Bell's Brewery to be sold to New Belgium Brewing's parent company as founder retires

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Australian-based beer company Lion will purchase pioneering Michigan beer brand Bell's Brewery as owner Larry Bell looks to retire from the 36-year-old company. The sale puts Bell's in alignment with Colorado's New Belgium Brewery, which was acquired by Lion in 2019. 

Fans of Bell's — which is distributed in 43 states and employs around 550 people, mostly in Michigan — should expect no changes to products as the sale goes forward. Bell declined to specify the monetary value of the acquisition. 

Bells Brewery founder Larry Bell on May 17, 2017.

"I think what people can expect is more of the same," Bell told The Detroit News. "More great beer, more of the values that we cherish in our culture here at Bell's and bigger and better things. We're still going to be making great beer in Comstock, Kalamazoo and Escanaba, our breweries here in Michigan."

Bell said Bell's and New Belgium — which is best known for its Fat Tire amber ale and Voodoo Ranger IPA — are actively investing capital expenditures and growing their breweries.

"New Belgium has been very successful the last couple years since Lion acquired them. They've had incredible growth, they've hired people, they're making more beer and this makes a lot of sense for all of us," Bell said.

Speaking together from Kalamazoo on Wednesday morning, Bell and New Belgium CEO Steve Fechheimer, a Michigan native, argued the move positions the two companies at the top of the United States craft beer market.

"This puts us right there at the top in terms of volume,"  Fechheimer said. 

Rob Sullivan, manager of Slows Bar BQ, pours Bell's Two Hearted Ale at the Detroit restaurant on Wednesday.

Both companies also have a commitment to community, and that will be expanded with this alignment as well. Bell's will seek 100% carbon neutrality by 2030 and will continue to be a part of the Michigan community by supporting events like Kalamazoo Pride and Oberon Day. 

"What we really come to appreciate as we talk to Larry and we talk to his team — and we certainly admired this company long before official conversations started on this — is that they operate their business in many of the same ways," said Fechheimer of both companies' commitment to community and the environment. "That's part of what makes this such a great coming together of two craft beer icons is that there's a lot of similarities in the businesses and a lot of mutual respect."

Bell told the Chicago Tribute that his company began exploring a sale in January, partially because of recent health woes. He had a bout with renal cancer last year. 

Bell founded Bell's Brewery in 1985. The company's first few products were Amber Ale, Third Coast Beer, Bell's Porter, Kalamazoo Stout and Best Brown Ale. Today, Bell's makes more than 20 beers that are distributed out of Comstock, including some of the most popular craft labels in the country like Two Hearted Ale and the seasonal wheat beer Oberon.

According to the Brewers Association, a national trade group, Bell's ranked No. 7 on the list of top craft breweries in the United States last year. 

Looking back on several decades in the industry, Bell said he has a lot of pride. 

"I've had the opportunity to make all these great beers, and we've been able to do great things in our community," he said. "Heck, I've happened to commission pieces of music and pieces of art and I got to help change the laws in the Legislature that brought on, really, the craft revolution that Michigan has gone through.

"I think I can look back on a career well done, and I feel really confident that my legacy, those beers, the culture that we built will be in good hands with our friends at New Belgium."

Bell's is being sold to Australian-based brewery Lion, which also acquired Colorado's New Belgium Brewery in 2019.

Bell's daughter, Laura Bell, a shareholder and board member of the company, expressed her excitement and support in a media alert about the acquisition. 

"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," she said. 

Larry Bell said he doesn't believe there will be any regulatory barriers that would prevent the sale to Lion from going forward. Lion is a subsidiary of Japanese beverage giant Kirin. 

Several of Michigan's top craft beer makers have also been sold or partially sold over the past few years. In 2017, Short's sold nearly 20% of its equity stake to Lagunitas Brewing Co., a subsidiary of Heineken International. Founders Brewing Co. sold a majority stake to Mahou San Miguel Group and in early 2020, Detroit's Atwater Beer announced it would sell to Molson Coors' U.S. craft beer division.

Twitter: @melodybaetens