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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 27 May 2009 @ 11:34 AM 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. There’s a problem in the definition. That’s clear. After all, it’s been discussed in other venues prior to this ad infinitum (and those three are just a small example), and now I feel the new to add to the noise. The thing is, I think we’re all running up against the same problem.
Beer!
The problem is the Brewers Association is right and wrong all at the same time. Lemme explain.

The Brewers Association has it right

See this Examiner post by Larry Johnson for a succinct re-hash of the definition without having to scroll through the BA‘s entire statistics and definitions page.

This definition of a craft brewery and craft beer here is based entirely on regulations set by the U.S. Government for taxation purposes. If breweries produce under 2 million barrels per year, they qualify for a small brewer tax break on their first 60,000 barrels. If you’re above that, you’re not a craft brewer. That’s it. The smaller breaks in between are built in for statistical purposes. Plain and simple, when you’re talking about market segments, you need to be able to compare apples to apples. New Belgium and their amazing expanding distribution network just doesn’t compare well vs. a startup brewpub (much less how Sam Adams compares with anybody else). They’re two entirely different segments in the same industry.

There’s only one part of their definition of a craft brewery that isn’t based on an economic restriction:

Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

And it kinda reads like an economic restriction, doesn’t it?

I take this as their way of saying, in every way they possibly can, “NOT megabreweries.”

So, here’s the thing. The Brewers Association is, first and foremost, a trade organization. As a brewery owner, I want them focused on helping to keep the most rigorously regulated industry in the country (aside from probably tobacco) a sane enough environment for my small business to exist in. A startup brewpub can’t afford to hire a full time (team of) lobbyist(s) to look out for their interests in the same way that MillerCoors can, but they can get help from the BA when they’re looking at challenging a law that’s coming through the pipeline. What is beneficial to MillerCoors may not be beneficial to the startup brewpub, so you also need somebody to push back against the corporate behemoths who, let’s be frank, would probably rather not have any competitors, even minuscule ones.

The BA needs tools to be able to do this job, and accurate statistics is one of those tools, consistent standards is another. These definitions are what the BA needs in order to do what breweries need them to do, and the BA can be an invaluable ally to a small craft brewer.

They are really crappy definitions for the average consumer. The consumer cares about good beer.

The Brewers Association has it wrong

Here are a couple of breweries that I would guess that consumers think are considered craft breweries that are not, according to BA definitions:

  • Widmer
  • Goose Island
  • Mendocino Brewing Co.
  • Brewery Ommegang

Soon, Sam Adams will join that list. I would challenge anybody to tell me that any of those breweries don’t make great beer, regardless of percentages of ownership and/or how many barrels they manufacture per year.

The problem is that the BA also makes attempts at functioning as a consumer advocacy organization, most notably via the GABF. And why not? People who make great beer are fans of great beer. It makes sense to function as an organization that gets consumers in touch with great beer. But the definitions of what craft beer is for industrial purposes don’t necessarily work for consumers.

Consumers want to drink great beer, and while I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t really care where something comes from, I think they do. Behind craft beer there are personalities, there is passion for the product that is being made. That translates down to the customer very easily in small businesses. It’s something that the megabreweries will never be able to harness because they’re too far removed from the consumer.

Here, the problem is: How do you define passion?

In this case it’s almost definitely via selection of ingredients and processes. But you can’t define it as “beer without corn” or “beer without rice.” There was a little bit of a kickback from a few brewers after the IAACB video who do use corn and rice in their beers, but do it in really interesting ways. A brewer in Kansas or Nebraska using a local good (corn – what else?), malted and roasted to make a corn stout? How is that not a craft beer?

It’s sticky when it gets to passion definition. More on this later.

Where the Disconnect Happens

Quick story: At the end of CBC09, I was blitzing through the Farewell Reception grabbing a quick bite to eat and a quick drink before I had to rush to board my plane and I ran into Charlie Papazian. He was strolling through the middle of the ballroom, tie off, collar undone. In his right hand he had a goblet full of beer. In his left hand, hanging casually at his side, he had an open bomber. He wasn’t talking to anybody, he was just walking around with this enormous grin on his face. I wish I could have gotten a picture of him. The only thing I could think was: “This must be what it’s like to have your dreams come true.”

