Rethinking The Blog Love Fest Over Beer Wars The Movie…

Posted on Posted in Beer Wars, Beer Writing, Craft Beer, Dogfish Head, Media Draft, Stone Brewing Company

Unless you’ve had your head in your glass for the last few weeks, it’s pretty hard to have missed the onslaught of blog posts and Twitter tweets/tweeks/whatever about the upcoming release of Beer Wars. The first documentary film by producer/writer/director Anat Baron seeks to go “behind the scenes of the daily battles and all out wars that dominate one of America’s favorite industries.?

bw2.jpgLike many others, I first heard of the Beer Wars project at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, in 2005. The producers shot some scenes at the festival and there was a little buzz about it. The project then fell off the radar and I occasionally ran a search to find out what had happened, with no results. Fast forward to last month and Beer Wars was suddenly back with some strength. In a post on her blog, Baron explained the delay as her having missed “the window when documentary films were big news and were getting rich distribution deals…But now that I’ve given up on that fantasy, the reality is actually more exciting. I get to make the decisions and sheppard (sp) my film without having ‘suits’ make decisions for me.?

While I’m interested in seeing and reviewing the film, the recent blog coverage has piqued my interest the most. In recent weeks, we’ve seen some very fawning endorsements of the film, not only from people who appear in the film, but from beer industry insiders and novice and professional beer writers as well. One particularly breathless account by my usually level-headed colleague Jay Brooks sums up the sycophantic blog mood of recent weeks.

Beer Wars is nothing new. The war itself has been quietly raging for years and years. But only insiders have been aware of it and even fewer still have been willing to admit it and talk about it publicly. This film should blow the lid off of that and make honest debate at least possible. That would be a great first step in bringing more people over to the craft beer side. Just like Star Wars, the craft beer movement is the rebellion and we’re fighting the empire for galactic beer domination. Once enough people realize we’ve got Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and the Ewoks on our side, how could anyone possibly continue to support the dark side? Still not convinced. Watch the trailer. Let the fermentation be with you.

The frenzied fan fare has me wondering about the ways craft beer enthusiasts interact with and respond to mainstream and alternative media coverage of their favorite hobby. Similar to the recent New Yorker piece on Dogfish Head and extreme brewing, craft beer lovers crave attention for the subject of their passion. And that is certainly understandable, especially after many years of not being taken seriously by the media (although it’s debatable whether that attitude has really changed). But there is something about the Beer Wars project itself, and the groundswell of excitement surrounding it, that I can’t quite put my finger on.

In truth, we know little about the project. On her website, Baron provides some details that help to smooth the outer edges.

Everywhere we went, we heard grumbling about the decline in mainstream beer sales. It seemed that innovation was now coming from the small players instead of the giants. The highlight was an interview with Rhonda Kallman who had left Sam Adams to launch her own company. Her tenacity and energy were inspiring.

So the story began to take shape. The independent brewers vs. the big corporate players. The timing was right. An increasing number of Americans were interested in making their own choices and not kowtowing to the corporate marketing machine. Whether in coffee, cheese, chocolate, locally grown produce, people were willing to experiment and explore, even if it meant paying a little more. Craft beer was a natural extension of this trend.

At the outset, one critical note that keeps ringing in my head is that the independent brewer versus big corporate player dynamic would have been spot on five to seven years ago. The Slow Food-style comparisons are even more dated. But today, both paradigms ring pretty false. There remain, of course, challenges between these two tiers of beer industry competitors. But, compared to even just five years ago, the main sources of friction between them have greatly receded and craft brewers have new sources of concern (managing growth, providing consistent and fresh products, balancing innovation versus customer expectations, balancing debt service against expansion needs). It’s an anachronistic exercise to continue to view the beer industry through the prism of us versus them, small versus big. Case in point: ask any craft brewer you know about their access to market concerns five years ago compared to today. It’s the difference between having trouble getting a space on a big brewer’s truck versus finding enough time to return all of the new distributor inquiries from around the country. Access to market is no longer the looming problem. Deciding which markets to turn down and how to keep fresh product on the shelves are the problems today. This is undoubtedly a much simplified view of one aspect of the industry but it serves as an example to illustrate the greater point. The opening scene in the trailer has an individual offering that “They’re all fighting for a piece of a pie that is not growing.? If this is the documentary’s premise, it’s a hollow and inaccurate one in today’s beer marketplace.

