A brewery owner pal of mine in Michigan messaged me this morning, with a link to the page where this message from Larry Bell, founder of Kalamazoo, Michigan’s iconic Bell’s Brewery. You see one of these things and you an feel it coming: Larry Bell is selling his brewery…which many readers of this website take as a definite signal that it’s time to watch Steve Body go ballistic.
And I did…a little.
In the attached note, my friend lamented the wave of sell-offs which has resulted in…well, let him tell you..
“It’s a sad day…all the larger MI brewers have sold out. He was the last of the Independents. Founders is Mahau, Atwater is Miller Coors, Shorts is Heineken, New Holland is Pabst…. I know all these people well and I get that the generations need to retire, but still a little sad that he couldn’t remain an indie…Larry is a cantankerous old coot, but family wasn’t involved and he’s had health issues and age issues.”
Yeah…don’t we all, sooner or later. Which fact hardly removes the necessity for clear thinking and Priorities. Anyway, here’s Larry Bell’s message:
Not an actual video. Not helping him with this.
“To the Kalamazoo Community and my Bell’s family:
When I first came to Kalamazoo as an ambitious freshman attending Kalamazoo College, I didn’t think I would stay here longer than my education required. I had aspirations to go far, but also had no idea that I would find my life-long passion and home in this city. It is here, in Kalamazoo, that I found my best friends and the hobby that has kept me around for the past four decades: brewing incredible-tasting beer alongside the people and community that I love.
It all started in the basement of my first house on Wheaton Street, which turned into my homebrew shop on Burdick Street, and ultimately grew into the downtown Kalamazoo and Comstock breweries you all visit and love to this day. But just like a stout sitting in a cellar, everything has its time, including me. That is why today, it is immensely exciting – and a little bittersweet – that I am writing to share some important news about the future of Bell’s Brewery.
I have made the decision to retire from the business that I have considered one of my best gifts in life, ever since I was an 18-year-old dreamer. When I started Bell’s, we were called Kalamazoo Brewing Company, a nod to our community’s original brewery that closed in 1915. 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. 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.
That’s why this week, Bell’s finalized a sale agreement that will see us join forces with New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. By bringing together two of the largest and fastest-growing craft brand families in the country and unifying our companies under a single business model, we’re creating one of the best and largest craft portfolios in the country. Under the terms of the deal, I am selling my stake in Bell’s to Lion, who acquired Colorado-based New Belgium in 2019.
As I make this announcement, I want to make two things very clear: First, Bell’s home is – and will remain – in Kalamazoo County. While I fully expect this alignment with New Belgium will result in countless new fans around the country and beyond, we are still a Michigan-based operation brewing (world-class) Michigan beer. Second, our values, our DNA and our dedication to this community will not change. If anything, our belief in positively impacting the world will only be strengthened through our work with New Belgium.
I know the brewery is in good hands. Bell’s and New Belgium are very similar in a lot of ways. We share the same values and commitments to our people, to our communities, and to the quality of our beer. As hard as it is for me to let go, I know I have found in Lion and New Belgium true partners – and beer lovers – who value the Bell’s brand, employees, culture and places we call home.
This was a tough decision to make and one that I did not decide on lightheartedly. During the past six months, I was reminded of all the hard times in our history – times when we were barely making payroll, fighting for distribution rights, passionately advocating for new laws and so forth. But I was also reminded of the memories that I will cherish forever: fans wanting Bell’s beer at their weddings and other once-in-a-lifetime milestones, the clink of the glasses in our pub when our craft brew is raised in celebration, and the love for this company and the team who are at the heart of it all. You wanted to have Oberon at midnight, so we started having release parties. When we brewed Eccentric Ale, you wanted to celebrate, and Eccentric Day was born. Beer needs people to drink it and Bell’s needs you.
It is important to know that much will not change day-to-day for Bell’s. The company will continue to craft the beers you know and love, and our leadership team and staff will remain in place in Comstock/Kalamazoo. The same is true for Upper Hand in Escanaba. What I believe will change, however, is the impact Bell’s will be able to have on our local communities and causes, and our ability to introduce more fans to the ‘national’ beer of Michigan.
I know this isn’t all about me. I brewed the beer originally, but it’s what you all did with it that brings us here today. On a personal note, I want to thank the township of Comstock, the city of Kalamazoo, the city of Escanaba, our wonderful employees, and our many fans for all of the love and support you have shown Bell’s. When I founded the company in 1985, I never could have imagined how far we would come. I’m so proud of what we – our team, network, fans and partners – have been able to accomplish together over the last 36+ years. From what began as a personal passion for delicious craft beer and turned into a household name that millions love and enjoy each year, this has been an incredible and profoundly satisfying journey.
In the coming weeks, we expect to provide more information about our future with New Belgium and the opportunities it brings to the table. For more information, I encourage you to visit our website: bellsbeer.com/larrysretirement.
For now, let me just say cheers – and thank you, sincerely, because Bell’s is as much about you as it is me.
