Bell's Brewery sale deals another blow to independent craft beer
Bell's Brewery, the maker of America's best beer, plans to sell itself to a global beverage conglomerate, in a deal that will jolt the craft brewing industry.
- Australia-based Lion, a subsidiary of Japanese beverage giant Kirin Group, is acquiring the Michigan Brewery for an undisclosed sum. The deal is expected to close soon, the companies announced Wednesday.
- Bell's will join forces with another iconic brand, Colorado's New Belgium Brewing — which sold to Lion in 2019. The companies would combine to lead craft beer in terms of sales volume and growth, leaders said citing Nielsen sales numbers.
Why it matters: Bell's is the latest in a string of prominent independent craft brewers to sell to once-reviled "big beer" companies, a surprising move given the brand's fiercely independent reputation.
- But it comes as the craft brewing industry faces an uncertain future with declining beer consumption and more competition from big players.
By the numbers: In 2020, Bell's ranked as the nation's seventh largest craft brewery and the 16th largest overall brewing company, according to Brewers Association, the trade organization that represents small and independent beer makers.
- Bell's sold 461,582 barrels in 2020, a 7% decline amid the pandemic, ending three years of growth.
Between the lines: Within the industry, Bell's will no longer be considered a craft brewer under the strict definition set by the Brewers Association, which differs from other industry observers.
- In the association's annual survey, craft beer fans voted Bell's Two Hearted IPA as the best in the country four years in a row.
What they're saying: Larry Bell, who founded the brewery in 1985 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, told Axios that he is retiring and wanted to find a buyer who could continue his legacy.
- "I wouldn't call this a sell out. I would call this a sale. Nobody lives forever and I needed an elegant solution to succession," Bell said in an interview. "If you look at what happened to New Belgium since acquisition by Lion, it's nothing but good — it's grown significantly."
Details: New Belgium's CEO Steve Fechheimer will helm the new collaboration, which includes Bell's spinoff Upper Hand Brewery.
- He said no major changes or layoffs are expected initially, and the combined company will allow the two iconic brands to remain rooted in their values.
- "It is about how we … continue to drive positive social and environmental change and make great beer," Fechheimer told Axios.