Think about it – this guy, who happens to just love beer, put this all together. He’s not a stupendously successful brewery owner, he’s not a Wall Street investment guru, he’s not a real estate tycoon. He’s a writer, and a homebrewer, and he loves beer so much that he has spent his entire life facilitating this entire budding industry. He is the perfect beer evangelist. Every brewery owner and beer drinker should take the time to shake his hand and thank him for loving beer. (I did.)

But, this is the reason for the disconnect. What eventually became the BA was born out of a passion for beer, but it has become (and thank god) a business organization. When Charlie started everything in the 1970’s, the definition of craft beer was easy: “Not the megabreweries.” But you can’t use that as a definition to define your business organization. You need clear rules that define the segment(s), even if they backhandedly say, “Not the megabreweries.” The definition of a craft brewery as recognized by the BA is spot on. They need to be built around the tax restrictions.

However, governing the definition of product made with passion with a tax-based definition is sure to lead to resentment from the consumer when they’re favorite popular brewery makes a business decision and is no longer considered a craft beer. The consumer wants to support craft beer, but also wants to support their favorite brewery. How do they make that call? By ignoring the tax definitions.

Here’s what I’d like to see: Let the BA define a craft brewery, and let the drinker define a craft beer.

There are a number of different ways this can be done. There are already what amounts to enormous consumer organizations who are devoted to good beer. Use the existing communities to refine a decent definition and go. Maybe the BA creates a spinoff non-profit that handles the GABF and works on creating similar standardized festivals across the US promoting good beer, and they leave the government work and business side of things to the Brewers Association. Let the consumers be consumers. They don’t need to be complicit in business practices, you just want them educated about good beer, because then they’ll be much more likely to buy from craft breweries.

Overall, I think these are growing pains. I think the reason that the craft beer community is hashing this out over and over again is because the segment has been so successful. After all, when the 2 million barrel cap used as the definition of a craft brewer, did anybody reasonably expect Sam Adams to get there so quickly? I doubt it. It’s fantastic that they’re pushing this boundary and allowing us to continue to go through this painful revision process.

In conclusion, I’d like to put out my definition of a craft beer, as a beer drinker: Any well-made beer that was obviously made with passion. You can see it in the labels, the names, in the bottles, cans, or glassware, and in the ingredient selection.

If the beer has a personality all its own, it’s a craft beer. I suspect that there are at least a few drinkers out there who would join me in that.

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 28 Mar 2009 @ 8:13 AM 

In preparation for this year’s American Craft Beer Week (May 11 – May 17) American Homebrewer’s Association and Brewer’s Association High Poo-bah and general beer ambassador Charlie Papazian has opened up a poll: Vote for your Favorite Beer City. Polls are open ’til May 7 and the winner will be announced in time for Craft Beer Week.


View Larger Map

It’s a good set of cities, mostly. I can’t help but feel like who ever put this list together for Charlie just pulled a list of the locations of 30 popular breweries in the US. I’m a little surprised (but happy) to see so much on the East Coast, and even more surprised to nothing in Texas. In fact, looking at that map there’s a pretty sad furrow down the middle of the country. Somebody should get on that.

Some cities are at a distinct disadvantage. There’s a vast difference between San Francisco/Oakland/Bay Area and, say, Boulder, CO which is just a few miles outside of its competitor, Denver, CO. No doubt, there are a ton of breweries in each of those, but sheer population alone puts the Bay Area up by, oh, 6 million people. Consider, too, that Fort Collins and Colorado Springs are also listed.

Kansas City (Kansas Cities?) gets especially screwed by being listed in both states – they don’t count as a greater metropolitan area? Albuquerque and Santa Fe are getting listed together and they’re 60 miles apart.

Charlie says that if any particular city gets more than 50 votes in the “Other” category he’ll put it on the list as an official choice. So do you see your city on there? If not, rally the troops and get your vote in.

I’m glad to see Asheville, NC, but, I’d love to see Raleigh/Durham, NC on that list. I think you’d be hard pressed to find an area in the country that’s going through a comparable beer culture explosion. It’s pretty fantastic.

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Categories: appreciation, RDU
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 28 Mar 2009 @ 09 36 AM

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