Beer Me A Documentary

posted on April 20, 2009 in beerventure

Cheers to Anat Baron for her hard work and for bringing an inside look into many aspects of the beer industry to a mass audience.  I am happy I saw Beer Wars and generally liked it.  Generally.

I am tempted to chalk this one up to a classic case of overhyping: the Twitter beer nerds have been talking about the film for months and, in the last couple days especially, my Twitter page has been saturated with buzz for the movie (which I, probably too frequently, added to).  It’s a movie about beer for Chrissakes; we’re practically peeing ourselves.  Which is why, when Baron agonizingly fumbled through her introduction, I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.  This was her baby.  She was nervous.  I felt for her.

When she spent about five minutes of her already too long film talking about her own personal journey in some awkwardly placed cartoon, however, I started to lose patience.  I do not think any autobiographical information was beneficial to this film, especially when your only experience in the beer industry (and I am tempted to put beer in quotes in this context) is in Mike’s Hard Lemonade.  Baron marketed hard towards us homebrew and craftbrew lovers - she should know our feelings about those types of products.  Better to focus on the already too big story you’re trying to tell than to try and make us care about your relevance to it- especially if your relevance is something that will not give you much credibility to your biggest audience.  If she really wanted us to know her story, the more appropriate place would have been in the post-show panel (unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately, after her complete FAIL at the intro, she seemed too embarrassed to talk).  Of course, her particular background helps to explain her poor choice of a second lead in the film: the woman behind Moonshot - a gimmicky beer with caffeine.  It became clear that this was not a story about good, honest beer versus mass-marketed watered down alcoholic beverages; this was a story about big versus small, period.  Nevermind the actual product.

Beer with caffeine?!  That's unimpossible!

Beer with caffeine?! That's unpossible!

There is a pretty plain reason why Baron did not focus on the actual product (i.e., the beer itself): Anat Baron, through no fault of her own, does not drink alcohol - she’s allergic.  That makes it difficult for one to differentiate Dogfish Head from Moonshot, and so, Baron essentially put them in the same category - a prospect that probably pisses off not only Calagione but a lot of craft beer lovers as well.  Her only criteria was that these companies were not owned by some massive beer conglomerate (much to the chagrin of Rhonda, who was actually filmed attempting to sell out only to tell Ben Stein in the post panel interview that that was not her plan.  This poor woman.)  In fact, Baron made almost no mention of the actual ingredients in beer, which, to me, is the biggest difference between craftbrews and BMC.  This was another reason why, though appreciative of the movie overall, I felt a bit disappointed.  It was clear to me, and the crowd of beer lovers I was with, that the maker of this film did not share our love of brew.

Perhaps her objectiveness in this sense, however, served to elucidate some sticky points about our beloved craft beer industry.  First, along with Todd Alstrom - co-founder of Beer Advocate and a member of the post-show panel - most of the people in the audience did not hide their disdain for Moonshot, for its gimmickyness and its perversion of “real” beer.  But what makes caffeine such a different adjunct from, say, cloudberries*?  For that matter, why do we so abhor Bud for putting rice in their recipe?  I would be willing to bet my next pint that Sam Calagione could put rice in his next beer, call it exotic or “off-centered”, and most beer nerds would drool.  In fact, I’m so certain that I just performed a google search for “Dogfish head beer” and “rice” which quickly led to this discovery: Jiahu - a Dogfish Head beer with (*gasp*) rice as a primary ingredient.  And I thought rice in beer was “poison” - or at least that’s a quote from a DFH employee according to this blogpost .

Beer to Rice:  No, thanks.  Unless of course I include you because of a collaboration with a molecular archaelogist to revive a 9000 year old recipe.  Then, yes, by all means, join me.

Beer to Rice: No, thanks. Unless of course I include you because of a collaboration with a molecular archaelogist to revive a 9000 year old recipe. Then, yes, by all means, join me.

Before long, if you’re like me, you realize why Calagione’s use of rice is, perhaps, quite different from Bud’s.  There’s thought behind it.  No, not just thought, a full on collaboration with a molecular archaeologist.  The beer was designed (similar to their other ancient beer clones, Midas Touch and Theobroma) to mimic what is probably the earliest known beer recipe.  No two ways about it, that shit is just cool.  It’s also unique, educational and intellectual.  Contrast this with Bud’s use of rice which probably is meant to serve two purposes: to lighten the flavor and reduce the cost.  Still, the BMC lager is a type of style in its own right, even if most craft-brew drinkers think it is wussy watered-down crap.  The fact is, most brewers aren’t immune to adjuncts or gimmicks, so beer geeks should settle down on this point (even if the only adjuncty beer you drink is a Hefeweizen - wheat’s still an adjunct).

Craftbrew’s disdain for adjuncts isn’t the only area that Beer Wars exposed some potential paradoxes for the growing industry.  Indeed, it is the growth of many small brewers wherein the paradox lies; at what point does a microbrewery become one of the bad guys?  Sure, DFH only claims something like .001% of the beer market but it’s growing at a monstrous rate and its beers are popping up in more and more generic locations.  I think Calagione had the best response to Ben Stein’s inquiry along these lines, though: “we are brewers first and businessmen second”.  I have faith in that, though perhaps somewhat blindly.  I think the BMC people lost sight of that a long time ago.  Calagione’s passion, like Jim Koch’s of Sam Adams is simply self-evident - the guys are mad about beer.

Along these lines, one of the highlights of the film for me was when Baron exposed Budweiser’s masquerading as the “Green Valley Brewing Company” in order to sell their organic Wild Hop brew.

Please, do not refer to me as "The King of Organic Beers"; I want no association with that corporate empire.

Please, do not refer to me as "The King of Organic Beers"; I want no association with that corporate empire.

This deviousness, to me, underlines the fact that BMC is about market share first, product second.  The craft brew industry has been slowly sneaking bites of BMC’s gluttonous piece of the pie and the Big Three are using any tricks up their sleeve to get that share back.  See my “Elephant in Mouse Clothing” post for more discussion on this topic.  Honestly, I hoped Baron would include a little more content along these lines, though I also appreciated her focus on the three-tier system (which I hope to write more about another time).

All in all, I found Beer Wars to be a pretty important film for the beer industry despite my criticism and certainly appreciate Baron’s work to make this event happen.  I know how hard it is to make a film having seen my talented brother at work (and getting too little recognition).  She opened the dialogue for more people and I’m excited to continue the discussion where she left off - next stop: a blind taste test between BMC’s craft-styled beers and the real thing.  Sorry John, I know this is putting you in a position a little like when I play basketball against guys - if they win, they’re supposed to but if they lose, man do they get it.  Should be fun though :)

*At one point in the film, a DFH assistant brewer introduces Calagione to cloudberries and sure enough, DFH now has Arctic Cloudberry Imperial Wheat.  Is this not too a gimmick? Digg Facebook Google reddit StumbleUpon


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    Comment by Sarah — October 21, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

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