The Boston Globe Reviews “Beer Wars,” Sort Of…

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A curious article appears in the Boston Globe today. Written by Globe columnist Alex Beam, the piece discusses the upcoming documentary by Anat Baron, “Beer Wars,” that we’ve covered here before. The odd thing is that Beam isn’t really reviewing the movie, mainly because Baron is not pre-releasing copies for critical review. He does capture the unusual nature of the single day release and he was also allowed to watch ten minutes of the film. His grade based upon this “sip”: C+. While the “review” is interesting in itself, under the circumstances, it is the content of the limited portion of the film that seems to confirm many of my concerns in my last post. The concerns, namely, that Beer Wars would simply be a little-versus-big hatchet job and one based upon an anachronistic view of the beer industry. Definitely take a look at the column for yourself, but here is the heart of Beam’s piece:

What about the movie? Baron is review-proofing it, not scheduling screenings for critics, and not sending out DVDs to interested parties like me. Her people let me see about 10 minutes of “BW,” and it wasn’t very impressive.

What I saw was Michael Moore 101: Little craft breweries like Dogfish Head and MoonShot = Good. Anheuser-Busch, a.k.a. “the soulless machine,” the “monopoly,” the “corporate behemoth with their insatiable appetite for growth” = Bad. Baron takes a page right from the “Roger and Me” playbook, making much of Anheuser CEO August Busch’s refusal to grant her an interview. They did allow her on the premises, however, to hang out with the Clydesdales. “They were my best interview,” she joked.

I asked Baron why she insists on calling Anheuser a “monopoly,” when there are plenty of other beer companies out there. “I went to business school, I know what ‘monopoly’ means,” Baron shot back. Well, I went to eighth grade, where I learned that monopoly means “one seller.” I’m sure Anheuser would like to be a monopoly, but alas, Coors, Miller, Sam Adams, and Dogfish all stand in the way.

In the movie, Dogfish founder Sam Calagione decries publicly owned companies whose goal is “maximizing shareholder value.” Maybe he should hang out with Jim Koch, who runs a publicly owned company, and ask him why he’s in business. For the betterment of mankind, perhaps? “Sam” wages its own amusing deception campaign, calling itself a “small, independent craft brewer” when, with $400 million in revenues and three breweries under its belt, it is the largest American beer company in the United States. (Busch, Miller, and Coors are all foreign-owned.)

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More Fear of Blue Moon (by MillerCoors!) From the Brewers Association…

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Brewers Association founder and president Charlie Papazian is a passionate advocate for the small brewers his organization represents. He is also a prolific writer, having penned several books and magazine articles. Papazian also takes part in a new form of journalism/writing, writing a column on beer for Examiner.com. Launched in five cities, including Papazian’s nearby Denver, the Examiner.com is not associated with any particular news organization and the content is left to respective topic experts.

I’ve only recently started noting this column but one recent post caught my attention. Papazian generally writes about topics of interest to his organization and small brewers, a fair amount of industry talk actually. His most recent topic, “Blue Moon by MillerCoors ramps up marketing dollars,? was ostensibly about the recent news that MillerCoors plans to extend the marketing for the beer to the medium of television, a first for the carefully managed brand.

But a few throw-away lines in the lede and the rest of the article show how entrenched the association’s fear of Blue Moon is.

Blue Moon by MillerCoors is considered by many beer drinkers as a craft beer made by a small brewery. In actuality it’s a big brewer’s specialty brand that has enjoyed successful sales across the United States.

and

It will be interesting to watch whether MillerCoors Blue Moon can convince craft beer drinkers to switch from their local beers to theirs. Can advertising and marketing engage craft beer drinkers?

