Friday, February 5, 2010

Beer Wars Movie Review (rant?)

Beer Wars PosterAfter my rant last spring about the yet to be released movie Beer Wars, I've been interested in actually seeing it. At that time it was released as a one night only "event" that I didn't have a chance to attend. Luckily I finally got the chance when it became available on NetFlix a few days ago, so I took the hour and a half to watch it and write up my impression.

Beer Wars is a movie that wanders, not knowing exactly what it wants to be or who it wants to cater to. Anat Baron (writer/director) does her best job playing Michael Moore in several silly bits (including a blind taste tests to show that the average beer drinker can't tell the difference between the light macros) and a failed attempt to get an interview with August Busch IV. Despite these forced antics for the most part the movie feels like a boring lecture about the tree tier system, store shelf space allocation, and the influence of beer industry lobby. Sadly the movie isn't about beer (the beverage) so much as it is about beer (the business), but then what can you expect from a movie directed by someone who is allergic to alcohol and considers Mike's Hard Lemonade to be a beer.

Other than the macros, the movie focuses on two beer brands, Dogfish Head and Moonshot. Rhonda Kallman (the founder of Moonshot) was helping to launch Sam Adams long before Sam Calagione (founder of Dogfish Head) brewed his first batch of homebrew, yet it is his brewery that is growing at 40% a year and hers that is struggling to get off the ground. The movie suggests many possible reasons for this paradox (Bud's release of B-to-the-E,a caffeinated “competitor” to Moonshot, poor shelf position, the three tier system etc...) but fails to state the most salient reason, that a caffeinated pale lager just does not appeal to the craft beer crowd. In fact the movie is so obsessed with the gimmick and marketing of beer that there is very little discussion of beer and brewing.

There are some nice cameos from the likes of Michael Jackson, Garret Oliver, and Charlie Papazian, but none of them stick around for more than a couple quick quotes. I enjoyed the segments on Yuengling as well, but the movie gives them too much credit for their brewing tradition when their "Traditional Lager" (which accounts for most of their sales) was introduced in 1987 (years after beers like Sam Adams Boston Lager, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale).

The fact that the first "artisanal" beer mentioned at the start of the movie is Blue Moon caused me to worry. Later on they do explore the faux-craft macro beer trend, but they never mention that Blue Moon is the most successful of the category; instead Anheuser Busch's Green Valley Brewing gets the focus, but the movie fails to even explore the issues surrounding the use of non-organic hops in "organic" beers.

It seemed that rather than a story about beer, the filmmaker was trying to make something more in the vein of the Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan's celebrated explorations of America's food system). As someone who loves craft beer already I wanted to see more of the small craft brewers, rather than a (frankly) boring discussion about lobbying, shelf space, three tier system, and corporate takeovers. Those same topics take on a much more important (sinister) roll when you talk about food because there really is a health difference between drinking orange juice and orange soda, while beers on the other hand (whether craft, macro, or import) are relatively equivalent in terms of nutrition. The beer industry also does not pose the same public health risk due to pathogenic bacteria because it cannot survive in beer.

I would have liked to see a more focus on the good points of the craft breweries rather than just the negatives of the brewing industrial complex. For example they could have talked about the infighting in the macro business, compared to the collaboration beer trend in craft brewing; the manipulative use of the three tier system by the macros, compared to a brewery like Stone that acts as a distributor for other great craft beers like Russian River etc... By showing the differences in the market you can begin to get a better picture that the difference between the small and large breweries is more than just the quality of the beer.

In the end I just wanted Anat to say that Rhonda can't blame Bud for all her woes (even as she tries to get them to partner with her). Despite having a talented/charismatic owner and some great beers Dogfish Head has taken more than a decade to slowly grow into a really successful brewery despite a frivolous lawsuit from AB over a couple of their beer names. The idea of a caffeinated pale lager won't be supported by the craft beer movement because it is comprised of people who either are interested in the flavor of the beer or like the natural/local nature of it.

The final image of Anat turning her nose up at a big glass of (macro?) beer was indicative of someone who has no particular interest in beer other than the story of the "beer wars." What is interesting about craft beer to me is the flavor of the beers and the passion of the brewers, not the politics (as important as they may or may not be).


Dan said...

Huh, no comments yet? Sounds like a fair writeup Mike. I still haven't seen it yet, but looks like I don't even need to bother. The interview of Anat on the Sunday Session was enough info for me on the movie.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I apparently the movie isn't the hot topic it was 8 months ago...

Jez said...

Honestly, I saw the movie in the theatre and could respect the point it makes, in that people should really look at where their money goes when they buy macro beer. And where that goes is back into all the billions of dollars spent to advertise beer that no one can tell the difference between.

I didn't think this movie was for me, someone who already understands that buying beer from BMC is not helping to support craft brewers. After I saw this movie, I no longer drink beer made by BMC. There have been times I just go without.

I was not aware that Budweiser accounted for close to half the beer sold in this country. I think that might shock some people.

So I think you have to consider that part of the film. As a homebrewer who likes craft beer, no, it wasn't focused on craft brewing, which, it might surprise you, would tend to bore your average movie-goer. The economics and politics creates drama, which some movie-goers actually enjoy.

Seanywonton said...

It just wasn't that great of an in-depth documentary for any of the quite interesting issues it brings up like lobbying, the 3 tier system, or neo-prohibitionism. Sam C is a great spokesperson for craft brewing but let's get some other folks in there to talk! It was a somewhat eye opening film though and it drove home a very important point to think about for me at least, the possibility of starting a business that ends up failing. A good cautionary tale. I honestly felt really bad for the Moonshot lady but she seemed to be in denial that her business idea sucks and holds no interest for people that prefer to support independent breweries.

mike said...

I have to agree with Jez and Mike. I thought the movie was interesting, but I to was looking for more on craft beer and the process than the actual business. However, when looking at the title again what about that title makes me think I'm going to see more about craft brews?

I think it was the hype and the press releases that really mislead the people going to see it. It is a movie for people who don't drink craft beer, but it was marketed towards craft beer drinkers and homebrewers. Seems kind of stupid to tell people the same thing over again.

As far as Rhonda. Yea, I'd never drink the stuff. However, I have to give props to someone for trying something new. She is putting it all out there for an idea she thinks is right. She will fail though because craft beer drinkers don't want it, and people who would drink it are so brain washed by A/B and Miller that they would rather have something with "Bud" on it than a blue rocket ship up their ass.

Anyway, good review.

If you'd like to read mine here is the link.

Review of Beer Wars

Mike's Brew Review

Andy said...

Sounds like you watched the movie hoping it would be something it is not. The title is Beer Wars, not "Craft Beer in America." I have found that beer drinkers from CA, the pacific northwest, and other "Beervanas" don't really care for the film. However, people like myself who live in Florida and other highly regulated distribution areas enjoyed the film and appreciate the awareness created about the injustice the monopoly AB has created.

It is also a shot in the heart to any of us who aspire to start our own breweries. It definitely paints a bleak reality of the obstacles inherent in getting the product to the consumer. Self distribution for small breweries is something that will be key in the future if the Craft Beer industry is to grow any further in states like Florida.