Seeking to retire from the business while ensuring that the Bell’s brand and beers such as Two Hearted Ale can thrive for years to come, Larry Bell says he is selling the brewery he founded to Australia-based Lion, a subsidiary of Japanese drinks giant Kirin.
Bell founded Bell’s Brewery in 1985 out of his homebrew shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The sale brings Bell’s under the same ownership as Colorado’s New Belgium, which Kirin acquired via Lion in 2019. The announcement from Bell’s says that its executive vice president, Carrie Yunker, will report to New Belgium CEO Steve Fechheimer, “a Michigan native and longtime Bell’s drinker.” Meanwhile, John Mallett, Bell’s VP of operations, “will join the leadership team to focus on integrating” Bell’s and New Belgium.
“This decision ultimately came down to two determining factors,” Bell says in the announcement. “First, the folks at New Belgium share our ironclad commitment to the craft of brewing and the community-first way we’ve built our business. Second, this was the right time. I’ve been doing this for more than 36 years and recently battled some serious health issues. I want everyone who loves this company like I do to know we have found a partner that truly values our incredible beer, our culture, and the importance of our roots here in Michigan.”
The deal brings some of the country’s most successful specialty beer brands under one leadership umbrella, uniting Two Hearted Ale and Oberon with the likes of Voodoo Ranger and Fat Tire. The deal also includes Upper Hand Brewery, founded by Bell in 2014 in Escanaba, Michigan.
When Kirin bought New Belgium, the latter was listed as the fourth-largest craft brewer in the United States by the Brewers Association. As of last year, Bell’s was the seventh-largest. As with New Belgium, the deal means that Bell’s will fall outside the BA’s definition of a craft brewer.
In early 2018, Bell was a guest on the Craft Beer & Brewing podcast, with excerpts also published as a Q&A in the CB&B Brewing Industry Guide. At the time, Bell’s daughter Laura Bell was stepping into the role of CEO; she left the position after about 15 months to pursue other interests. In the interview, Larry Bell discussed other possible futures for the company:
CBB // If you didn’t have Laura in the wings, had you thought about what you would do or what you wanted to do?
LB // Certainly. There was the looking at going public. I think it’s interesting that since the earlier days of craft where you had some company, like Sam Adams, that went public, we haven’t seen anyone going the IPO route. Ballast Point was flirting with it, but then they sold [to Constellation Brands]. But there is probably still a chance for someone at the right time to do an IPO, and it’s something that I thought about doing. If I were ever going to have to sell to one of the big guys, just show me the money and I’m out of here. I don’t want to stick around and see this. I think I would have difficulty with my independent nature working in a large corporate brewery structure.
We’re probably one of the few breweries that uses our family name. There are so many breweries out there but not necessarily a lot of family names. It’s personal—it’s our name on the product. So to think about Bell’s Brewery being led by Industrial Brew? Ugh! I thought that if I were going to do that deal that I’d separate out the bar [Bell’s Eccentric Café in Kalamazoo, Michigan] because the bar contains so many things that I’ve collected during my travels—my art, artifacts, and whatnot that I’ve put on the walls. It’s a personal place for me. So I would have had to keep that.
The Bell’s announcement also includes a statement from Laura Bell: “As a shareholder and board member, I am excited to support the sale of Bell’s to Lion and to join forces with New Belgium,” she says. “Our job as owners is to ensure the best future for Bell’s, and I believe this step is an important and critical part of our journey to continue the Bell’s legacy long into the future.”
Bell’s posted an open letter from Larry Bell on its website. In the letter, Bell explains that keeping the brewery going for the long-term was a factor in the decision to sell. “I wanted to make a brewery that would last longer than us, for generations to come, like the great 500-year-old breweries in Germany—and I believe we have only begun on that path,” he says. “But to keep Bell’s a strong and stable brewery for generations to come, we need someone to run it with the same energy and passion that I’ve had for these past decades.”
He adds: “But just like a stout sitting in a cellar, everything has its time, including me.”