03 Feb 2010 @ 8:08 AM 

I sat down to watch Beer Wars last night. It’s interesting doing this now, almost a year after it’s been released, seeing the original reviews, the reactions, and seeing what’s happened over the past year. As a note, one of the first columns that I wrote on this blog was about Beer Wars – actually about the hype surrounding it which, at the time, was kind of rubbing me the wrong way. Looking back, I’ll admit that one of the reasons that the hype was bothering me was because I wasn’t able to actually go participate in the one day release. I’m now glad that I didn’t, because I’m sure that had I viewed it then, I would have seen it entirely differently.

Yesterday, due to a new distribution contract with Warner Bros., Beer Wars hit streaming Netflix and I was finally able to get a look at it, albeit a year removed.

Allow me to start here: I enjoyed it.

In fact, I enjoyed it a lot more than I originally thought I was going to. The first 10-or-so minutes of it, in particular, I thought were playful, fun, and educational and really showed the ridiculous scale of the beer industry quite well. Jim Koch’s regular statement of, “Bud spills more beer in a single day than I make in an entire year” (featured in the film) is very apparent here and that message alone is worth watching the movie for. I wish the entire film had carried the tone of the first ten minutes, even so much as to carry the cartoon Anat Baron all the way through.

From a “I’m critiquing this movie” standpoint, I think Beer Wars suffered a little from not really knowing what it was. It wanted to educate, and then it wanted to criticize. At times it was a little unfair in its criticism, sometimes ignoring reality in favor of a flashy point and in general I’m okay with that if that’s your modus operandum – but it clashed with the educational and feel-good parts of the film. I found myself thinking that if Beer Wars had merely presented the facts of the scale of the industry alongside the wonderful story of how craft beer has evolved, without trying to be edgy and in-your-face and make points against BMC (and especially Anheuser-Busch), that it would have carried its point much more effectively. In the end, it felt like an Anheuser-Busch critique vehicle wrapped around a warm and fuzzy story about Sam Calagione with a little bit of feeling embarrassed for Rhonda Kallman on the side.

Like I say – I enjoyed it and I would recommend this movie to others. I wonder at how it would play to people who are not beer geeks. I will probably never know. I’m not sure I know non-beer-geeks that I haven’t at least somewhat indoctrinated, anyway.

I cannot say enough about Sam Calagione in this film. He makes the movie and without him it would not have been nearly as compelling. Nevermind that he’s the GQ posterchild of craft beer, the guy is so damn charismatic and.. and.. likable that it’s impossible not to root for him. When he’s sitting there with his kids climbing all over his shoulders with that goofy grin of his, it puts the, “Yeah, so I had to put my family into a crippling amount of debt to try to chase this dream” into harsh relief and you want nothing more than for him to succeed. He was the perfect centerpiece for this movie.

I wish there was more Dick Yuengling in it. He just makes me smile. Go get ’em Dick!

I cannot, however, figure out the choice of Rhonda Kallman and Moonshot here. It looks, in the movie, like a failing brand from the get-go. The problem is that the film doesn’t convince me that the reason that she’s failing is because she’s getting roughed up by A-B. It sounds like a gimmicky product, she even sells it like a gimmicky product in the parts of the movie where she’s looking for investments ($6 mil! Holy moly. I’ll take the $800,000, please.). I don’t know. Maybe my opinion is colored by the fact that I know that New Century, who makes Moonshot, also makes Edison Light which is my second least favorite beer in the entire world (behind Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat which, I swear, tastes exactly like circus peanuts). Sorry Rhonda, I’m just not a fan. I’d feel more empathy if I thought it was a great beer.

The one moment where I really wanted to back Rhonda up was a scene in a bar, where some jackass patron who is trying the free beer she’s given him asks her, “Does your husband know you’re out here doing this?” right before another one asks, “Will this cure whiskey tits?” I never felt as bad for her as when she laughed along with them like it was all some sort of joke when by all rights those guys needed a good solid cock punch.

“Does your husband know you’re out here doing this?” Really? You sexist assbag!

Anyway – without getting lost in these details, I went into watching this with a couple of questions in my mind:

1) In retrospect, did the movie live up to the enormous amount of hype that was generated?

I think that the enormous amount of hype actually hurt this movie. It had such an onslaught of publicity that I think it needed to be Gone with the Wind to live up to the expectations of critics within the beer industry, much less traditional media. With all of the buzz, it needed to absolutely blow your mind to be treated with anything except let-down afterward. It’s really a shame. There’s a good story here and there are good messages, but because it wasn’t Citizen Kane it didn’t get the attention it deserved after release.

