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.

Wow. So, predictably, we’ve started to see some backlash from the I Am a Craft Brewer video (embedded here, in case you missed it). There was a little right after it came out, but for the most part there was a lot of fawning. As it has been pointed out, the video has “gone viral” (though I’m not sure that a constant push into the memestream can be considered “gone”) so it is now subject to John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. It’s started off fairly low and, in some places, almost polite, but for a real view of what you can expect in a few weeks, go take a look through some of the Beer Wars comment threads (though it looks like a lot of the REALLY negative comments were deleted).

Myself? I love it (especially the snappy 3-minutes version). But then, I’m its target audience; I was present when it was played as a toast at the beginning of Greg Koch’s keynote. However, there are some fair points being made that bear inspection. Here’s a short sum, and my comments.

  • This video is missing its audience. Or rather, it hit its audience, mostly dead on, and then, for better or for worse, got pushed outside of its audience. It was made for an audience with knowledge of the subject and the industry politics. I recognized most of the people in the video on sight. Even most of your knowledgeable craft beer geeks will watch half of this video going, “Who the hell is that chick? Check out that dude’s beard! Do they make beer in that van?” One of the things I learned in my years of theater is that if you’re too self-referential in your scripts you turn people off because they just don’t get it. (Example? Saturday Night Live.) It’s possible that this video is a little too self-referential for the general public audience. I’m not sure that it is, but I have a hard time telling. Regardless, some people are going to see it and like it and some people aren’t. Even across the CBC when it was first shown there were probably a solid bunch of people who were underwhelmed. My main reaction to this is: meh – big deal. You can’t make all of the people happy all of the time, you can just wish that the unhappy people weren’t so goddamned noisy.
  • Greg Koch is getting a lot of face time. Yep. Like one of the blogs I linked to up there, prior to the CBC and this video what I knew about Greg Koch is that Stone makes beer I like to drink (and that I love his taste in plaid jackets). Now he feels like a minor celebrity. Bad? Not really, except that, by nature, celebrity breeds criticism. Part of me wonders how much of this is by design or by mistake. Greg was the keynote speaker of the Craft Brewers Conference. Presumably, it’s because Stone is a rising star and an innovator and was asked to do it. He’s a creative dude with a history in entertainment in L.A. and had an idea for a video. He followed through with it. He’s also pretty plugged into the internet, pushed his ideas out through his intertube hole and thus you get instant internet celebrity (just add troll). I think the new cut of the IAACB video is a lot better precisely because it has a lot less Greg Koch in it. It’s not that I don’t like him, but it seems a little less about him and a little more about the community, that way. On the other hand, you also have to figure that 99% of the country has no idea who the hell Greg Koch is. If the video did get played during the Superbowl most people would just think he was some random actor, anyway.
  • Craft beer is being passed off as a snobby drink. Sure works for wine, though, doesn’t it? Oh yeah, and a lot of liquor. Why shouldn’t beer be on a level playing field? Is craft beer the Apple of the beer world? I don’t think so. For one thing, market share isn’t even comparable and I don’t have an beerPod. It’s more like the linux of the beer world. But I can sure see how someone could get the impression that it’s the hoity-toity beer. We (beer geeks and/or brewers) come off as a little snotty sometimes, and maybe we should work on that. At the same time, nobody’s going to be an evangelist for our products for us. I see no good reason to stop preaching. If we make a product that we think it superior why would we characterize it as anything but that?

Arguments it being over-produced and/or poorly written are kinda moot. There’s no way to satisfy that. So.. what.. it should look shitty to have cachet? If it had a really awful script it would be more awesome somehow? There’s no argument to this.

The only thing that really bothers me about all of this chatter is how much is being taken out of context and re-hashed for the sake of argument and criticism, either out of the video or out of GK’s keynote. Come on, guys. Anybody can pull quotes out of a long text and find something about it to argue. Walk through a city sometime, I’ll give you 10 minutes before you run into some crazy dude on a street corner that gives you a pamphlet telling you that you’re going to go to hell for something that you enjoy based on one random quote they pulled out of some random religious text. 10 minutes of solid research and you can completely deconstruct their argument. Let’s not play that game. Constructive criticism offers both pros and cons and includes suggestions on how the subject could be improved. Anybody can be an asshat. I do it every day.

On the other hand (this is like my FAVORITE phrase, lately), a lot of people think this is a good little movie: If you REALLY think it sucks, then by all means: How can it be improved? Is the message wrong? What’s the right message? Is it too long? Too short? Too shiny? No story? Are your dreams of what craft breweries are like shattered knowing that they own bottling lines?

It’s not like I can do anything about it, but I’d love to hear how it could be better rather than just hear about why it sucks.

 17 Apr 2009 @ 10:32 AM 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see the movie last night, so I’m unable to comment directly on the movie, but all of the reviews from the craft beer segment seem to be pointed in the same direction. I’ll see if I can sum up a little here, but mostly I’ll point you to people who actually saw it.

