Rethinking The Blog Love Fest Over Beer Wars The Movie…

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.

Be Social:

Novelty and The New Yorker…

A remarkable thing happened a few months back. One of America’s most respected periodicals, the New Yorker, a great chronicler of popular culture, published a nearly 10,000 word tome on one of craft beer’s brightest lights. And while public response to the energetic and engaging profile of Dogfish Head’s intrepid leader Sam Calagione bordered on the euphoric for craft beer enthusiasts, the remarkable piece left me a little concerned.

A rollicking good read, the article follows a Ken Kesey-esque Calagione through a patchwork of interviews, bawdy high jinks, and entertaining stories. Using Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver as an uneasy contrast and even unlikelier foil, the resulting profile includes the author’s contextual observations about his lead character as the king of extreme, and, to a lesser extent, about the craft beer industry in general. While the article captures Calagione’s spirit if occasionally portraying him as a barely mitigated eccentric, it’s the lasting impression of the craft beer industry and its association with extreme that bothered me.

After first denigrating craft beer as a ‘fad’ and then pronouncing it ‘dead,’ the mainstream media has had a particularly fickle relationship with craft brewers. Despite these slags on the fine efforts of struggling craft brewers, the news media’s subtler approach to craft beer in recent years poses a bigger challenge to the industry. And the New Yorker article’s title put the issue front and center in the magazine’s first real foray into the craft beer world, “The rise of extreme beer.?

For the last five years, newspaper editors, magazine writers, and television producers have sought to define craft beer as being extreme. And for a while, craft brewers were perfectly happy being portrayed as representing a break from the average, tired, mass-produced brands. While a handful of adventurous brewers have seen success by pushing the brewing envelope in an effort to redefine the very nature of beer, the overwhelming majority of craft brewers still run very traditional operations. Beyond obscuring the true efforts of the vast majority of craft brewers, the direction of such media coverage serves to subtly suggest that the efforts of smaller breweries are unusual in a way that appeals to only a very limited segment of the public.

Craft brewers should be concerned that their efforts and products, which for mainstream success must focus on both flavor and accessibility of their products, will grow isolated from potential customers by way of inaccurate media coverage. Oliver’s stated concerns in the New Yorker article about the alienating effects of appealing to such a small demographic, and by its definition of having craft beer equated with and defined as extreme beer, are understandable. For the majority of craft brewers who are looking to grow their businesses, the notion that they are doing something strange should not be encouraged. Instead, their efforts should be portrayed as a return to normalcy after a long-standing hibernation of taste, a welcomed homecoming from a time where bland, flavorless beers and foods reigned. In the same way that the average consumer does not look upon Chinese, Mexican, or Thai food as the extreme of eating, craft brewers should be wary of having their efforts defined as weird or strange by the media.

To be sure, the New Yorker article was a watershed event in the history of the craft brewing renaissance, one that symbolized an arrival on a new stage, a proper introduction to an audience that prides itself on sophistication. As the mainstream media continues to focus its attention on craft brewing, I hope that the industry can achieve a balance of coverage and avoid the restrictive and isolating label of novelty.

–Article appeared in Volume III, Issue I of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

Be Social: