Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Beer Wars" Swings Hard, Doesn't Always Connect

Within the relatively insular community of craft-beer lovers (at least, Internet-enabled ones), there has been a modest amount of buzz and excitement, for nearly a year now, about the beer-industry documentary "Beer Wars." The film, conceived and executed by Anat Baron, hoped to do for (or, perhaps, "to") beer what "Food Inc." did for big agribusiness and the American food industry – that is, pull back the curtain on corporate abuses and legal injustices, and draw a stark line between the little guys just trying to make it – trying to get by on wholesomeness – and the evil behemoths bent on squashing competition while not giving a damn about the category itself where they make their billions. (Right: "Beer Wars" poster via

Now that "Beer Wars" has recently attained more widespread availability, primarily through Netflix, more beer lovers who missed last year's special theater screenings have had the opportunity to view and evaluate Baron's efforts. Today I count myself among that group.

As polite people do, let's start with the positives. The film is mostly well-produced, with crisp graphics and animations and a snappy original soundtrack. Baron manages to recruit some high-profile names on both side of the good/bad divide, including executives at Anheuser-Busch (back then pre-InBev), Miller and Coors. And, no doubt of greater interest to the film's target audience (whether by design or by default, anyway): Stone's Greg Koch; homebrewing icon Charlie Papazian; Brooklyn's Garrett Oliver; Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione in a prominent role; and others.

The narrative Baron is trying to weave is clear, and she provides ample evidence to bolster it: The major industry players produce bland, largely indistinguishable commodity products, spend astronomical sums on marketing support to create the illusion of differentiation, out-muscle competitors both large and small, and wield frightening influence over lawmakers for their own – and not necessarily the consumer's – benefit.

Baron rightly shines a light on the outmoded three-tier system, which preserves above all the interests of the monied, powerful beer wholesalers while artificially restricting the public's access to beers they may want to drink, and likewise brewers' access to the market. Though Baron does not explicitly highlight the juxtaposition, the contrast between this system of market-restricting, power-maintaining government interventionism and the brewers' stated (through archival footage, et cetera) devotion to old-fashioned American self-advancement and capitalist ingenuity is quite clear.

The many interviews with craft-beer industry luminaries and aficionados bring into sharp focus the regard this segment of the industry has for the big companies – their products, their practices, their philosophy. And it's an unapologetically antagonistic posture. Which is fine and warranted – Bud, Miller, Coors et al. deserve to be called out for their lowest-common-denominator approach to product development, their crotch-shot-ads-as-core-brand-values approach to marketing, their heavy-handed approach to distribution – but at some point it does feel like piling on. The points are made, and made again. And again. By seemingly every "good guy" speaker who appears onscreen.

What Baron and her sympathizers leave largely untouched is the fact that, like it or not, millions of people do purchase and enjoy American light lager brands, out of their own free will. While conditions and behaviors may conspire to nudge a brewer higher and higher up the market-share chart, there are still innumerable other economic actors helping that corporation along, and it is their prerogative to do so. If it were more economically feasible for AB-IB to brew and market nothing but Dogfish-style crafts, they would undoubtedly do so.

Some of Baron's choices puzzle as well. There are essentially two main characters in the film: Dogfish Head's Calagione and Rhonda Kallman, a former Boston Beer Co. executive. In 2001, Kallman launched the beer-marketing company New Century Brewing Co., initially to produce (or rather, have contract-brewed for them) a new brand of light lager called Edison and, in 2004, a caffeinated lager called Moonshot 69.

Baron returns considerably often to Kallman's story, which mainly consists of her having trouble finding accounts to carry Moonshot (the film makes no mention of New Century's other product) and investors to fund her effort. By juxtaposing Kallman's woes with the unfolding tale of the abuses committed by Big Beer, the implied message here is that Moonshot's troubles are somehow related if not directly caused by the inherent inequities of the industry. But that's a tough case to make, especially considering the evidence. Aside from an anecdote about Moonshot being muscled out of accounts by dubious, possibly illegal means (a legitimate beef), the viewer is left to conclude that Kallman's problems stem mostly from a lack of interest in her product. Baron tries to play up the sympathy card by showing footage of Kallman's husband fretting over family finances and young children crying when mom has to go back out to pound the pavement, but this does not make skeptical would-be investors seem cruel or heartless, nor does it do the same for Anheuser-Busch, of all companies, who rejects Kallman's bid for a partnership.

