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Bell's iconic Oberon wheat beer. Courtesy of Bell's Brewery

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.

Go deeper

John Frank, author of Denver
Nov 24, 2021 - Axios Twin Cities

Minnesota's role in Goose Island's cult beer release

Black Swan's patented honeycomb-shaped planks add more wood flavor to beer. Photo courtesy of Elkins Flom

Black Friday is an unofficial beer holiday filled with special releases — including one that features the flavors of a small Minnesota barrel-maker.

What's happening: The most-anticipated releases each year are Goose Island's Bourbon County stouts, writes Axios Denver's John Frank, our resident beer geek.

  • This year, one of the variants made by the Chicago-based brewery features a stout aged using cherry wood. It's harvested in Minnesota by Park Rapids' barrel-maker Black Swan Cooperage.

Americans are super-sizing their holiday travel

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Americans are rushing back into holiday travel, and many are taking even longer trips now than they did before the pandemic began.

The big picture: After skipping Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings last year, many people are eager to maximize this year's celebrations with friends and family. And flexible remote working arrangements make that easier than ever.

Updated 16 hours ago - Sports

The potential GOAT of chess faces intriguing challenger

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi began on Friday, 1,094 days after Carlsen won his fourth consecutive title.

Why it matters: During the long, COVID-fueled layoff, chess entered a new era, and with the championship finally here, the age-old game is ready for its close-up.