I haven’t read any other beer blogs last night or today, so I’m not up on the buzz that Anat Baron’s Beer Wars movie may or may not have generated. I was too busy enjoying good beer after viewing the film to write, and too busy getting up this morning and coming in to work to get something out right away. Regardless, I’m going to say a few things about it without having looked elsewhere. If you were part of last night’s event, then you should be able to follow my train of thought. If not, sorry you had to stumble upon this.
First, let’s get one thing straight: America was not a better beer paradise prior to the invention of electricity, Prohibition, World War II, the 50s, or any other era; at least not in the sense that we think of it today. So for the creator of this film to bemoan the closing of regional breweries that were brewing all sorts of interesting beers that the public couldn’t get enough of is a silly deceit. Pale lagers were what Hamm’s, National Bohemian, Old Style, and all these other breweries were making because it was what sold. Sure, there were variances, but do you really think Americans in 1947 were walking around with their pinkies extended, sipping Framboise and Double IPA?
When German immigrants came to the United States, the shiny, pale lagers they brought with them became wildly popular, just as they were in continental Europe when they were first introduced and poured into actual glassware so the consumer could see how shiny these beers were. To harbor the sentiment that Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller were the only producers of bland, pale lager would be foolish. They just happened to come out on top of the beer industry due to their business savvy and aggressive marketing of the same pale lager that everyone else was peddling.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not in favor of a homogenous beer market. I just prefer clear lenses to the rose-colored ones.
I’ll begin my second point with a disclaimer. My ticket to Beer Wars was provided free of charge by New Century Brewing Company, the business behind MoonShot and Edison Light beers, featured in the film. New Century and its products are the brainchild of Samuel Adams co-founder Rhonda Kallman. MoonShot claims to be the first beer with caffeine, which the film purports prompted Anheuser-Busch to develop its own caffeinated beer, B-to-the-E, in order to crush it and control the niche market. While that’s more than likely the case, the film also offers insight into Kallman’s everyday struggles with a job that never allows a moment’s rest and puts pressure on her family as she hits the streets and takes on the Big Boys with her brand of beer. Believe me, I have sympathy for working families and people trying to make ends meet, and have witnessed this type of stress first-hand.
But should my heartstrings be tugged by the co-founder of a successful beer brand that made a personal choice to move on to another venture and is not having success with a product that has limited appeal? What about those former Rolling Rock brewery workers and their families in Pennsylvania? We got a sound-bite from one or two, but didn’t really see the economic impact on their lives. And are they not in just as dire straits as the brewery workers at Anheuser-Busch who lost their jobs as a result of the InBev buyout? And why are we calling Budweiser bad beer, but reserving our judgment on Rolling Rock? Refer to argument #1.
The above illustrates the nature of capitalism. And I’m not saying that in an “I-told-you-so” tone in order to choke you with the “invisible hand” of the market. (Maureen Ogle made the point about the dog-eat-dog nature of the beer industry quite succinctly on the panel, might I add.) I’m sure New Century Brewing Company would love to take a huge chunk out of the national beer sales pie, and given the opportunity would become just as large as A-BInBev or MillerCoors. But for many other brewers/brewing companies out there, I have a feeling they’re not so concerned with market domination as they are with making good beer.
The bright spot there is that I felt the movie really portrayed the conviction of Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione and Stone’s Greg Koch. Those guys were selected, no doubt, due to their colorful characters and business philosophies. In the live discussion following the movie, Greg responded to a question from Ben Stein about whether or not he would like to see Stone become as successful as Anheuser-Busch, and he gave a tactful reply. The focus, he said, was on the intent of the brewery and its internal philosophy. If the intent was to make good beer and growth occurred, great. If not, they’ll still keep plugging away and doing what they do best.
Third, I have a hard time with the fact that Beer Wars was made by someone that developed the Mike’s Hard Lemonade brand and is allergic to alcohol. Baron stated that her motivation for growing Mike’s Hard Lemonade was to take on big corporations in the beer world after her own experience with “corporate life”, but is that ambition enough to make good beer and a good film about beer? All beers are malt beverages, but not all malt beverages are beer. Furthermore, my personal opinion is that she felt enough of a connection to Rhonda Kallman to feature her in the film because of a similar career path: successful brand/job gets old, time to move on to something else (an alcoholic beverage with a twist), aim slingshot at Goliath. Good story arc, but what if David is trying to sell me snake oil?
Fourth, the hackneyed Michael Moore tactics employed by the film’s creator were almost unbearable. While one may disagree with Mr. Moore’s methods, more often than not he is attempting to draw the attention of the audience and the subject in his crosshairs to a certain, often times uncomfortable, political point. Intermittently, Baron only draws the audience in to the awkward application of these tactics on a rather vague point, such as when she catches August Busch IV in a hotel on his way to some conference. This “gotcha” scene lacks any punch, as Mr. Busch stops to engage her as she explains she’s making a movie about the beer industry and he asks her for a business card. He’s polite and he’s got somewhere to be; what’s so evil about that? How can the audience take this kind of indictment seriously when the filmmaker is still able to sit down and have recorded conversations with executive representatives of these larger breweries? At least the corporate big-wigs always turn Michael Moore away at the door.
I also see the irony in the fact that Baron goes on a “search” for the Green Valley Brewing Company in Fairfield, California (an “organic” spin-off of Anheuser-Busch that includes the Wild Hop Lager brand) and belabors the point, finding only the A-B plant there, yet prominently features MoonShot, which is essentially a beer marketing firm without a brewery. Where is this mysterious New Century Brewing Company? Why don’t you ask people on the streets of Massachusetts where the New Century brewery is located? Oh, because it’s Rhonda Kallman’s house. But we didn’t get to see that side of the coin. Not to say all contract brewers are disingenuous, but if we’re shedding some sunlight on the room, let’s open the curtains all the way.
Lastly, I will say that Baron did a good job of featuring a couple of small, “craft” breweries in Dogfish Head and Stone, with a brief nod to New Belgium and others. But why didn’t we get more of say, Jim Koch with Sam Adams and the Boston Beer Company, or include Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada? What about New Belgium’s market share out West, or Yuengling’s here in the East, and how they see themselves in ten years? Why don’t we hear more about these breweries’ humble beginnings and how they’ve grown so much they challenge the very definition of “craft”? These are the questions I would have liked to see explored.
Instead, I saw a scattershot approach of documenting a complex industry portrayed in black-and-white terms. If the point of the film was to spur discussion, then the objective has been achieved. If the point was to rally the troops for the beer wars, it may find its enlistment numbers dwindling.