Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Last year I very gladly sat on the sidelines when the documentary “BEER WARS” was released in a somewhat bold one-day-only-in-theaters marketing ploy. It got the beer blogosphere, such that it is, yakkin’ and shuckin’ and jivin’ all of out proportion with the film’s actual importance because finally someone, someone was paying attention to their beloved naval-gazing hobby. I figured I already had a pretty good sense of who the “bad guys” were; in fact, I don’t think the corporations behind boring tasteless lagers are bad guys at all. I’m completely uninterested in their product, and to that end, I’m about as interested in their machinations as I am those of the Snapple Corporation or the people who make Fiji Water. Which is to say – not very.

Yet I had hours to kill on a long flight to Europe, and I wanted to load up my laptop with some documentaries. “BEER WARS” was on iTunes for a can’t-be-beat rental price of $1.99, so I figured hey, I’m “reporting this beat”, I might as well see what the hubbub was all about. And there was indeed a hubbub – I remember paragraphs of dissent being spilled from the bellies of boors, young men dismayed with filmmaker Anat Baron’s lack of focus on their craft beer heroes (what about Stone?? Where was Vinnie??!?), or on her personal involvement in managing something called “Mike’s Hard Lemonade”, which she passed off as being relevant beer industry experience. The film was nitpicked to death in blog posts that I skimmed, not altogether unfairly in some cases. While well-edited and entertaining, how you approach “BEER WARS” should probably depends less on what sort of beer you like to drink and more on how you view the parasitic relationship between big business and big government. Perhaps I’m showing my hand by the use of word “parasitic”, no?

See, Anheuser Busch, InBev, MillerCoors and the others are doing what you’d do if you had archaic laws and government toadies protecting you. They’re not evil, per se – the lack of government-ensured healthy competition is evil, and even that is overplayed as craft beer continues to make incredible inroads into the big brewers’ market share the last few years, despite obstacles. Taste, quality, freshness, and experimental ingredients are starting to win over American palates, and even the post-prohibition three-tier distribution system that Baron and others rightly decry is not keeping great beer from changing minds, one person at a time. It’s why there are winners like Sam Calagione from DOGFISH HEAD, who makes wonderful beer and is thriving because of it, and losers like the film’s other “little guy/gal” foil, Rhonda Kallman. Kallman made a caffeinated beer called MOONSHOT that no one was buying, and no matter how hard Baron tried to tug on my heartstrings for this poor ‘lil upstart businesswoman, fightin’ against the big bad corporations with her pluck and heart of gold, I wasn’t moved, and was annoyed by the film’s insistence that I should be.

Baron’s film’s flaw is that she tries to “Roger and Me” the CEOs of the big beermakers, but only in the name of telling a stupid-simple story of Big Beer Bad/Little Beer Good. No, “big beer” doesn’t have to be bad (nor "little beer" good), and the palate-changing revolution is being led from below, which is a story she only partly tells while trying to bash corporations, what with their “greed and thirst for power”. No, like Google and Apple and Southwest Airlines, they’ve got a bottom line to focus on, which means giving the people what they want or think they want. To the extent that craft brewers can re-shape that perception – and they obviously are – it’s a wonderful thing for us lovers of quality. Salvation in the form of a completely disrupted business model is coming at the big brewers directly from the people like a slow-moving sledgehammer, just as it came at the music industry, the travel industry and the newspaper industry. That’s the David vs. Goliath story that I think “BEER WARS” initially wanted to tell, but it got derailed enough on cheap sentimentality and ham-handed populism to end up being something I’d not recommend you spend the 90 required minutes watching.


Derrick Peterman said...

That's about right. It seemed to me Rhonda was selling her soul to be one of the big boys, making her an unlikely hero to root for in this movie, that I found interesting to watch at times, but hit a lot of wrong notes.

Aaron said...

Best review I've ever read of the movie. Couldn't agree more. And it's likewise always perturbed me that some people consider Bud, et al "evil." They aren't evil, they just make shitty product.

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sean said...

Maybe I should see the flick before I comment, but Bud does considerably more than just make a shitty product. 'Evil' is too strong a word, but they are certainly predatory, and use their market share, financial resources, and lobbying power to put the squeeze on the little guys. Case in point: A-B filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against the Boston Beer Company for false advertising. The gist of the complaint was that most Sam Adams beer was not actually brewed in Boston, and yet they held themselves out as "The Boston Beer Company." A-B had no chance of winning the suit. They just wanted Boston Beer to spend time and money defending itself, which was money that could not be spent on production, marketing, et al. A-B just wanted to grind them down, which they did.

Going back further, A-B did everything they could to crush the regional breweries that tried to revive themselves after prohibition, and were largely successful.

If their only sin was making a shitty product, I would just ignore them. They do a bit more than that, and while they are not evil, they are bastards.