Vintage photo of Larry Bell ca. 1990, courtesy of Bell’s Brewing Co.
At an all-staff meeting this week, Larry Bell, founder of Kalamazoo-based Bell’s Brewing Inc., told his team he was selling the company to Australian brewing conglomerate Lion Little World Beverages, which also owns Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium Brewing Co.
The deal came as a shock to many beer-lovers around the state, who for years have heard Bell insist that the company would remain family-owned. Bell told Crain’s as much this week, saying that he “used to throw away six pieces of paper a week from private equity firms” making offers.
There were about 40 craft brewers in the country when Bell founded his brewery in 1985. Now there are about 9,000, and it’s become a powerhouse industry for Michigan, which ranks 6th in the nation for number of craft breweries (we have 398 of them) as of 2020, according to the Brewers Association. It’s also a maturing industry that has seen consolidations, sales to big beverage conglomerates and the closure of some prominent breweries in recent years.
But Bell’s reasons for finally selling his eponymous empire seem to have been more personal than strategic. “I’ve had a couple bouts with my old friend cancer and one of them was last year. I’ve had very successful surgery,” Bell said this week. “I have a good prognosis. My age is getting into the 60s. It’s a bit of a wake up call that you need to make some mature adult decisions about what you’re going to do with things and that’s what this is.”
Bell did not disclose the terms of the deal, except to tell Crain’s that there was “at least one zero in it.”
We’ll miss reporting on the cantankerous king of craft brew from Kalamazoo. Some favorite Bell’s memories from the newsroom: Nick Manes told me about the time in 2015 when a “sort of run-of-the-mill” trademark dispute went viral. “This has not been my best day,” Bell told MiBiz in 2015, just after the internet learned about the year-old trademark case. “I’ve never been through anything like this (in my career). I had to call up MLive and tell them, ‘You can’t have your readers calling me a D-bag online.'”
And Chad Livengood reminisced about the time he tried to talk shop with Bell during Gretchen Whitmer’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, for which Bell was a surrogate. “Bad idea,” Chad said. “I told Bell about a concoction East Lansing attorney Mike Nichols had introduced me to that entailed mixing Bell’s Oberon wheat ale with Two Hearted, that delicious award-winning American IPA … Nichols coined it ‘Oberhearted.’
“Larry Bell did not sound all that amused when I suggested he put that combination of his best-selling beers into a bottle. … Bell said his brewers were developing something similar to what I was describing, but not that. He made it clear it wouldn’t be called Oberhearted.
About 11 months later, Bell’s Brewery released Official, a hazy IPA made with a wheat malt (just like Oberon). To me, it tasted just like Oberhearted.”