The continued relevance of the idea behind Beer Wars has come up in some conversations I’ve had with industry insiders recently. From what I can tell, in tackling the subject of the beer industry at large, Baron wisely relies upon the tested documentary technique of following a limited pool of individuals and using their personal narratives to tell a wider tale. Baron notes on her website:

Beer Wars begins as the corporate behemoths are being challenged by small, independent brewers who are shunning the status quo and creating innovative new beers. The story is told through 2 of these entrepreneurs – Sam and Rhonda – battling the might and tactics of Corporate America. We witness their struggle to achieve their American Dream in an industry dominated by powerful corporations unwilling to cede an inch.

Of course we all knew that the affable Calagione would be a focus of the film, it’s almost a precondition of media coverage these days. But Rhonda Kallman is a very interesting choice for a second act. Kallman is well-known among beer industry insiders but is decidedly less so for beer enthusiasts, especially young ones. I profiled Kallman in one of my first pieces for Beverage Business Magazine in 2001. While we all recognize Jim Koch and his accomplishments, Kallman co-founded Boston Beer Company with Koch in 1984. He has described her as “smart, resourceful and motivated? and noted that while Boston Beer Co. had no corporate ladder to climb, Kallman built her own ladder. Koch credited Kallman with helping to bring about a fundamental change in the American beer industry and she shared the 1997 Institute for Brewing Studies Recognition Award for outstanding contribution to the microbrewing movement with him. Kallman left Boston Beer at the end of 1999 and went on to form her own contract brewing operation, the New Century Brewing Company.

At the time, Kallman was seeking to release her own national light beer, set to be a step above macro-brewed light offerings. A daring if questionable idea from the start, Kallman’s new beer, playfully named Edison Light, had some buzz of its own. In my interview of the time, Kallman suggested an approach that laid the basis for Beer Wars.

It’s an above premium light beer, a segment that is clearly dominated by giants. There has been no news in the light beer category in years, no real new news at all. And 75 percent of the light beer segment is made up of the big three – A-B, Miller, and Coors. Other brewers, particularly importers, all have light beers as well. But they all really can’t get out of the way of their flagship. Light beer is clearly the direction the consumers are going, at least the targeted demographic that we are all after, which is males aged 21 to 27, and increasingly they are drinking more and more light beer. And that demographic is expected to grow, so people are clearly after that. But we’ll appeal to these people and that young demographic looking for change, a new choice and variety.

Fast-forward seven years and the Edison Light beer project, and its sister product, the short-lived caffeinated beer called Moonshot, have stalled. The national rollout never happened and now Kallman acknowledges that the brand’s reach is limited. After an initial push in the Massachusetts market, Edison quickly retreated to a few hideouts around the state. It’s now available by request in certain parts of Massachusetts, New York City, Southern California, and Trader Joe’s markets east of St. Louis. It probably didn’t help that the beer was released to the public the day before the September 11th attacks.

So with all of this in mind, I’m curious to see Beer Wars and how it handles Kallman’s situation, among other issues. Will the film be honest and note that her operation and its big plans have met with little success or will it simply frame the debate in outmoded terms better suited to a decade ago? And will it draw the necessary distinction between Kallman’s business model, marketing a national premium light beer against entrenched and well-funded competitors in a similar category, and the operations of nearly every other “craft brewer.? I look forward to finding out.

Beyond these substantive points, the trailer itself is full of things that will appeal to the red meat beer geeks, including the otherwise sensible Greg Koch talking some ridiculousness about making angry beer and how it turns people happy. Frankly, I think the late Michael Jackson may have been the only to make any real sense in the trailer and he sadly passed away more than 18 months before the film’s release. I’m also curious to learn whether Ben Stein has some perhaps yet unreleased connection to the beer industry or if his moderating services were simply available for rent at the right price.

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7 thoughts on “Rethinking The Blog Love Fest Over Beer Wars The Movie…

  1. Andy, I’ve not seen the film, so I don’t know if it’s “good” or not. But I think part of what feels like relentless “buzzing” is simply an effort to help Anat promote the film. She paid for it out of her own pocket and it would be great if she earned some kind of return on her effort.

    And in this media-saturated era, it’s very very hard to promote ANYTHING, let alone an independent film.

