again. I'm fine, I had successful surgery. But it does make you think about what you're going to do."
So Bell turned to his Board of Directors, which agreed that selling the company was the best option for the legacy of Bell's and its some 550 employees. And the opportunity to join forces with New Belgium, a "similarly minded company as our regarding their values and how they operate," was too good to pass up.
New Belgium was founded in 1991 by Kim Jordan and Jeff Lebesch in Fort Collins, Colo., and expanded to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2016, Denver in 2018 and San Francisco in 2020. Its beer can be found in all 50 states; it's best known for its Fat Tire amber ale and Voodoo Ranger IPA. It staffs roughly 700 employees.
"For us to be joining forces with New Belgium is fantastic," Bell said.
Employee-owned for seven years, New Belgium sold to Lion in 2019. Its CEO, Steve Fechheimer, stayed on following the transaction and the company remains headquartered in Fort Collins, Colo.
Fechheimer told the Free Press that New Belgium has enjoyed roughly 25% growth the past two years and that the company has been able to build upon its mission and invest more into its brands since the sale to Lion. It's also had the flexibility to take care of its employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And personally, as a born-and-raised Michigander, he knows how important Bell's is to the state of Michigan.
"I love this state," Fechheimer said. "I know how important this brand, this company, Larry's legacy is to the craft beer drinkers of Michigan. And I take that really seriously.
"I'm really proud to be here with Larry and thankful that he's entrusted a part of his legacy to me. We're going to do right by the Kalamazoo community, by the Michigan community and by Bell's fans all around the country."
Bell's Executive Vice President Carrie Yunker, who will continue to lead day-to-day operations for the brewery, will report to Fechheimer and join the combined company's leadership team, as well as Vice President of Operations John Mallett, who will "focus on integrating the two brewing organizations," according to a news release on the sale.
While there are no plans to change operations at Bell's Brewery's 500,000-barrel Comstock facility or at its Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba, which just recently began slinging its beer in the Lower Peninsula the only trajectory for Bell's is upward, Bell said.
"The purpose is to not make less beer and have less employees, its the exact opposite," he said.
Bell's is best known for Two Hearted Ale (7% alcohol by volume), an award-winning American IPA brewed with all Centennial hops, and Oberon (5.8% ABV), a beloved seasonal wheat ale whose annual release day, Oberon Day, marks the first unofficial sign of Michigan summer around the corner. Other year-round staples include the Official Hazy IPA, Light Hearted Ale, Porter and Lager of the Lakes.
Bell said the sale will not change the way these beers, or others, will be brewed or housed.
"Come Friday morning, employees of Bells and Upper Hand will be brewing beer the same way they did last week," he said. "We hope our consumers continue to support those employees."
Since its founding, Bell's held the distinction as Michigan's largest brewer by volume of beer until 2018, when it was surpassed by Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids. Founders, long considered Bell's' counterpart as a Michigan craft brewing giant, sold a 90% majority stake to Spanish company Mahou San Miguel in 2019. Both moves mean Holland-based New Holland Brewing Co. is now the largest fully independent craft brewery in Michigan, based on sales volume, according to the Brewers Association's Top 50 list (New Holland is No. 50).
And it's the latest move in an embattled American craft beer industry facing all kinds of challenges, ranging from market saturation to an aluminum can shortage to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered indoor dining for many breweries and forced them to find alternative strategies for selling their beer, such as curbside pickup. And then there's the introduction of hard seltzer and canned cocktails, which have put a dent in overall beer sales the past few years.
And now Michigan craft beer moves into a post-Bell era, which is uncharted territory for an industry that has grown exponentially over the past two decades.
"To all craft beer drinkers, thank you for supporting me for 38 years," Bell said. "I've had a great career, especially in Michigan. The people who have supported us, I can't thank them enough."
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