When Laura Bell was 2 months old, her dad founded what would go on to become the largest brewery in Michigan and the seventh largest craft beer maker in the country. While she’s held a number of roles in her decade working at Bell’s Brewery, Bell just took on a great deal more responsibility after being named CEO of the company last month. While her father, Larry Bell, remains involved in the brewery, Laura Bell will take over the day-to-day operations and planning for the family-owned company and its satellite Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba, Mich. Bell spoke with Revue about what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of an industry legend as well as her plan to make craft beer more inclusive.
Transferring a business from generation to generation is hard enough, but it’s another thing when the founder is a legend in the industry like Larry Bell. How much pressure does that put on you?
My dad’s management style for me has been trial by fire. He gives me a lot of opportunity to make my own decisions. And what I do is not always right, but then it’s how do you fix the problems. I’ve learned through the process that you’ve got to be OK with making mistakes. It’s really how you fix them, how you learn from them and not do them again. The best thing is that he does not hold my hand. … There’s no expectation that you’ll be perfect.
What’s the vision for Bell’s given its history as a fiercely independent brewery?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d like to think in 40 years that it remains that way. We’ve worked very hard to have Bell’s be family-owned with my dad and my brother David involved. We want it to reflect our values and personalities without having to (pay attention to investors). We have to make business decisions, but we get to think about best possible outcomes and how we want to take care of our people. It’s part of the DNA that Larry (instilled in the company).
What’s your take on how the craft beer industry is changing?
For a long time, being a craft brewery has been about being independently-owned, making quality beer that’s not the norm or that challenged the status quo. As we move into our current market, things are a little bit different. Craft is different than its original intention because it’s seemingly no longer about ownership or size — or quality, even. We’ve got all kinds of different businesses that are falling under this one word. It’s definitely bringing up a lot of conversations about who we are, what is craft beer, what is independent beer. … There’s not a great answer to it.
Shifting gears, how do you assess Bell’s portfolio of brands?
We’ve always been pretty winter seasonal focused. We love to make stouts. We put out a lot of stouts, and that’s really fun.
I’m sure many people would flip if Black Note Stout became part of the year-round lineup.
(Laughs.) We don’t talk about Black Note.
Fair enough. So do you expect to change things up anytime soon?
You have to assess what each brand is doing for you. A lot of them we’ve been making for 30 years, and there’s an emotional attachment to them. It’s hard to sit down and think what to do with this brand and that brand. … Our expectation is not every seasonal or specialty brand is going to be an Oberon.
Craft beer has a bit of a reputation as an old boys club. How can it become more inclusive?
I think one of the biggest things is just to talk about it, to understand that not everyone experiences the beer industry or beer in the same way. While making valiant attempts and efforts to be inclusive and not just a boys club anymore, we still have a long ways to go with regards to how we talk about diversity in the beer industry, how we talk about how we treat people in the beer industry. A lot of times it’s, ‘Well, it’s beer, it’s fun, it’s OK — don’t take it too seriously.’
Isn’t that exacerbating the problem?
I think that really creates an environment that is not inclusive. We need to be able to say that because it’s beer, it should be the most inclusive. It’s a social beverage. We should be able to respect that women want to be a part of that like men want to be a part of it. We should be open to all opportunities to bring all people into beer, instead of suggesting that a sexist or potentially racist package or name is OK because it’s beer and we shouldn’t take it so seriously.
What’s your go-to Bell’s beer?
For me, it’s Oarsman.
You said your mission is that Bell’s will remain independent. Say Anheuser Busch/InBev comes knocking: As a business owner and executive, what’s your number to sell out?
There is no number. There’s not even a conversation.