Friday, April 17, 2009

Beer Wars: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Last night was the premiere of the "one time" movie event called Beer Wars Live. Beer Wars was a documentary about the struggles of craft beer industry to get a foothold into the small 5% of the beer market not controlled by the big beer makers. The movie was produced and directed by Anat Baron, former exec who worked on the Mike's Hard Lemonade business. The entire event lasted just over 2 hours including pre-event trivia and film clips, a "live" introduction by Ben Stein and Anat herself, the ~90 minute film and finally a 30 minute panel discussion lead by Ben Stien and joined in by Charlie Papazian, Greg Koch, Sam Calagione, Rhonda Kallman, Maureen Ogle and Todd Alstrom.

Given the fact that this event was a documentary and not a feature film, I won't focus on the entertainment factor of this film but rather comment on what I thought the film was trying to point out to the general public. I'm going to break down some points into what I'll call the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

First, the Good

The film did a wonderful job describing the beer landscape in America. You got to know who all the main players were, a bit of the history surrounding the beer industry and spotlights upon a few of the players in the smaller craft beer market. Anat chose to focus on a couple key players: Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head and Rhonda Kallman, co-founder of Boston Beer and entrepreneur with a new beer called Moonshot.

Several other craft brewers were featured in cameo appearances but for the most part Sam and Rhonda and Anat herself were featured.

What struck me was just how tough and cut throat competitive the beer industry is and how complex the 3-tier production - distribution and retail arena is. The big beer makers: AB-InBev and MillerCoors now make up the vast majority of the beer sales in this country let alone the world. The craft beer industry is essentially struggling to survive on just a 5% slice of the entire beer pie.

The film did a great job showing how tough business can be for craft brewers to get shelf space at the local retailers and how the big boys play hardball to keep the small guys at bay.

I enjoyed the segments that featured talks from breweries like New Belgium, Stone Brewing and Sam Adams. Even the segments on Anheuser-Busch and Miller and Coors were interesting to watch. Anat covered the industry situation very well including how the roles of Government and lobbyists play in this market.

After the film was over, there was a live discussion with many of the same "stars" of the movie and the audience got to get a more personal and intimate look at these beer industry leaders.

But now the Bad

While I understand that doing a "live" segment of any event can have it's up's and down's, the live intro seemed very awkward. Anat and Ben introduced the movie "live" but fell victim to either technical difficulties or a lack of preparation. Anat seemed more like a movie star accepting an Academy Award in introducing the movie than a beer industry expert. The intro could have been skipped in my opinion and they could have simply rolled the film to get things started.

The film included a lot of old TV and film segments from old commercials and news stories. The quality of those video segments simply looked horrible up on the big digital screen. While the majority of the film looked good, the old documentary segments reminded me of playing old 8-bit video games on a High Def screen. The visual quality of the old clips simply didn't look good.

Certain segments of the film focused on the personal life of Sam Calagione and Rhonda Kellman. During one scene at Rhonda's home we got to meet her family and heard the screams and cries of her daughter agonizing over seeing her mom leaving her ( once again) to go out and hustle product to stores and bars. I could have done without having to see that. Keep the kids out of the movies please. Sure, it shows a human side to the brewers, but in a beer documentary, I'd rather see more about beer than a segment reminiscent of Jon and Kate plus 8.

Anat seemed to put herself in the spotlight a bit too much in her film. The beginning of the film was basically all about her and made her out to be a quirky little cartoon character hero. It struck me as odd that someone who is so close to the beer industry and so heavily involved was allergic to alcohol. Well, it's her film, so she could do what she wanted to basically. But I felt that could have been cut out.

And the Ugly

While Ben Stein may be somewhat of a pop icon to the MTV generation due to his appearances in films and TV, he simply didn't belong up there as a moderator in a craft beer discussion. His questions were awkward and sometimes silly. He cut off people when asking questions and simply didn't seem very knowledgeable about the topic at hand. He was more concerned about who's turn it was to talk and to ensure the film clips got played correctly. I felt Charlie Papazian was mostly ignored on the panel and probably would have made a much better moderator than Ben Stein.

The movie itself focused too much on the story of Rhonda Kellman and her struggles to get a caffeinated beer on the market. Her Moonshot beer was called into question as to whether or not it should have been a focus in the movie. Later on in the live panel discussion, Mark Alstrom of BeerAdvocate simply slammed Rhonda's beer calling it CRAP in a film clip and then put her and Mark on the spot to get their reaction to that. I was shocked that Rhonda subjected herself to such harsh criticism live from the Alstrom brothers. That was simply uncalled for.

For people on the West Coast, where the film was debuted and where the live discussion took place, the event wasn't live and was taped. Many of the movie theaters had problems showing the taped event. Some theaters didn't get any sound and many people had to be given refunds due to all the technical difficulties. That's poor planning on behalf of Fathom Productions and for a company that specializes in special events like this, the problems could have and should have been prevented.

My last beef about this movie was the price. The ticket price was $15 and if you bought your ticket ahead of time there was a surcharge fee tacked on by most theaters. My ticket cost me $16. For a 2 hour movie event like this, it should have included a coupon for a free beer later on for the price. I think it would have been better off simply charging regular admission and skipping the "live" stuff altogether. For those who didn't see the movie, go rent it on DVD this summer.

Wrap up

Overall, I enjoyed most of the Beer Wars event. I'm glad I went to it. It left me with a much better understanding and appreciation of the craft beer industry and how it works. It made me painfully aware of how our own local craft brewers have to fight hard to survive. It also left me highly concerned over how the 3-tier system works and how the giants in the industry can take advantage of their position and push out the smaller guys. AB-InBev was made out to be a huge villain in this movie. Something they probably deserve. Having a live panel discussion was a good idea in theory, but it could have come off a lot better than it did.

How about a sequel? Well, if there were to be any sequel to this film, it should probably be done another 10 years down the road to see how much ground, if any, the craft beer industry can gain over the big giants. There are many other craft brewers out there that could be spotlighted and I'm sure I'd love to hear their stories as well. I would also like to see more coverage of the homebrewing market and how the average Joe is enjoying making their own beer.

Other reviews of Beer Wars:

- 2BeerGuys
- Andy Crouch's BeerScribe
- Appellation Beer
- Barleyvine
- A Good Beer Blog
- Kasper on Tap
- Lyke2Drink
- Top Fermented
- Yours for Good Fermentables

Related articles:
- Samuel Adams Beer Dinner recap.
- The people you meet at the GABF.
- Great things come in small batches.

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