In the interest of fair play, I thought I’d link to the response of Anat Baron, producer and director of the recent Beer Wars release, to the heavy criticism that has pounded her film since its release a few weeks back. The response is probably not going to be what most industry-related critics of the film might have hoped for as she seeks to address some of the more ludicrous criticisms, usually offered by beer enthusiasts or novice bloggers. These include how a person allergic to alcohol can make a film about it, that Rhonda Kallman had no business being in the film, that someone’s favorite brewery was not covered, etc. These are the low lying fruit, easily dismissed, and it would perhaps be of more interest if she addressed some of the more substantive issues raised by myself and other writers. She briefly touched upon one such issue, as she puts it: “The film is dated. Everything is good now. Craft beer is growing so the distribution issues are moot.” Her response is cursory and its underpinnings were uniformly rejected by numerous speakers (from all sides) at this past week’s Craft Brewers Conference in Boston. Her citation to a post by Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch is a bit more illuminating but only goes to show how the film missed another opportunity to capture something real and relevant. But, in any event, give it a read and we’ll put this subject to bed once and for all.
At the beginning of his keynote address to the Craft Brewers Conference in Boston, Stone Brewing Company’s CEO and co-founder Greg Koch played a video he and others had collaboratively produced for the occasion. It is a great video, especially the first minute or so (a great viral or television commercial in itself) and was an excellent start to a solid and interactive address to the conventioneers. I anticipate that a lot of viewers of the recent Beer Wars documentary expected to see something similar and that is one of the reasons they left disappointed. The tone gets a little preachy at times and also takes several direct swipes at the big guys, promotional approaches whose appeal and viability can be debated (and were yesterday during the conference, with one presenter actively advising against them). In any event, definitely take a look at the video below and feel free to offer your thoughts.
I Am A Craft Brewer from I Am A Craft Brewer on Vimeo.
To put it mildly, next week is going to be busy. Several hundred craft brewers from around the world will descend on Boston for the annual Craft Brewers Conference. There are events, both industry and consumer, spread throughout the city and it’ll be nice to catch up with the community.
I expected we’d lay low this weekend in preparation for next week but that didn’t really happen. On Friday night, we headed out to the annual Boston Beer Summit, where we had the chance to see brewers from around the region who don’t often make it to Boston. On Saturday, we set out for trips to Colonial Spirits and Julio’s Liquors, with the mission of tracking down available beers for inclusion into my new project, Great American Craft Beer. It will be a user-friendly and approachable guide to the best craft beers available in America, with a lot of other content to be described later. We’re in the early stages of putting the book together now, but it will be published by Running Press (publisher of several of the late Michael Jackson’s excellent books) in 2010. Returning home with more than 120 bottles of beer (and a few bottles of Rye for diversity’s sake), I realized the haul constituted only a fifth of what would ultimately make the book. Wow.
So after trips to the stores, both of which have excellent selections and bulk purchase discounts (very helpful for this project), we decided to head into Worcester as we were but fifteen minutes away. Located in the sometimes invisible lair of central Massachusetts, Worcester doesn’t get a lot of attention from beer lovers. Flying under the radar are two excellent beer bars, with design schemes on two very different ends of the spectrum. Armsby Abbey is an upscale gastropub with an excellent beer selection and a very solid food menu. A half-mile away, the Dive Bar (a play on a nautical theme mixed with a salvaged dive bar), hosts one of the few long bar setups I’ve come across in New England. These bar types are often see in places such as Chicago and it was a real pleasure to have a few pints there.
I am now home, surrounded by more beer than I want to think about reviewing (takes a bit of the fun out of drinking actually) and thinking about next week’s events. Welcome to town everyone…
We’re headed to the annual Boston Beer Summit event tonight at the Castle here in Boston. It’s a nice chance to run into beer industry folks who don’t often make it to other events in the area. And it’s definitely a different crowd from the BeerAdvocate events at the Cyclorama. It’s going to be a busy week here in the city, starting yesterday with the film-whose-name-we-shall-no-longer-speak, and heading into the long week of the Craft Brewers Conference. It’s sort of a testament to how global this whole craft industry has become that I’m expecting to have beers with two separate brewing folks from Japan and another from Denmark. We’ll see how the posting goes next week as it may be time to take a little while off and just enjoy things. Or not.
