Battle of the Bland for Craft Brewers in ‘Beer Wars’


If you want to drink excellent beer, we have it. If you want compromise your standards and drink yellow nonsense, then you’re probably not our customer anyway, so what do we care?”- Greg Koch, co-founder Stone Brewing

In nearly a decade of writing about small business, there is no single group I’ve enjoyed talking with more than craft brewers. It’s an industry that attracts passionate beer-lovers of all stripes, meaning it has more than its share of fun-loving oddballs. (Yes, a cult-like religious devotee to the products by your man with a can may hold sway.) Thus, I was looking forward to the 2009 documentary Beer Wars, a classic look at scrappy craft beer Davids taking on the big bland brew Goliaths.

Well, my reaction to the film was the equal of an Abita Beer’s raspberry Purple Haze (as opposed to the delicious Strawberry Harvest): Quaffable, with a major kick, but ultimately unsatisfying with a bit of a bitter aftertaste.

The problems with Beer Wars can be laid at the feet of the filmmaker, Anat Baron, or more precisely, her decision to take cover in the elephantine shadow of underdog muckraker nonpareil, Michael Moore. The angry fat man’s techniques overwhelm the trenchant stuff in the film without ever raising the pitchforks and torches the way good agitprop needs to do. Let’s look at where Moore’s influence renders Beer Wars flat.

1. Filmmaker Megalomania: Like Moore, Anat Baron decides to make herself the centerpiece, but unlike Moore, she doesn’t have the massive personality (or frame) to pull it off. Her connection to the beer industry is that she was a manager at Mike’s Hard Lemonade and knows how hard it is for the little guy to compete. Fair enough, but her former job doesn’t lend her any sort of expertise that Beer Wars uses to its benefit. Baron comes across as good-natured and friendly, but she isn’t a force like Moore, a guinea pig like Morgan Sperlock, or a fearless schemer like Nick Broomfield, so she ends up being a distraction in her own film. At times, you get the feeling Baron knows it, because she disappears during stretches in the middle. Michael Moore couldn’t disappear with the help of David Copperfield.

2. Boilerplate Gimmickry: Animation? Check. Black-and-white commercials? Check. Voiceover narration? Check. Disconnected shot of a visit to a Clydesdale farm? Check. OK, so the last one only pertains to Beer Wars, but you get the point. Early on, she animates the fact that wouldn’t you know it? She’s allergic to beer“¦ Wow. The irony. It’s so much more vivid in cartoon form. In places, it’s effective, like juxtaposing footage of the Big Three CEOs discussing the quality of their brands along with commercials featuring farting horses or jiggly boobies, but ultimately the documentary gimmicks are as routine as sepia tones and violin melodies in a Ken Burns production.

3. Irrelevant Man-on-the-Street Interviews: At one point in the film, Baron ask people at a Santa Monica bar about Budweiser Super Bowl ads, while they’re watching the Super Bowl. We learn that most of the selected-to-fit interviewees think Bud is the official Super Bowl sponsor, when actually it’s Coors. That sucks for the brand managers in Golden, Col., but what does that have to do with the price of hops in Hungary? All the craft brewers know they have to build loyalists beer-by-beer, not through some insipid ad with horny woodchucks they could never afford in the first place.

4. Faux Naivety: Late in the film, Baron goes to Washington D.C. to attend a big beer lobbying event. And she is shocked, shocked, to find big breweries influence the government with their deep pockets. The $4.6-billion Anheuser-Busch InBev has more pull with the lobbyists than Chicago’s Black Toad Brewing Co.? Wonders never cease.

5. Unearned Pathos: AB bought Rolling Rock a few years back solely for the name and local history, and then promptly shut down the famous “33” plant in Latrobe, Pa. Corporatism at its worst. However, Rolling Rock was not a craft brewery, which is why it’s a two-minute scene jammed into Beer Wars to show how terrible it is for a workingman to lose his job. Agreed. Budweiser is terrible. But the schmaltz fizzles.


6. Manipulating the Subjects: One of the featured subjects of Beer Wars is Sam Adams co-founder Rhonda Kallman, who is now peddling a caffeine-infused brew called Moonshot. Ignoring the fact that Moonshot is a marketing gimmick that clearly evolved from the crime that is Red Bull*, Kallman tries to sell her product to Coors and Anheuser-Busch. She gets rejected, but bully for her if she gets another shot and convinces them otherwise. I was perplexed by this counter to the film’s David vs. Goliath theme. Kallman is a savvy business owner looking for capital, not an experimental beermaker. A more cynical review might note that she’s a mother of three having a rough go of it. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s more cooked up pathos for Baron’s audience manipulation.

7. Ignoring the Actual Forest for the Premise of the Trees: The biggest problem with Beer Wars (and the best thing in the real world) is that craft brewers are gaining market share bottle-by-bottle. As noted in the film, craft beer is the only growing segment in the industry. There are some 1,500 American breweries, up from basically zero 30 years ago, and market leaders like Stone, New Belgium and Brooklyn are widely distributed and enormously popular. Baron scores solid points exposing the origins of organic beer from “Green Valley Brewing”: a Budweiser plant. The film also deserves credit for explaining the big breweries’ monopolistic practices in distribution and grocery store shelving, but the meaningful strides of microbreweries in recent years are overlooked. Whole Foods is a flag-bearer for the craft beer revolution. My local Brooklyn Associated Grocery has an entire walk-in beer bonanza featuring an amazing selection of microbrews, and my hometown of Billings Mont. is flush with handcrafted Tap Rooms.

For all its freshman shortcomings, Beer Wars is worthwhile for one reason: Sam Calagione, founder and President of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware. He’s the star of the show, a daffy, dedicated beer nut facing the biggest expansion of his company’s life. Calagione steals the film through the combination of his down-to-earth personality and mad scientist methods. Think Blood Orange Heffeweizen or Pangaea, which features an ingredient from all seven continents, including water from Antarctica.

It’s because of brewers like Calagione that you and I can walk into just about any bar in America and have ourselves an artisanal glass of beer. In honor of Calagione and all the brewers out there doing the Lord’s work, it’s worth cracking a pint and taking in the film. You might get lost in the sloppy mess that is Beer Wars, but the insurgents are winning.

Further information: check out Todd Alstrom of Beer in a post-film discussion on the DVD extras. I recommend the panel – it offers a more edifying discussion than the film itself.

Images: Beer Wars, ddb & kdw