The unusual thing with these lines, and the entire tone of the Examiner piece and other similar pronouncements from the Brewers Association, is how they perceive Blue Moon as an interloper in the craft beer world as opposed to a brand that has actually made positive contributions to advancements in American beer culture. The Brewers Association, and similarly minded beer enthusiasts and craft brewers, appears to think that Blue Moon is a late-to-the-party attempt by a big brewer to co-opt the craft brewers’ mojo. In reality, the Blue Moon brand, as differentiated from the vast majority of craft-style beers from Anheuser-Busch and Miller, has actually been a very positive and pioneering force in the promotion of better beer in America. The truth is that there are few individual craft brands that have done as much as the Blue Moon Belgian White for changing the way average drinkers think about the pints in front of them.

I’ve been writing about The Curious Case of Blue Moon and how craft brewers have responded to it for several years. In an early BeerAdvocate column, I wrote:

And here starts the craft beer lover’s political problem. Should it matter that Blue Moon is brewed by America’s third largest brewery, one that produces more than 23-million barrels of beer per year? Countless dedicated craft beer drinkers have seen a Blue Moon tap handle, ordered and enjoyed the brand, only to later discover the Coors connection. While they certainly have an understandable objection about truth in labeling (a complaint they can also lodge with many contract-brewed craft brands), it doesn’t change the fact they probably liked the beer when they tasted it blind to beer politics. In the end, shouldn’t the question always be, is the beer any good?

I think the point remains a strong one. And it leads to my other criticisms and comments:

In dismissing Blue Moon as another big brewery poseur brand, contrarian beer lovers miss two larger points. First, in reporting the achievements of American craft brewers, the Brewers Association doesn’t include Blue Moon and its double-digit growth volume. While Blue Moon may not qualify for membership in the ‘craft beer’ club, it’s certainly a charter member of the ‘better beer’ segment. When added to the tally sheet, the Blue Moon brand’s explosive growth is perhaps the best evidence of a sea change in the American palate.

The second point is perhaps the least appreciated. In contrast to the sometimes-juvenile efforts of America’s two largest breweries, Coors has long treated the Blue Moon brand in a remarkably innovative manner: with respect. Blue Moon’s artistic point-of-sale materials, refusal to run television ads, and its dedication to the ritual of serving the luminous wheat beer in proper, shapely glassware speaks to the gentle, considered treatment of this brand. In comparison, one need only look at the absurd tap handles for Anheuser-Busch’s own line of seasonal draft beers to get the sneaking suspicion the brewing giant is trying to make craft beer look like a bunch of clowns.

I also think that the Brewers Association should stick to defining ‘craft brewer,’ which it claims to only do so for internal, data purposes, and quit trying to define ‘craft beer.’ This subject too has been discussed several times before and members of the Brewers Association’s staff have privately admitted error in previous uses of the ‘craft beer’ moniker, which no longer appears as a definition on its site. I’ve adopted the BeerAdvocate definition of craft beer, which is “beer brewed in limited quantities often using traditional methods.? Under this definition, I think Blue Moon clearly qualifies as a craft beer.

I can certainly appreciate how craft brewers, especially certain larger producers, might be concerned over competing with a macro-brewery with a powerhouse brand, especially one that apparently now plans to release specialty products, including a 9-percent Grand Cru edition. But I think the Brewers Association needs to rethink its approach to attacking brands such as Blue Moon, especially as the craft brewing industry grows. And if there is such antipathy towards these big brewers, perhaps it is time for the Brewers Association to go public with its privately stated desire to remove the larger brewers from sponsorship and distribution aid for the group’s signature money-making event, the Great American Beer Festival. With the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference in Boston, I remain interested in seeing whether the association’s membership takes some moments to let the staff know how they privately feel about these issues.

EDIT: A commenter noted another Papazian post that I was just reading as well, relating to a clip from the upcoming “Beer Wars” documentary. I thought I’d include that here for your review. I’m hoping that the film itself doesn’t just present the anti-Blue Moon side but also represents the many craft brewers who don’t view Blue Moon and Coors negatively.

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Rethinking The Blog Love Fest Over Beer Wars The Movie…

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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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