(I could go on and on about the curiousness of giving so much screen time to a business whose model couldn't be any more different from the quality-first, craft-centric approach embraced by protagonists like Dogfish Head. Baron never bothers to tell us Kallman had been trying, and evidently failing for the most part, to get her business off the ground for about 7 years when "Beer Wars" was made; that New Century thought it'd try its hand in those ghastly light lagers first; that one trip to the Moonshot Web site reveals Kallman's product is clearly marketed to the Red-Bull-and-vodka party crowd, not to quality-conscious, independent-minded craft lovers. That may be slightly beside the point, but it juxtaposes rather oddly with the outright sneering the film otherwise projects toward light-flavored, mass-market, Average Joe beers and everything they stand for.)

In the face of weightier issues, it may seem petty to now raise minor deficiencies of the film, but here goes. Perfectly nice though she appears to be, Baron is not particularly charming as an onscreen host, nor is she a great narrator. And her upfront self-proclaimed credentials as a "beer" industry veteran, who ostensibly can empathize with independents the likes of Stone, rings a little strange when we learn she helmed malternative producer Mike's Hard Lemonade Co. Not exactly in the thick of the craft-beer movement.

I came away from "Beer Wars" quite impacted by what seemed to be a constant undertone of (not jealousy but) complaint directly at the mere success of major brewers like Anheuser-Busch. The film breathlessly tallies up the Big Three's annual advertising budgets (even though the sneakily self-aggrandizing Jim Koch would himself undoubtedly run more TV ads if he could only afford it), talks in dismissive awe of their production output, marvels and sniffs at their sheer size and accomplishments. Shadiness and unscrupulousness aside (and as noted, there is some of that), most of what the likes of Anheuser-Busch accomplished they did so through the machinations, such as they have been since the repeal of Prohibition, of the free-market system – the same system that has enabled Jim Koch's Boston Beer Co. to attain the size it has, or Kim Jordan's New Belgium, or Dick Yeungling's family-owned brewery, or Calagione's Dogfish Head, or any of the other growing companies that make beer people are willing to spend their money on.

Is absolutely everything hunky-dory in the beer industry? No, of course not. But there are times when "Beer Wars" seems to shift its focus away from the real issues in favor of a broad and gleeful beat-down of the corporate giants and a reactionary pushing of the David-vs.-Goliath narrative, even where it might not apply.

"Beer Wars" is an ambitious film that attempts to say and do a lot. It succeeds in many ways. It comes up short in others, and for all the answers it provides it leaves behind more than a few questions. Personally, I'd like to see a more in-depth, multi-part look at the beer industry. Ken Burns-style, perhaps. There is obviously more than 90 minutes worth of material here. That was a clear constraint Baron had to work under, but I can't help but think she squandered more than a few of those precious minutes.


Scott-TheBrewClub said...

I just saw this movie myself via Netflix, and I have to say your review is spot-on.

I didn't do the back-end research into the characters like you did, but yeah, you can see what conclusions they are trying to draw for you.

It makes for a good story, and there has to be an antagonist in every good story.

Anyway, excellent review!

Brad said...

Thanks, Scott.

I know Baron has bristled at all the attention beer fans and reviewers have given her treatment of Kallman and Moonshot, and her retroactive explanation (or, if we're being cynical, her revisionist explanation) of Kallman's role and purpose in the film does have some merit to it. (Specifically, that Kallman's example possibly was included to highlight the shortcomings of her business model rather than merely lament her misfortune.) But all we can evaluate is what's up there on the screen, not whatever Baron may or may not have had in mind that doesn't come across in the final presentation.

Then there has also been the suggestion that so important is this fight and the larger issues the film speaks to, that beer fans who "nitpick" over trivial details are doing the entire community a disservice and ought to just embrace the film absolutely and support it in every way possible. Here again, I understand the sentiment, and can empathize, but if you are going to produce an artistic work, and make decisions about its content, then it is perfectly fair for your audience to evaluate that work critically.

Thanks for stopping by, Scott.

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