It’s been a long day, what with the Beer Wars pre-gaming with the folks from Cambridge Common, the film, and then the Lucero concert. Nonetheless, I thought I’d end with a few thoughts on the film.
All told, I think the film fell surprisingly flat. The odd thing is that with all of my critical comments before its release, most turned out to be irrelevant. Not because Beer Wars answered them, but because, frankly, there wasn’t much substance to the film. That surprised me. For a film that was just shy of an hour and a half in length, Beer Wars took a long time to wind up to its point. And it took a really long time building up to the introduction of its main characters, Sam Calagione and Rhonda Kallman. Twenty minutes in fact. So long that I had forgotten they were central to the film. At the heart of the problem was that Anat Baron, the filmmaker, really had no place in Beer Wars at all and ten minutes of the film were probably wasted focusing on herself, including several of the crucial opening minutes. Selling malternatives doesn’t mean you’re in the beer industry. And even if it did, Baron’s placement in the film was either due to a mild case of narcissism or more likely a director’s cloudy vision of the overall project. It needed an editor or producer to step in and tell the director, “Listen, I get what you’re trying to do here, but it’s not working.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
I could talk about the film’s choppy editing, pacing, and scene juxtapositions but really what struck me most was not the irrelevance of the chosen topic, as I once thought, but the missed opportunities in the storytelling. The film is wildly misnamed as it had little to do with the big guys, despite Baron’s repeated cheap pot shots at them and A-B in particular (kudos to the levelheaded analysis of panelist Maureen Ogle, on whom I believe the miscast moderator Ben Stein might have a little economist crush). Beer Wars also did not have much to do with the three tier system. At its core, the film was really about the little guys and their struggles against the greater economic system, which includes both the three tier system and the big guys. And this was such an obvious and advantageous narrative device that it was a bit painful to watch Baron fumble it.
Without question, the strongest parts of the film involved Rhonda Kallman, co-founder of the Boston Beer Company and the New Century Brewing Company. The scenes with her family were worth the price of admission and watching her personal struggles on screen provided the basis for a strong documentary voice. Watching her get politely turned down by a revolving door of individuals, from all three big brewers to a venture capital committee embarrassingly comprised of two kids half her age, was painful. But it was difficult if not impossible to reconcile Kallman’s strident willingness to align her company and products with the country’s biggest brewers (from A-B, Coors, and Miller, to a particularly bittersweet and cut-short pitch meeting with Jim Koch) with Baron’s slagging of big brewers. The filmmaker’s narrative voice or direction were clearly lacking in this pivotal part.
There are lots of little nitpicking points and questions that can be raised as well, such as why Beer Wars focused so much on Kallman’s Moonshot product to the near complete exclusion of the company’s flagship Edison Light beer, the confused poke at neo-prohibitionism (was she making fun of the NBWA, CSPI, or both?), and why Ben Stein was hired to host a panel without some prior rehearsals (didn’t even give my poor buddy Todd Alstrom a chance to discuss the clip in which he absolutely slammed Kallman’s beers, a shot he knew was coming). It seemed a long way to travel for such a short panel filled with Stein’s bumbling presentation and jeremiads in the form of questions.
In the end, it’s not that Beer Wars was irrelevant or dated, as I had worried. It’s that it just wasn’t much of anything but a series of lost opportunities. And frankly, that’s disappointing on several levels, none the least of which is that the available story material turned out to be so rich. The amateurish, Michael Moore-light antics distracted from what could have been a very interesting and personal story of what it’s like to compete in the world of big beer.