The new year ushered in a new era for Bell’s Brewery Inc. as the iconic Kalamazoo-based craft brewer closed on its sale to Australian brewing conglomerate Lion Little World Beverages on Dec. 31. The deal partners Bell’s with New Belgium Brewing Co., which is also owned by Lion, while Bell’s founder Larry Bell walks away from the company. MiBiz spoke with Carrie Yunker, who oversees day-to-day operations at Bell’s as executive vice president, about the brewery’s future.
Bell’s is a lifelong legacy of Larry Bell. How does the company plan to preserve that legacy moving forward?
I think what’s really important for our consumers and friends to know is that we’re still going to be making Bell’s beer. We’ll still have that high standard around quality and those pieces. Those will still exist. We’re still going to do fun things like Eccentric Day and Oberon Day, where we engage directly with our consumers and fans. All those things will exist. It is Larry’s legacy — his name will always be on the building and will always be on the bottles. Through every airport, someone is always going to nod at me when I wear my Bell’s logo. … That’s really what we are sort of charged with keeping alive.
Can it be tough to preserve the legacy of someone who is no longer involved in the day-to-day?
I think one of Larry’s legacies is he has made great hires. I’ve inherited a fantastic team of individuals. Larry was my boss for many years. He really empowered people to make decisions whether it was around beer, business or marketing. I think that’s part of his legacy, as well, but isn’t as visible to the public.
You have worked on expanding operations at your home facility in Comstock. How will that affect capacity?
We’re not actually quite done with our Comstock expansion. As I look out my window right now, there is still a building (a canning hall) that just has the concrete poured in. We have not yet completed the installation of our second canning line, and there is also some wastewater treatment and additional utility services that are going along with that, too. What we have done is our variety pack line. … If you think about capacity, we continue to move around where the bottleneck is. With the new tanks this year and the new canning line coming online … we’ll be really close to 1 million barrels. Maybe a little more.
Do you foresee any additional investments in the near future?
Where you’ll see us put some focus — at least in 2022 — is this building (in Comstock) is almost 20 years old. There are some continued utility (needs). It’s not time for new, it’s time for replacement. We’re working on those pieces. Then, it will be less about physical infrastructure investment. I think we’re going to see a bit of an increase in investment and spending around our marketing this year.
Bell’s has always been very supportive of smaller, local breweries. Is that something that might go away with the sale of the company to a large conglomerate?
I think that is a really important part of what (company Vice President John) Mallet and myself are charged with doing in this new era. We always describe the brewery as a teaching college approach. None of that goes away. What I do think you will see is more formalization of our philanthropic efforts when it comes to giving back to the community. That has been a part of Larry’s legacy that he has owned a majority of. I’m actually really excited about a larger dollar investment to that — around half a million dollars this year — and we’ll really get the opportunity to expand the involvement there.
The New Belgium partnership seems to provide opportunities to regionalize production to cut down on logistics costs and preserve freshness of the product. What are the plans in regard to combining production?
There is if you’re just looking at it as pins on the map. I think what we have seen from an operations standpoint is we make and brew beer differently than New Belgium does. At the moment, there aren’t plans to, say, brew each other’s beer in those locations. I think we’ll probably look at things like brewing tracking, order cycles and combining procurement. We’ll look for efficiencies in those spaces first and take our time with the production integration.
Looking back on the deal, did it come together fairly seamlessly, or were there moments when both sides ran into a dead end?
No, we didn’t really have any of those moments. From a timeline perspective, it was certainly several months that we were trying to figure out who our best suitor was. At the end of the day, New Belgium got their No. 1 pick and we got ours. I think that’s the important piece here. … These deals are super complex. There are a lot of things to understand — what they’re looking for and what we’re prioritizing and looking for in a partner. Once we got that defined, it was a pretty easy match.
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