On the other hand, because Ms. Baron was working on getting this out without a distribution deal, because it was being released in the one-time-special-event manner that it was, I’m not sure I can come up with a better way to have marketed it. You had one shot, you had to make sure people were there or it was going to be an enormous financial loss. That’s rough.

With any luck, Warner Bros. will be able to help market it outside of the craft beer community which, frankly, is not the audience that needs to see this movie – it’s preaching to the converted.

2) Why was the BA so eager to support prior to screening it, and what, if anything, did they gain by it?

At the time of the Beer Wars release I kept asking myself: Why are so many prominent members of the BA wrapping themselves up in the promotion of this movie when, by their own admission, they have not screened it?

Watching it, it hit me: If I was filmed for a movie, and I knew that I was going to be on the big screen, I sure as hell would promo the shit out of it, too! In the grand scheme of things, they knew that the movie was going to be complimentary to their cause and their industry because they had spoken about the point of the film with Ms. Baron. At that point pushing this movie was a no-brainer; it was good publicity for yourself, your company, and the industry as a whole, regardless of whether or not the movie was brilliant.

I was surprised to find out that there were only small clips of Charlie Papazian, Greg Koch, Maureen Ogle and the Alström Brothers in this, though, considering how prominently they all featured in the promotion (and live discussion on release night). Good personalities! I’m glad they were used in the live discussion; it led me to believe that I would see more of them in the film than I did. I wish that a recording of the live discussion would have been available via Netflix.

So, what, if anything, did the BA gain? Awareness. But I think that’s it – not that that’s small. However, I feel that Beer Wars drew a harsh picture of the three-tier system and distribution that I’m not sure is necessarily in the best interest of the BA. The three-tier system and wide distribution networks have a lot to do with the fact that I’m currently able to drink Stone Arrogant Bastard and New Belgium Fat Tire here in North Carolina. Both Greg Koch (Stone) and Kim Jordan (New Belgium) were briefly featured in the film and I’m sure that they would both tell you that without distribution agreements that would not be possible.

She took a (warranted) passing shot at the tactics and bullshittery used by some distributors, but rather than doing an expose on slimy (and illegal) business practices, we got a short montage of Ms. Baron hunting for purportedly mythical Neo-Prohibitionists which, I might argue, are actually a real threat to the industry.

Overall, however, I think the BA – and the craft beer industry in general – receives a net gain here, even if just off of the first 10 minutes of the film, and the crazy freakin’ title that shows up on top of the Dogfish Head introduction segment: “Dogfish Head: 0.0002% Market Share.” I may have missed a 0 there. Regardless, it was REALLY effective.

3) What’s the best way to follow this up?

Yes, I’d like to see more. Maybe Beer Skirmishes. I’m just not a huge fan of war.

I think that, in actuality, there were 2 or 3 documentaries all smushed into one here and that either through lack of focus or lack of funding we got this movie. Here’s what I think we potentially have inside Beer Wars:

– The story of the craft beer industry, its inception and growth and a straightforward honest comparison between craft beer and BMC. ie – show off the little guys, and show just how little they are and what a disadvantage they are at without having to trash BMC. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar and all that. I suspect we’ll get a lot of this from the upcoming Beer Pioneers.

– An expose of the tactics of the less scrupulous members of the distribution industry in comparison with the distributors who are now focusing on craft and trying to play by the rules.

– A politico documentary of BMC lobbying vs. Beer Institute lobbying vs. BA lobbying. None of it’s pretty (lobbying just isn’t), but it would be fascinating to see where they differ and where they all overlap (and I’m sure they do).

Any single one of those could be a compelling documentary and some of them, if done correctly, could actually be a driving force for change in the industry. I hope that Ms. Baron will find success through her Warner Bros. distribution contract and will come away with the funding to pursue one of these topics in depth.

In verbose conclusion I say: Go forth and watch this movie. Most especially, make sure that those you know that aren’t huge beer geeks watch this movie and be ready to go to the bar and talk it over with them over a pint of good, locally made, craft beer.

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 11 Sep 2009 @ 8:08 AM 

Some days you just wish you could get somebody’s ear. Like the BA.