    Your analysis is, however, likely spot on (again, I’ve not seen the film). So — hope you don’t mind if I re-tweet your post!

  2. Andy –

    I expect the lovefest has just begun. There will be a lot more lovin’ after April 16.

    I’m curious to see it, but won’t stress if it isn’t available near whatever campground we are in April 16.

    The production budget and the promotion budget both look pretty big to me, which might give fans of the “little guy” at least some reason to pause.

    The documentary project people should be anticipating is Jay Shevek’s “Beer Pioneers.” That’s a small budget labor of love with interviews going back into the early 1990s.

    http://www.beerguppy.com/productions.html

    (No connection to the project at all – just looking forward to seeing it.)

  3. Hi Maureen and Stan-

    Retweet/tweek/something away. I definitely wish the director the best and would like to see more films on the subject of craft beer. I think 100,000 ticket sales as Jay hopes for would be quite an achievement, albeit one I think would be difficult to achieve. At $15 a ticket, I wonder where the break even point for single day theater sales would be. I imagine DVD sales will be brisk. The self-distribution/single day sales angle might be the most interesting part of this all actually, it’s really quite fascinating to see how new media advances.

    And Stan’s right, I’m definitely looking forward to the Beer Pioneers release…

  4. That Beer Pioneers film looks exactly like what I’ve been thinking needs to be done for 6-7 years now (of course, I was thinking of it in book form, but this is probably better!).

  5. Andy, I can’t speak for the other blogs and websites that have been championing Beer Wars, but as for me, I met with Anat Baron (the writer and director) last year. We had lunch, I asked her questions. She talked about the project, what she hoped to accomplish with it, etc. I asked more questions. I listened. I corresponded with her and spoke with her a few more times over the subsequent months. I watched the trailer. I read the PR for the film. I talked to some of the people in the film. And from that I formed an opinion that I wanted to help the film find a wider audience. So I wrote positively about the film’s potential in the hopes of encouraging people to see it. I don’t believe that’s fawning sycophantic behavior in the least.

    Will it be perfect? I can’t say, obviously, but the last movie that was in wide distribution about beer was Beerfest. Even if this film is flawed, it has to be better than that. In our lifetime, when has there ever been a documentary film about beer in theaters across the country? Never. So I think it has the potential to be a very good thing for the industry as a whole. Perhaps some of the 96% of the population still not drinking better beer will rethink that decision? I would like to see that happen. We need a tipping point, who knows where it will come from. Just having a film out there will likely mean more attention is paid to beer by the media. How can that be a bad thing?

    So yes, I decided not to sit back and figure out how to criticize it, but instead chose to give it a chance. And because there is at least a reasonable possibility that it could do good for the beer community, I threw my very tiny hat in the ring to try to influence its success. If I was wrong, I’ll be the first to say so. But I’ll willing to give it the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. For now, I’m trusting that the message the film is trying to send will be delivered.

    Oh, and as I understand it, Ben Stein has no connection to the industry. He was simply the most recognizable name available.

  6. Andy,

    I strongly protest your highly questionable comment about me. To say that I am “otherwise sensible” is outrageous and I would argue that my being ‘sensible’ is the exception, rather than the norm, and I will thank you very much for not suggesting otherwise (I have a delicate reputation you know).

    Truth be told, I have stopped using my “Angry beer makes for happy people” statement. That is primarily because of the fact that while the statement made perfect sense to me, it seemed to confuse others (and even sometimes apparently make them a bit uncomfortable). I guess some folks just can’t reconcile with the idea of being happy. Far be it for me to press the issue!

    Us folks that like great heavy/angry music get it however…nothing like blaring “Kill ‘Em All” (for just one example) to take the edge off a tough day. Add in a 22 of Arrogant Bastard Ale and the attitude adjustment is gloriously complete! Great happiness ensues (at least for me!).

    Cheers,

    Greg

  7. Well very done Greg, very well done. It was hard for me to write that line about you being sensible just as it was to even tangentially equate Jay’s statement with those ideals of sycophantic beer knurds…Enjoyed some wildly underpriced pints of Ruination last night (true 16 ouncers for $5.50 here in Boston). I dare not tell you where as the bar owner must have his numbers inverted…See you next month. Cheers,

    Andy

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