It’s been a little while since I’ve had to begin a news post like this, but another iconic American craft brewery has decided to relinquish its independence and join forces with an international megacorporation. Iconic and beloved Michigan staples Bell’s Brewery, makers of perhaps the country’s most widely loved IPA, Two Hearted, today announced their sale to Australia’s Lion Little World Beverages, itself a subsidiary of Japanese mega-corp Kirin. Bell’s will be joining Colorado’s New Belgium as part of the Kirin-owned stable, after New Belgium was also acquired by Lion in late 2019.
The move coincides with the retirement of industry icon Larry Bell, who founded the brewery in 1985 “and brewed its first beers in a 15-gallon soup kettle.” Speaking at the company’s annual all-employee event, Bell broke the news, saying the following:
“I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish together,” Bell said. “From our wonderful fans, to the amazing team that has helped share our beer with the world, to the ways we’ve been able to invest in causes we believe in—this has been an absolutely incredible journey. This decision ultimately came down to two determining factors. 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.”
Bell’s daughter Laura Bell previously worked for the brewery for more than a decade, serving as its CEO before she also decided to step away from the beer industry in 2019. In retrospect, this may have been the moment when all hope of Bell’s Brewery remaining independent truly evaporated, as Laura Bell presumably had no interest in inheriting the family business. Meanwhile, all Bell’s locations will be closed Nov. 10 and 11, allowing staff to “reflect on the past year and talk about what’s ahead.”
Possibly the most iconic of all craft brewery IPAs in the modern era.
The company’s official press release goes out of its way to stress the New Belgium connection, presumably as a way to soften the blow for fans, saying that Bell’s will in the next few years pursue “B Corporation certification, 100% carbon neutrality by 2030, $1 per barrel philanthropy, and 100% score on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index.” The message acknowledges the acquisition by “Lion, an Australian based brewer,” but unsurprisingly makes zero mention of Lion’s ownership by Kirin, an international megalith that has been under fire by the beer community in recent years for its connection to military led genocide in Myanmar, among other things. Sympathetic local coverage of the acquisition likewise focuses on Bell’s “partnership” with New Belgium, rather than acknowledging any of the controversy surrounding Kirin.
That ownership will also mean that, like New Belgium, Bell’s will no longer qualify as a “craft brewer” under the ever-shifting definition of the Colorado-based Brewers Association, nor will their production be counted when calculating the growth/decline of craft brewer production in the future. As of 2020, Bell’s was #7 in the country in terms of production among BA-defined craft brewers, so this will be yet another stumbling block for the BA’s particular mode of reporting industry statistics, and yet more blurring of the idea of “craft beer.” As we first wrote back in 2018, we have clearly entered an era where major beer companies like Bell’s and New Belgium no longer believe that the BA’s definition of “craft” has any tangible value to them, or they wouldn’t choose to discard it as they have.
As in any brewery buyout story of this nature, though, the prevailing narrative among beer geeks will primarily be whether “the beer will change,” something that Bell’s naturally assures its customers will not occur. The beer industry has long since learned that this is the best way to broach such news—focus on the employee leadership who are remaining with the company, and the consistency of the product, in order to make the nature of the story about beer quality rather than the other consequences of the new ownership. With this kind of savvy marketing, we have no doubt that Bell’s will emerge just fine from the transition.
But at the same time, our journey into a truly post-craft beer world is only accelerating.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.