For Whom Bell’s Tolls
The sale of Michigan's great brewery to a foreign conglomerate is a reminder of the triumph of large things over small.
To make things clear: I would not write this essay if I did not feel myself “conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time,” as Kingsley Amis once put it in a slightly different context. More specifically, I write as an enthusiastic drinker of beer, in Michigan, the greatest state in the union for beer and many other things besides.
Late last year, amid astonishingly little fanfare, it was reported that Bell’s Brewery, the pride of the Great Lakes State, whose eponymous founder Larry Bell was brewing the now world-famous Two Hearted Ale in soup kettles during the Reagan administration, was being sold to an Australiasian conglomerate. The ostensible reason for the sale was Bell’s own retirement. One can hardly blame a man his age, who has given so much to a venture so little guaranteed of success, for handing off his business to an entity he thinks most capable of ensuring its future prosperity. But I would be lying if I said that it did not fill me with dread.
I have never made any bones about the fact that I generally prefer so-called “macrobrews,” especially Coors Banquet and Miller (either Lite or High Life), to the veritable army of fruit-based IPAs with cute labels and unpronounceable names that captured the imagination, to say nothing of the market share, of America’s beer drinkers during my undergraduate days. But Bell’s has always seemed different to me somehow. During our family’s long-ish sojourn in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, we noticed only gradually the rise of Bell’s from a proud regional brand to the purveyor of what is now routinely voted the best beer brewed in the United States.
Now I see the familiar label of a bottle of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale and find my heart full of wistfulness. Two years ago, at our neighborhood watering hole, its famous (or infamous) relation, Bell’s Double Two-Hearted Ale was on tap, and in the course of not quite two hours I proceeded to order five 20 oz. “tall” glasses of the same, on the assumption that it was its less potent sister beer. When I finally realized something was amiss, it was too late. I assured my wife that while I was not feeling well, I could make it to the end of the Monday night game.
This is only one of a handful of memories I could share that involve Two-Hearted or the other Bell’s beers. I drank Bell’s in Washington on the day of my marriage and in Michigan to celebrate the nuptials of each of my siblings. I have enjoyed Bell’s on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Candlemas, and Easter, on Halloween and the Fourth of July. I have introduced it to skeptics, including my paternal grandfather, who, in his mid-80s, still manages to put away a six-pack of Two Hearted without betraying anything in excess of the “hilarity” that God intended alcoholic beverages to induce.
Without pandering or compromising or pretending to be woke, Bell’s has established itself as a national and, indeed, international institution. A world in which Two-Hearted or Oberon are simply another set of beer trademarks owned by another multinational corporation is a less merry one. We reactionaries have accustomed ourselves to losses, to the gradual and perhaps inevitable circumscription of our horizons. But I for one would be willing to go to war to keep Bell’s owned by an entity in this great state—indeed, by this state if necessary, just as I would give anything to have Chevy and Dodge trucks manufactured in Michigan once again, or to put the Detroit Lions in the playoffs, where they have not won a single game since my own infancy.
The sale of Bell’s is a reminder of the triumph of large things over small, and of money over humanity, decency, and place.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.