MSN published this awesome article the other day: Why Every Cold Beer Costs You More.
Just imagine the cost of THIS pitcher.
Don’t feel obligated to click through. It’s just short of being a Jackie Harvey-esque Hollywood gossip column about the beer business in a “This is what they DON’T want you to know!” (gasp!) kind of way. It’s still informative, though, because it gives us this lovely little piece of information:

The top 13 executives [at A-B] made $73 million in the first half of 2009, or $5.6 million each, on average — up from $38 million a year before.

And mind you, Anheuser-Busch InBev execs received a 79% pay increase in 2008, reminds Paul Hodgson of The Corporate Library, an independent corporate governance research firm. The increases are mainly due to gains from stock options and stock vesting.

Anheuser-Busch InBev top brass aren’t the only beer execs getting in on the act. Molson Coors Brewing chief Peter Swinburn got a 120% pay increase in 2008, to $6 million from $2.7 million the year before, according to company reports. And Boston Beer chief Martin Roper saw his pay go up 28% last year to $2.75 million, according to company filings.

For the love of god, craft brewers: SAY SOMETHING. I’m pretty sure that the majority of craft brewers are just barely making enough to squeak by. The thing that I’ve heard over and over again when I talk to people about wanting to start a brewery is “I hope you like cleaning stuff!” and then “You’re not going to get rich doing this, you know.”

Well, no. I know. But I’m going to be happy, and that’s pretty awesome. I don’t ever expect to make $2.75 million, much less $6 mil!

Come on craft brewers, get out there and work this! You’re the beer for the people! These companies aren’t being run by somebody who just loves beer and wants to make a quality product, they’re being run by some cushy exec in a corner office who just loves profit! (Not to say I don’t love profit.) There’s so much spin to be had!

Go! Strike! Win market share!

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Categories: industry, marketing
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 11 Sep 2009 @ 02 24 PM

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This might be my favorite piece of beer news for the week. According to a rather informative article at Bloomberg, Anheuser-Busch InBev is suing Ontario’s Brick Brewing Company for trademark infringement for the use of limes and the color green on the labels for its new “Red Baron Lime” light lager.

Now, first, let me say that Brick, having been sued for something similar before by Labatt Brewing Co., could have probably seen this coming. On the other hand: You are making a lime light lager that is, presumably, meant to compete directly with Bud Light Lime. How many different ways could you possibly represent it than by using limes and the color green?

Oh sure. “Red Baron” gives you all kinds of cool marketing potential, but they haven’t gone any way other than traditional Canadian labeling on their other beers (Maple leaves? In Canada? Crazy. And Labatt sued? Shocking.), so why start now?

Now, although part of me is kind of indignant about A-B InBev trying to trademark the color green, limes, and (I kid you not) “pictures of young, attractive people wearing bathing suits”, I’ve got to admit that they do really shoot for a pretty similar feel:

Lime = Life?  That's the best you could come up with?

I’m not a trademark lawyer, but I think that A-B has, at the very least, a point. But the way they’re going about it is the part that’s killing it for me. Here’s my favorite quote from the article.

“Bud Light Lime is a high-quality beer, brewed in small batches in England,” Anheuser said in the statement of claim. “Brick’s activities are undermining this reputation.”

If I read this correctly, by Brick using images of green limes and (attractive) bathing-suit-clad youngsters in its marketing materials, they are undermining the reputation that Bud Light Lime has for being 1) high-quality and 2) brewed in small batches in England. I can’t imagine what about this disputes the country that it was brewed in, the size of the batch, or even the quality, unless their intimating that Red Baron Lime sucks more than Bud Light Lime.

Sure, the lawsuit is probably a lot more along the lines of, “They’re trying to gain sales by mimicking our success.” but that’s not what this statement says. And after all, why would they be making a lime light lager if they weren’t trying to mimic the success of Bud Light Lime? Isn’t that what market competition is all about? Maybe if this was called “Bub Light Lime” or something I might be a little more sympathetic to the lawsuit.

I am curious as to how this suit is going to turn out. I really hope that Brick can manage to stand its ground. However, given how similar those two sites look and the fact that Brick has been in court for a similar claim previously, I’m sure that A-B InBev will have a reasonable case. Maybe Brick will have to use red limes or something. Or non-attractive youths in bathing suits. Maybe they will have to include a statement on their label saying that they are not brewed in England. Or: “The lowest quality lime light lager money can buy!” You could list it right next to “ICE COLD!”

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Categories: marketing, new beer, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 02 Sep 2009 @ 08 14 AM

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 04 May 2009 @ 4:13 PM 

If you’ve got your ear anywhere near the ground around beer news, chances are you’ve heard a little about Bell’s Brewery and their fight with local distributors. Their first fallout was in the state of Illinois (a fallout that indirectly managed to get Bell’s distributed here in North Carolina) and now they’re in court in their home state of Michigan.

