Saturday, April 18, 2009

Beer Wars Movie – I am trying to get upset, but I can’t

David vs. Goliath. That was the billing. Who was the evil villain in this film? Was is Big Beer, as exemplified by Anheuser Busch? Was it the beer distributors themselves, or the whole schizophrenic American 3 tier system?

I got back from watching Beer Wars. I thought it was a great documentary about the craft beer movement in the US and the mammoth commercial giants that pretty much own the US market, and of course, the post prohibition 3 tier alcohol distribution system. I am looking forward to buying the DVD when it comes out. I am not sure if I will watch it beginning to end again, but I might like to go back and revisit some places again. And, I expect I would like to share it with friends.

I am unsure of what to take away from the movie. Am I supposed to be upset with the state a beverage industry, or a supposed oppression of the craft brewers, or a racketeering-like beverage distribution monopoly imposed 60 years ago? But here’s the thing: try as I might, I just can’t get upset about it. Maybe that’s fine. That may be a sign of a good documentary. The producers just presented the facts, and let the audience decide who the good guys and bad guys are, if any.

The owners of the beer distributor, although seeming a bit (How do I say this?) Mafia-esk. Not that they are, or if they are, that there is any problems with that. I mean no disrespect at all. As the panel discussion’s moderator said: “I don’t want to wake up tomorrow morning with a horse head in my bed”. The distributors do provide a service. Without them, many small breweries may get no exposure at all. The movie does show how there seems to be a overwhelming presence, and therefore bias towards the large megabreweries. And it was implied, and somewhat shown, the possible illegal influence that these breweries have on the distributors, to the detriment of the small craft brewers.

I wanted to feel sorry for the little guys, and angry at the big players. I could empathize with the craft brewers. They are working their buts off, against terrible odds, mortgaging their family’s home, college education, and retirement. Struggling against huge odds and putting in long, 20 hr days, 7 days a week, with a high likelihood of failure. But three things keep me from being angry at the suggested injustice.

1. These people are doing what they love, following a dream, much of the time not willing to trade it for anything, willing to risk everything to make it happen and truly passionate about what they are doing and have accomplished despite the odds. In many ways, I found myself envious of what they are doing and their bravery.

2. The large brewery conglomerates were once just like these craft guys. Small, mom and pop breweries. Many of them were penniless immigrants, looking to fulfill their dream, maybe even the overused term: “The American Dream”. They risked their families’ money to pursue this. And you can’t argue that they are not giving the American public what they want, even if they spend millions convincing the public of that. They suffered through prohibition and those that emerged were the ones that did it best.

3. And finally, when they asked the craft brewers on the panel, what type of growth have they seen over the last couple years in their own business. Both responded that they have seen a phenomenal growth. Stone Brewery mentioned that he as seen a 45% growth year over year. And Dogfish Head seemed like they couldn’t get the newer, larger tanks in fast enough, as they were lowering them in via crane from the roof of they huge new facility.

So, no, I did not come out of the movie with my dislike for the big breweries, or the distributors that I thought I would. What was confirmed was that I truly love craft brews, their community, their culture and even the industry. Would I consider taking the leap and doing it myself? Sometimes I think I would. , Most of the time I am perfectly content letting them do the work as I reap the benefit of their labor and enjoy my little brewery/winery/garage.

Thanks to the producer / director / writer/ financier powerhouse independent filmmaker of Beer Wars: Anat Baron. You did make a very informative, entertaining, enjoyable and thought provoking documentary. I hope that it was an overall positive experience for you. I know it was a labor of love and I look forward to seeing other projects from you in the future.

This blog post was not intended to be a review of the movie, just my observations and reactions to it. But I would like to briefly mention things I liked and did not like about it.

I liked seeing the lives and families of the craft brewers. Hearing in their own words and styles what brought them here and their expectations and experiences.

I liked being exposed to the dynamics of the industry, seeing first hand the long hours, back breaking labor and disappointments.

I like seeing the different aspects of the industry, including the craft brewers and brand marketers like the sole force behind Moonshot, Rhonda Kallman. I hope she does well, but I am afraid I would never buy a beer that has caffeine as an additive. I don’t believe in adding something to a beer just to make it appeal to a market but doesn’t actually improve it at all.

I liked seeing the representation of women in the industry. I would be interested if this accurately represents the percentage of women to men brewers. It may only be me, but women and beer just go together. Or at least they are two of my favorite things.

I loved seeing Charlie Papazian. I forget how much I enjoy him. He is such a great, smart, knowledgeable and energetic spokesperson for the craft and home brew community. I wish that he would have been given more time during the panel discussion. His comments were always the most informative, fact based and interesting to me.

I wish the movie would have talked more about the 3 tier system of distribution. It was touch on but I could have used more background, history, insight. You see, I am sure that I really should be angry at them. Help me there, please.

I would have like to see more about the histories of the big brewers, not just their activities once they were powerhouses. Some perspectives about when they were small craft brewers and maybe see some of their passions.

I thought that the pre-recorded comments from Todd Alsrom was distasteful. Having him talking about his distain of Moonshot beer, saying that it was a misspelling calling it Craft, and instead should replace the “FT” in Craft with a “P”. While that was entertaining, and a perfectly sound opinion, I though it was rude, contrived and a bit lazy faux conflict to show that during the panel discussion. Mainly, because Todd was part of the panel as well as the Rhonda Kallman of Moonshot. If he would be willing to say that to her face, during the discussion, great. But in this format, it was obviously there to embarrass one, the other, or both. Todd, if you were happy with the way that was handled, I have lost a little respect for you. And Rhonda, if for no other reason than that cheap shot, I hope you the best finding your niche.

Finally, I really disliked Ben Stein. I am not saying I dislike Ben Stein (“Bueller, Bueller, Bueller”). I generally disagree with his views, but he seemed to keep them in check during his moderation of the panel discussion. Sometimes I could hear his conservative views coloring his remarks or leading questions, but mostly he was straight down the moderation trough. But he obviously did not add any benefit to the movie, and seemed a bit fumbling. It might have been fun to have two moderators, then Ben could have been one, and a more cottage industry sympathetic moderator could have been there for balance.

Overall: Congratulations Anat. Great job, Great movie. Good luck.


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