Bell’s Brewery looks back after 1 year under new ownership

Hazy Hearted IPA is available in six-packs across the Midwest and in variety packs across the U.S. Courtesy Bell's Brewery

A little more than a year ago, Bell’s Brewery jumped into a new era.

In November 2021, Lion Little World Beverages announced it acquired Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery, a craft beer pioneer and Michigan bar staple.

The deal brought Bell’s into the same beer portfolio of fellow craft beer pioneer New Belgium Brewing Co., based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Lion acquired New Belgium in 2019.

Well into its transition under new leadership, little has changed for Bell’s because of how the two U.S. Lion assets go together, said Carrie Yunker, a longtime Bell’s employee who was promoted to executive vice president following the acquisition. Yunker reports to Steve Fechheimer, the CEO of New Belgium who now oversees the combined U.S. entity.

“I’m incredibly proud both New Belgium and Bells come from people-centered businesses, and we’ve kept them at the center of the integration,” Yunker said. “We combined values and vision; that was some of the first work we set out to do.”

Bell’s quickly added some territory to its distribution network, a “benefit of a partnership with a national brand,” Yunker said. Prior to the acquisition, Bell’s was distributed in 43 states, while New Belgium was already in 50 states.

Last year, Bell’s added Northern California and Montana to its distribution map. This year, Yunker said the brand should find its way to another five states, with just Hawaii looming without Bell’s beers among U.S. states.

Yunker said most of the changes are with “the unsung heroes,” or employees in accounting and procurement. She said the adjustments helped push beer to market faster and secure larger placements in chain stores.

Beyond those changes, Yunker said to potentially prepare for bigger media plays from Bell’s, as well as a more established philanthropic program that builds on the legacy of charitable giving from founder Larry Bell. Yunker said the brewery’s Inspired Giving program donates $1 for every barrel brewed, which equated to more than $480,000 last year to local Kalamazoo nonprofits.

The Bell’s acquisition provided Bell a solid exit plan from the business he started in 1983.

“I really wanted to make sure that Bell’s would get transitioned to a good company to carry on the legacy of brewing and community commitment and valued employees,” Bell told trade publication Brewbound at the time of the transaction. “I’m really fortunate to have this agreement with Lion, who’s going to have us join forces with New Belgium. I’d rather be around and help in that transition for everybody that I care about at Bell’s. It’s not fair to have some trustee of mine to take care of my personal business.”

Since the sale, Bell has remained active in the Kalamazoo community.

Bell’s staples like Two Hearted Ale and Oberon will help continue to fuel growth for the brewery under the Australia-based Lion, which in turn is owned by global Japanese beverage giant Kirin Group.

Two Hearted is one of the craft beer community’s most beloved brands and was voted multiple times in the past decade as the American Homebrewers Association’s best beer in America. Now, Bell’s continues to build out the Two Hearted family portfolio, first with the rollout of Light Hearted and more recently with Hazy Hearted and a variety pack of new offerings.

Yunker said Bell’s is capitalizing on the brand trust Two Hearted has earned through years of consistency and simply being there for the customer.

“Consumers have a passion and love for the brand, it’s been in grandpa’s fridge, maybe it’s in an aunt’s fridge,” Yunker said. “It’s a generational beer and one meant to be enjoyed at the holidays, whether it’s to avoid family or enjoy family. That makes a brand like Two Hearted durable and it is welcomed into the home or at the beach party when you’re in someone’s story like that.”

According to Yunker, very little has changed in the operations at Bell’s and New Belgium, which has breweries in Colorado and North Carolina. Lion brings a robust finance and regulatory team that can assist the American craft brands, but those aren’t front and center, Yunker said.

Instead, the parent company is more hands-off in where it matters, she said.

“We really do have quite a bit of room to both innovate and grow; we know craft beer best,” she said. “They’ve invested in the brand understanding that the U.S. market is different, and they know we know these brands best and (about) growing them.”

As for the two U.S. brands, they’ll remain separate, but some things will be together for efficiencies. That includes a combined sales team in the market and some combined distributor relationships. The creative and brand teams, however, will remain independent.

“We have different followings,” Yunker said. “We’ll learn from each other, of course, but when you think about the innovation behind a brand like Two Hearted, that’s happening in Kalamazoo.”

According to a December Reuters report, Kirin is looking to buy more American breweries as its sales volume growth is in double-digits since the New Belgium and Bell’s acquisitions. Reuters reported 2021 Kirin craft beer sales of $454 million, or 3% of global sales, with expectations it would jump to 5% in 2022.