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Kalamazoo reacts to the sale of Bell’s Brewery

Employees filing into Bell's Eccentric Cafe.
Leona Larson

As dozens of employees filed into a closed Bell’s Eccentric Café on Wednesday to find out more about the sale of the brewery and the company’s future, a steady stream of customers was surprised to find the doors locked at Bell’s General Store.  

Amy Pancato said she isn’t a local, but was working across the street on busy Kalamazoo Avenue when she heard news of the sale.

“It’s just surprising. It’s a little upsetting I think for some locals, but I don’t know,” Pancato said.  “I came here to buy more stuff to support it while it’s still Michigan owned."

Sign on the door of Bell's Eccentric Cafe General Store
Credit Leona Larson
A sign on the door of Bell's General Store on Kalamazoo Avenue tells customers that they will be closed until Friday.

Larry Bell brewed his first beer in Kalamazoo in 1985, using a 15-gallon soup pot. From there the company grew, making more than 20 beers and producing close to 500,000 barrels.  Bell’s Brewery was the seventh largest independently owned manufacturer in 2020, according to the Brewers Association.

News of Larry Bell’s decision to retire and sell the brewery he started 36-years ago spread quickly through downtown Kalamazoo. Tyler Van Buren, April Van Buren and Jessica Van Buren are relatives who were out for dinner downtown when they heard that Lion, an Australian-based brewer, and its parent company, the Japanese beer giant Kirin, will be the new owners.

“Whenever you mention Kalamazoo people say ‘Bells’ a lot. So, ‘it’s where Bell’s is’ or something,” said Tyler Van Buren. “I guess we’ll just see if the changes are positive or negative.”

“I think it’s kind of disappointing cause then it’s not locally owned anymore,” said April Van Buren. “You know it’s not a local business and you want to support local businesses. You know they’re not even in Michigan.”

Despite her concerns, Larry Bell said in Wednesday’s announcement that the deal ensures that Bell’s will remain a Michigan-based operation. The company will continue making beer in Comstock, Kalamazoo and Escanaba.

“I would be concerned to see what like their (the new owners) values are and to see like how committed they are to the area,” said Jessica Van Buren.

The terms of the sale have not been disclosed, but once the sale is complete, the company will be bigger. In 2019, Lion bought New Belgium Brewing of Colorado. Together, Bells and New Belgium will become one of the nation’s largest craft beer companies. 

“It kind of takes away the flavor of Bells because you think of it as being home grown, local, and now that you know that its sold and internationally bought,” said downtown Kalamazoo resident Terri Cunha. “It does kind of change a little bit the way I feel about it. Yeah, I mean as long as they, you know, keep the beer good and maintain quality, but it does change the flavor a little bit.”

Cunha was walking her Boston Terrier, Dewey, on one side of Burdick Street while Michael Acosta strolled along the other side of the street with his young family and their family dog, Ali.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Acosta. “Michigan as a whole, they like it local as much as you can get it. And when you see something like that, it kind of go down in a way. I mean, he deserves it. He deserves retirement like we all do, but we wish it could have been somehow local.”

Matt Cronkhite also called the news “unfortunate,” but he was more circumspect.

“It’s a natural part of the process,” Cronkhite said. “That’s business.”

Bell’s Brewery announced on Facebook that all locations would be closed until Friday so the company and staff of about 550 people could take “some time to come together, socially distanced, of course, to reconnect, learn, reflect on the past year and talk about what's ahead.”