Founder & President
The following was in reply to my friend and I have nothing to add beyond this…
“Weeeel…**sigh** It’s his brewery. If he wants to bag it, he can, of course. I dispute his disingenuous assurance that the brewery will remain in Kalamazoo, though. Exactly what “will remain in Kalamazoo”, though?
I looked through his letter for a phrase common to every single brewery sell-out, knowing damned well I would find it, and, yep, there she is:
“It is important to know that much will not change day-to-day for Bell’s. The company will continue to craft the beers you know and love, and our leadership team and staff will remain in place in Comstock/Kalamazoo…What I believe will change, however, is the impact Bell’s will be able to have on our local communities and causes, and our ability to introduce more fans to the ‘national’ beer of Michigan.“
The AB Mantra: “Nothing has changed!” and its smarmy companion piece, “More people will be able to enjoy our beers!” Read any statement from any of the AB sell-outs and you’ll find it. (I firmly believe that AB gives recent sell-outs a handbook in how to deal with customer anger and bad press but I have no actual proof) What they MEAN, of course, is that nothing about the basic customer experience IN THE BREWERY will change too much. The sellers don’t KNOW it won’t, of course, but that is really just verbal ointment for the fresh wound; a little fire retardant after the lit match is dropped in the dry brush.
But much more to the Point, what changes totally and irrevocably is the bedrock FACT that Bell’s – along with Larry’s butt-boys at New Belgium – went from being a proudly family-owned local/regional brewery to a subsidiary, an investment property of a foreign corporation. Bell’s will still be CALLED Bell’s and maybe Kirin/Lion, not being total assholes like Anheuser Busch, will leave the brewers alone and let the beer continue in its consistent form. But corporations which buy businesses ALWAYS tinker to some degree.
A (supposed) AB executive in their marketing department cheerfully admitted to me, in an email, that they introduced “cost efficiencies” at Ely**an, after that purchase. I tasted “Space Dust” last month, at a Seahawks game, and it became the ONLY beer from anyone – including other AB properties – that I have ever spit into a waste can and tossed, unfinished. It was AWFUL. Not subjectively awful but objectively BAD, unbalanced, crappy beer. This is the inevitable result of corporations instituting “cost efficiencies”.
If America had the same labeling laws that some other countries have, (mostly in France, of course) Goose Island would be compelled to use the name “Anheuser Busch/Goose Island”. Similarly, these two former US breweries are really no longer “American” or even “Michigan”/”Colorado” breweries. They are owned jointly by Lion, in Sydney, Australia, or Kirin Holdings of Tokyo. The profits leave the US. Where the MONEY ends up is where you ARE and Larry Bell, because he couldn’t be bothered (or maybe is just too tired to do it), skipped seeking out a US brewery or investment company to take over Bell’s. Their “Kalamazoo-ness” is a facade, now, and that does in no way honor the trust that Michiganders gave to their own local brewery, which became so successful that their shared struggle, his own admitted long battle, to get Bell’s to the plateau they occupy now eventually meant…very little when compared to the Big Check awaiting Larry Bell.
It’s absolutely his right to maximize HIS company’s value and take that check. But the two definitions of “right” frequently conflict and this is a textbook example. Was it Larry’s “right” to sell to whomever he pleased? Sure. Was it “right” for him to sell off an American indie brewery and remove its proud claim to being BOTH “American” and “Indie”? NO. It was, really, stupid and dismissive of the very people who got him to the point at which such a sale was even possible, just as it was even more blatantly a big ol’ hearty “Fuck You!” from Ely**an to all its Seattle supporters when they whored out to Anheuser Busch. I would bet ANY amount of money that, if Larry Bell had bothered to circulate a little, quiet email query, assessing interest in selling Bell’s to some other US Indie, he would have had offers from a LOT of breweries with the means to buy it; maybe a consortium of interested breweries or investors. Maybe Deschutes? Stone? Boston Beer Co? Ninkasi? Align with CANarchy? Sell to Bell’s employees?
There were choices.
He chose the easy way and handed Bell’s to Japan and Australia. So, for me, no more mention of Bell’s, not that I write about them, anyway. I did tastings of Bell’s beers three times and while they were nowhere near the wimpy, undistinguished mess that Founders was and is, there was just not much there for me to write about.
But, that aside, the larger consideration is that I cover American craft beer and Bell’s simply is not any longer one of those.
I’ll get emails and maybe even messages here, now: “Who cares who owns the brewery, dude? Have a cold one and just chill out!“
You might save those. I’ve now answered that about fifty times. The bedrock of this is that owners of independent breweries appear not to be able to see whether selling off a great American brewery to foreign interests is serving any larger or higher values….y’know like loyalty and community and their culture that made them famous and prosperous, to begin with. Seems like the sheer size of that Big Check obscures the sun and lets them think that cowering in the shadow of that will hide their dismissive actions from view of the patrons they’re leaving behind.”
RIP, Bell’s Brewery.