The main thrust of most of these come down to pacing and narration problems and poor focus on core message, with some really bright moments shining through occasionally. Almost everybody noted that the panel discussion afterward was the best part of the movie, Ben Stein notwithstanding. This doesn’t make me drool in anticipation of the DVD, especially as the discussion will apparently not be included in the DVD release.

Myself, I hope Ms. Baron is right: I hope this does start a conversation, though we probably have different ideas about what that conversation should be about. I suspect that after all of these reviews are done, we probably won’t hear much about it again after the next week or two have gone by. Shame, really.

I’d also love to hear what people thought about this film that are *not* part of the beer industry or a beer geek. Was there a man-on-the-street attending this anywhere?

On to the reviews; I will add to this list as I find more:

 14 Apr 2009 @ 9:50 AM 

Just a quickie for a Tuesday: Your reading assignment for the day.

It turns out that I’m not alone in my thoughts about Beer Wars, most especially on the, “Please stop spamming my Inbox” angle.

See more (and well thought out comments) on The Mad Fermentationist, A Good Beer Blog, and Andy Crouch’s Beer Scribe.

I’m a little surprised to see that of all of these well-known and well-read blogs that I am one lucky enough to get a snappy response.

I guess I’m not that surprised that I didn’t get the e-mail asking to promote the movie on my blog. Heh.

Looking forward to see comments about the movie on Friday.

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Categories: blog, media
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 14 Apr 2009 @ 09 51 AM

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 13 Apr 2009 @ 10:50 AM 

I had a flash of insight.

Beer Wars. You know Beer Wars. If you don’t, just watch a brewery twitter feed for a few hours. It’s coming: This Thursday, in fact. You should think about going to see it.

I haven’t seen any projections about how many people are going to see this thing, but let’s make some rough estimates: Beer Wars plays in 440 theaters nationwide. Let’s assume that each of these theaters seats 400 people – which is a pretty big theater, but this is a one-night-only event, right? Hopefully, it’s being treated well. So that’s a potential viewing audience of ~176,000. Now, you have to assume that the bulk of the viewing audience will be craft beer enthusiasts, let’s assume 75%.

Now, what my insight had to do with is Blue Moon and its place in the world of craft beer. (What “craft beer” means has been covered amply on other blogs.) To sum up: Does craft beer have to do with how beer is made or who distributes it? I’ll tackle this, myself, some other day when I’m feeling extra glib and like I have something to add that hasn’t been said over and over again.

Beer Wars will rightly point out that Blue Moon is made by Coors, which in and of itself isn’t that much of a problem. By some people’s definitions (and, after a lot of thought, the one that I’m personally inclined to go with), it is as much a craft beer as any local offering you might find. My personal opinion is that Blue Moon does more to introduce people to good beer than a lot of smaller, more specialized, brews – it’s a gateway beer, like Sam Adams Boston Lager. You can take the step there from drinking Miller Lite, learn that you like craft beer, and then you’ve got one more consumer drinking a local beer. However! Is Coors a craft brewery? Well, they make Blue Moon. They make a lot of other small offerings. One could argue that, yes, in fact, they are. I might not like their mass market offerings, but you know what? They make good beer … sometimes. One should respect good beer. I can be bitter about their marketing budget and still respect good beer.

So let’s head back to the numbers for a second. Out of the 75% of craft beer enthusiasts who are seeing Beer Wars, let’s assume that 1/3 of them don’t know that Blue Moon is made by Coors. That seems like a high number, but it makes the math easier. So, put all that together, and let’s pretend that half of the audience (25% who aren’t craft beer enthusiasts, plus 1/3 of the 75% that are = 50%) that’s watching Beer Wars on Thursday night find out, in the midst of this event, that Blue Moon is a beer made by a megabrewery. That’s 88,000 people. Now, let’s pretend that those 88,000 people all go home and go to a party on Friday night and then tell 5 people each that they shouldn’t drink Blue Moon because it’s made by Coors. That’s 440,000 people. If THEY all tell 5 people each, that’s over 2.2 million.

Small facts run like wild fire, especially on angry opinions. Just do a Twitter search for #amazonfail for a really mind-boggling (and still truly enraging) example.

So, with all this in mind, Beer Wars has a chance, and I think a fairly significant one, of seriously effecting the sales figures of Blue Moon.

Will that hurt Coors? Given that Blue Moon is probably only a small portion of their gross income, I’d say that it’s unlikely. Equally as unlikely is that all of those people will continue to not buy Blue Moon, simply because it actually is one of the only good beer options in some bars and, hey, when your choices are between Blue Moon and Coors Light? I’d order a Blue Moon, too. If anything, I bet it will seriously make them reconsider how they’re spending the big in-flux of cash that Blue Moon is apparently supposed to be seeing soon.

It’d still be REALLY interesting to look at the balance sheets over at Coors in a month to see how much of a gut punch they feel from this. The closer we get, the more interested I am to see the fall out from Beer Wars and I wish, more than ever, that I could make my local screening.

The Craft Brewers Conference next week should be a blast on this topic alone.

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Categories: industry, media
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 13 Apr 2009 @ 10 50 AM

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