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.
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.
I’ve just learned that the film has sold out in Boston’s sole theatre showing it. That’s great for the producers but not so great for those of us who waited to get tickets. So it looks like I’ll be catching the opening act at the Lucero show at The Paradise after all and offering my thoughts on the film after it comes out on DVD. Look forward to hearing what others have to say about the film
Thanks to a last minute push by the New Century Brewing Company, maker of Edison Light, the interweb is again aflutter with news of the impending release on April 16th of Beer Wars: The Movie. The response to New Century’s attempt to stuff the ballot box has been divided into two camps: oft-neglected beer bloggers giddy over finally receiving some attention and outraged ranters taking aim at the film and the contract brewery.
The wording of New Century’s press release is a little unusual, if for no other reason than it doesn’t mention the phrase ‘craft beer’ or ‘craft brewer.’ This is interesting because technically (under the Brewers Association’s definition), New Century doesn’t qualify as a craft brewer because (until very recently), all of its beers were made with flavor lightening adjuncts. The wording of the release tracks the BA’s definition but for its omission of the word ‘traditional,’ which the association defines as:
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.
What is much more interesting is that ostensibly, no one at New Century has yet seen the film. It’s release suggests at the film’s direction by predicting:
Beer Wars tells how corporate behemoths are using their muscle to try to snuff-out small, independent brewers who are shunning the status quo and creating innovative new beers.
The folks at New Century assume that their treatment in the film will be positive but, as I have wondered aloud about before, there is reason to believe that may not be the case. Historian and author Maureen Ogle, who will be a member of the panel airing immediately following the fillm, suggests that Rhonda Kallman’s central role in the film may be as a foil. She wrote on the MadFermentationist site linked above the following:
Rhonda is in the film because she’s NOT a big name. The whole point was that she did not “succeed” and the filmmaker, Anat Baron, wanted to compare Rhonda’s story to someone who did “succeed” (in this case, Sam C.)
Kallman’s inclusion in this project is curious on several levels but also brings the greatest opportunity for a narrative arc and to tell the story I believe the fillmmaker envisions (at least as far as I can glean from her public statements). If so, as I’ve written before, the film could be quite good. If, on the other hand, it merely repeats the tired, dated refrain of big versus little and misses the nuances involved (including that the fillmmaker appears to improperly lump New Century in with all craft brewers), then it will be a lost opportunity and a lot of work for an hour-and-a-half long craft beer infomercial.
I’ve debated this film several times over the last two or three weeks with friends and colleagues, which is certainly a good thing. So it’s time now to put away the keyboard and to revisit the subject after the film debuts. I believe that I’ll probably miss the panel discussion because I have to visit the anti-craft beer world of Lucero at the Paradise, but I’ll try to catch up with several of its members to gather its flavor.