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.
Well said, my friend. The film was an enjoyable enough documentary, but could have been much more.
Took most of the words out of my mouth. Thanks for the impressions.
I think you summed up my feelings very well.
Another odd thing that struck me this morning is that by the time Baron started filming, in late 2005, Kallman’s story was essentially already written, having failed to get any real foothold since releasing her Edison Light beer four years earlier, on the day before 9/11. By this point, the filmmaker had already missed the first 3/4’s of the story and arrived only to see the finale, where Kallman and NCBC had no money and were desperate. The film failed to provide that contextual point. That Kallman was herself still trying to hand-sell the beer to bars in the Boston area (leaving her kids late at night nonetheless) four to five years after founding the company nearby was an important point to establish.
I have enjoyed reading your columns over the years. I read them mainly in the book we subscribe to for our store here in western MA. I went to the movie last night mainly because I like to provide good customer service and I think my customers would have expected me to go see it since it is my industry. In all honesty, I didn;t want to go but I have to say now that I’m glad I did. I went by myself. I learned so much about the business that as a retailer I was aware of but didn’t really know or understand. It made it easy for me to understand. Except for the guy Stein, I was so moved by the movie and by the guy Sam and Moonshot lady Rhonda that I wanted to see if other industry people felt the same way…most of the stuff I’ve read has been pretty positive. Your blog was the most negative which is why I’m responding…for some reason you seem to have a grudge against the Moonshot Lady that comes across as hippocritical. Why would you put in parentheses (leaving the kids home no less) because she is out selling her product. Mr. Koch as well as the Harpoon owner have been in our store selling their product, would you say that (leaving the kids…) about them? we’ve had big wigs at big companies selling product in our stores and i know they were out the night before selling their product at bars. that;s what they do. I;m sure Sam Cal has done plenty of it,..The more I read of your column the more cynical i found it. It was like you are annoyed with Ms. Baron for making this film before you did. I just thought you were uncharacteristically disrepectful of the people, especially the Moonshot lady, in our industry reviewing this movie…
I’m not sure you have the correct definition (or spelling) of hypocritical and you’ve taken my parentheses comments out of context. My point, as made clear in the review, was that it was heart-wrenching to watch Kallman’s struggles. The note about her children was not to characterize her actions in any negative way, such as “that a woman has no business” doing such a thing. On the contrary, my point was that if you’re the president of NCBC and five or six years into the business, especially with her background, and you’re still making bar calls at 11 p.m. at night, something is clearly wrong. I can understand hand-selling at night in the early days, but this was five to six years later. That’s a very bad sign so I think you took my comments the wrong way. I would say the same thing of Jim Koch or Rich Doyle if they were packing a cooler at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday.
If you’re a loyal reader then you’ll know I’ve been writing about Rhonda Kallman for nearly a decade, including publishing the first long-form interview (in Mass Beverage Business, the journal you speak of) with her after she announced the formation of her company. What you see as disrespectful, I offer as an honest assessment of the successes and failures of her business. I’ve met Rhonda, spoken with her several times, and she’s a nice lady trying very hard. That doesn’t add or detract from her present business situation.
And I’m not annoyed with the film, just disappointed that it missed an opportunity to tell a much fuller story.
And just as an aside for those reading this thread, I heartily recommend checking out the documentary/buddy travelogue “American Beer,” by Paul Kermizian. Released a few years ago, it’s a fun film about the passion of craft brewers.