Hey, Wanna Hear Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione Talk Microbes And Drink Beer?

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Living in Cambridge has its perks, including access to nearby Harvard University and its core of interesting programming. In between looking up the next Harvard hockey game and perusing the David Brooks lecture, I came across this unexpected and unusual gem that I have not seen elsewhere on the web.

“Man and microbe: Exotic ales since the birth of civilization.”

Hosted by the Microbial Sciences Initiative (somebody knows how to party), the event is free and open to the public but requires tickets, which go on sale today (1/19) at noon. The event will be held at 5pm on February 2 (the day before the Extreme Beer Festival here in Boston). Sadly, I cannot attend but I imagine it will be a good time. A beer tasting follows the seminar.

Sam’s event looks to be a touch more interesting than the next seminar, “Recent developments in extracellular electron transport and electromicrobiology”, but perhaps less interesting than “Dinosaurs, martians and mammals: Nihilistic thoughts on the origin of virulence.” Now that’s a title.

Available by phone (617-496-2222) and internet (http://www.boxoffice.harvard.edu) for a fee. Tickets can also be picked up in person at the Harvard Box Office (Holyoke Ctr.).

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Why Big Brewers Are Bad For Craft Beer: The Brew Masters Controversy…

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Of course, a day or so after I stick my neck out for the big brewers saying they may have turned a corner, writer and television host Anthony Bourdain sent out a couple of bombshell tweets in which he seems to suggest that the Discovery Channel is either holding back or canceling production of the popular beer show Brew Masters due to pressure from its advertisers, namely the big brewers. Now I disdain reporting based solely on quixotic 140 character stabs but these were pretty disturbing allegations. Now MillerCoors has of course heavily invested in advertising on the program for its Blue Moon product, so it would be a curious thing for that company to be involved. But, as I noted, we have next to no information either way. So, of course, the blog and twitterspheres are up in arms, accepting the tweets as gospel, assuming Anheuser Busch InBev is behind the conspiracy, and telling me how wrong I’ve been. As with the Goose Island story, I’ll wait until we have some more information (which I am trying to get now) until we cast all our anti-big beer stones. I will say, however, that if the allegations prove true, it’s a pretty major form of dirty play by the big guys and I expect an absolutely massive backlash to follow, perhaps even from regular, everyday Bud guys and gals.

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A Brief Beer Wars Post-Gaming and My Final Words On The Subject…

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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.

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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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Novelty and The New Yorker…

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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.

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