2006_10_bells

I bring it up because traditional business news and beer geeks sort of approach this from two incredibly disparate angles. Most beer geeks will see that Larry Bell is bringing an Anheuser-Busch InBev distributor to court and say: “YEAH! The MAN is trying to keep the good beer DOWN! GO BELL’S! DOWN WITH THE THREE TIER SYSTEM!” – which isn’t entirely true, but is an admirable sentiment and only really takes in part of the picture. Then the Wall Street Journal publishes a piece titled “Eccentric Brewmaster Takes Distribution Fight to Court” which might not be the kind of view that somebody who’s trying to win a court case wants in the Wall Street Journal. It’s informational, and it’s a good (if short) article.. it’s just.. meh.

(Yeah, yeah. The Cafe. Yeah, Eccentric Day. I know. But saying it yourself in and around your brewery for branding of your cafe and product is a lot different than having the WSJ use it in the title of their article to describe you. Don’t you think?)

To sum up, if you haven’t been keeping up: Larry Bell is taking Classic Wines Ltd. to court for attempting to transfer (sell?) the Bell’s account to M&M Distributors Inc., an Anheuser-Busch InBev distributor. Bell’s contends that M&M “lacks experience selling craft beers and didn’t articulate to Bell’s a ‘coherent’ marketing strategy for its brands.”

So, to me, the suit is really about a brewery’s right to control its distribution. In the state of Michigan. I hope our side wins.

(Aside: This is one of those instances where the whole “State’s Rights” thing is actually somewhat of a pain in the ass. Interstate commerce is pretty damned common these days, you’d think that a Federal boilerplate/guidelines for distribution laws would be a nice thing to have. C’est la vie.)

In case you’re not up on distribution laws, a lot of them are a right bitch. In some states (this is an anecdotal example – take it as such), once you, as a brewery, are contracted with a distributor you are very much stuck with them. They now have all the rights for distributing your product and you have no control whatsoever. They can put your product in a hot warehouse, they can not get you tap handles, they can put it out on warm display or whatever. Your rights are that you can keep making beer and selling it to them when they want more. If they want more. If you pull out because you think they’re doing a crappy job they can charge you an amount that they say your contract is worth. It can be upwards of millions of dollars if they’re really out to screw you.

Basically, you have to trust a distributor to do right by you. Some distribution companies are awesome beyond belief. Some are unscrupulous asshats. Thus is the way of modern corporate America. They’re not always the most awesome people to deal with.

On the other hand, at some point you, as a brewery, need a distributor. Many states won’t let brewers self-distribute, they’re required to use a third-party. But even if you can self-distribute how much of your time and income is going to get tied up in buying trucks, hiring drivers, and spending time in establishments trying to wheedle a tap handle off of some guy who doesn’t care if you make good beer can you give him an extra keg under the table, because that’s what the A-B guy does? You just can’t do it. Sure, if you’re in a state where you can do so, you can start your own distribution outlet, but it really is a whole separate business. If what you really want to do is make beer, what you really don’t want to do is be a salesman for an array of different brands 5 days a week.

So, as a beer geek, appreciate your distributors (to a point) even if (sigh, yes) they’re A-B or some such crap, because they are getting good beer in for you. Hold your retail outlets accountable for problems with it, because they’re the ones in the best position to push back against the distributors if the beer that they’re delivering has been handled poorly. They’re also the ones that are in the best position to demand different brands and standard delivery procedures.

Even more so, support your local brewers who are fighting their asses off to get good beer into your hands.

Finally, the people who are really in the position to fix distribution laws are your state senators and representatives. Teach them to like craft beer, and there will be more and better beer for you.

As for Larry Bell? I have to say that I really see him as a brewer’s rights crusader. The guy is, plain and simple, sticking to his principles and his love of good beer and making things better for all breweries everywhere, even if he is just going one state at a time. I really hope that everything turns out in his favor, because it just means good things for the rest of us.

If you have some time to read stuff take a moment to read this story from the Chicago Reader about Bell’s pulling out of Chicago because of distribution laws. It goes over the history of distribution and a lot of the problems and bullshit tricks distributors like to play. Well worth reading.

In addition! Here’s an article with a lot of great specifics on Kalamabrew: Beer making, brewing and microbrews in Southwest Michigan.

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