Beer Wars

So, like any self-respecting homebrewer and craft beer enthusiast, I went to see Beer Wars last night. Actually, Matt went as well, so all of Bamf Beer was present :)

The movie is a commentary on the business side of beer. Beyond brewing (in fact, the movie didn’t get very deep into the actual nuts and bolts of brewing to any great extent), it talks more about how the beer we all drink actually gets to us. It’s branded, labeled, sent to distributors, and from there goes to the retailers, who then sell it to us. But of course, there’s much, much more to it than that. Hidden in the nooks and crannies of this system are political contributions, lobbyists, enormous business concerns, buyouts, and illegal bribes, all in a battle over shelf space and positioning, and market control and dominance.

Sam Calagione

There are three main threads running through the movie. First, Anat Baron, the producer and director, as well as the film’s narrator, follows the story of Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Brewing, which by now is a major force in the craft brewing movement. Independently, so is Sam himself, who is on the cutting edge of the whole food/beer pairing and beer sommelier push resulting in a rash of “beer dinners” and books about beer and food pairings which has been interesting to watch.

Through the course of the movie, we watch as Sam grows his brand, and his brewery, taking ever-bigger risks to keep his dream alive, putting nearly everything at stake.

I gained more respect for Sam and his plight in watching this movie, overall. I’m not a big fan of most of his beers. To me, beers should be hoppy, but not really *about* the hops, and I feel that Dogfish Head puts a little too much emphasis on the hop. His off-the-wall beers are really interesting, but not something I’m going to buy six pack after six pack of. I do like his Indian Brown Ale though… and some of his writing has been great!

What I liked about Sam, though, was that even though he is growing, he does seem to be “keeping it real”, to a large degree. His staff are pushing the envelope. Doing things nobody has tried, or nobody has nailed, and he’s nailing them. He’s fighting for real beer, whether you like his particular beers or not. His approach is not “drink my beer”. It’s more about “drink real beer — any one will do.” I find that when I evangelize beer, that’s the approach I’m taking as well. Picking a beer is a highly nuanced, subjective, and ultimately personal choice. Sam knows that, and isn’t so arrogant as to think he has a beer to satisfy everyone on Earth.

Rhonda Kallman

Then there’s Rhonda Kallman, co-creator of Sam Adams, who left Sam Adams to start her own venture. Her story is a heart wrenching tale of struggle for a marketing hustler trying to establish a new beer in the market, trying to get funding, going deeply into debt, all in the name of keeping her dream alive in the face of cut throat tactics by bigger brewers to dominate retailer shelves.

I have respect for Rhonda for her work at Sam Adams, but I really have a hard time sympathizing with someone who seems to have thrown out all she ever learned about the beer business in starting her own brand. I mean, she worked for a company that helped launch the craft beer movement and is now the biggest brewery in America. The company that reintroduced America to things like hops, and beers with a color other than pale yellow. Heck, Jim even got busy with some top-fermenting yeast and had the balls to market (gasp!) ale to a 100% lager-drinking public. He’s *still* pushing the envelope, and continues to support the brewing craft.

OF COURSE SA’s success had a lot to do with marketing, and hustling, and shmoozing, and all of the stuff brewers would rather not be bothered with. But there’s a soul to a brewing operation, and it’s the craft, not the marketing. She missed that, left it all behind, threw it away, and began marketing a gimmick. Moonshot is the not result of a passion for great beer. It was created from a love of money, and a lot of (perhaps misplaced, as it turns out) confidence.

What’s ironic is that she considers AB the devil, but isn’t doing anything much different from them. Heck, at least AB owns actual breweries!

I guess I respect her perseverance, but I think she made some horribly bad choices, and perhaps put more faith in her ability to sell than the ability for a good product to sell itself.

Anat Baron

Finally, there’s Anat herself, who travels around the country to expose some of what goes on in the political spectrum as it relates to brewing, and spotlighting some craft breweries that are making it, against all odds, and keeping the dream alive. Namely, Stone Brewing, and New Belgium Brewing. Both make good beers. Stone is perhaps my favorite American brewery at the moment (that’s always subject to change on roughly a quarterly basis).

Keepin’ the Dream Alive

But what is this dream, exactly?

In listening to Sam, Rhonda, Greg (from Stone Brewing), and others in the panel, they’re all sounding rather pie-in-the-sky about it. Some quotes are a little cliche by now… “It’s about what’s in the glass.” says Charlie Papazian, a homebrewing pioneer. Sam says he has zero interest in being bought by a big outfit. The implication by most of the panel was that becoming big, beyond a certain point, was “selling out” or something. But then they go on to talk about the fact that Sam has employees outside the brewery all over the country working as sales people, and Stone now has a pretty wide distribution and is a 100-barrel brewery themselves.

Well… you can’t have it both ways. You can talk a good game about keeping it small, keeping it simple, living the dream, keeping it real, and keeping it alive, but it’s hard to swallow when you’re upgrading to a 100-barrel house and trying to get distribution in all 50 states. Those are business growth moves. There are business decisions that are made in support of a move to geolocated sales offices and a quadrupling of capacity, and those aren’t necessarily “all about what’s in the glass.”

I found quite a few similar contradictions in the panel discussion after the movie, but I didn’t go into the movie in “reporter mode”, and so didn’t write down all the quotes I’d need to make a stronger argument. My bad.

So… the point?

So what was the point of Beer Wars, exactly? The stated purpose is to start a conversation. But it’s obviously biased in how it frames the conversation. They frame it as a war between David and Goliath, and we should all be dutiful little beer-drinking hippies and start spending all of our money on craft beer and shaving our heads and knocking on doors to spread the word. I think that’s silly, and way off base, not to mention completely unnecessary.

First, it’s completely unnecessary because the movie’s target audience is clearly people who already drink, or make, craft beer, so in that regard, they’re preaching to the choir.

Second, most of the things they say the big boys do to make it hard on craft brewers has clearly not stopped the likes of Dogfish Head, Stone, New Belgium, and Sam Adams from becoming succesful ventures anyway. This isn’t to say that state laws couldn’t be more amenable to fostering a brewing industry in their state (I’m looking at you, New Jersey), and the lobbyists make that harder, but there are craft breweries in damn near every state of the union!

Third, most of the challenges talked about in the beer industry aren’t really unique to the beer industry. If I decided to go out and market a new cereal, or a new soft drink, I’d have challenges very similar to those faced by brewers.

The Verdict

From the above you might think I hated to movie. Not so. I thought it was entertaining, and educational. If they’d taken away the sensationalism around the whole “war” mantra, it would have been entertaining, and educational, and not annoying at the same time.

It was great to see Sam and Greg sharing their thoughts on their beer, and the industry, and their fans, and it was enlightening to learn a bit more about the NBWA and the 3-tier system. As someone who can envision “going pro” one day (I’m not yet delusional enough to say “will go pro”), it was a great “head’s up!” movie, and I mostly enjoyed the heck out of it, and appreciate Anat Baron’s immense commitment and follow through on this project.

My Take

When I was a kid, the only beers you could get that weren’t made by BMC were Bass, Guinness, and Harp. There were still a few regional breweries like Rolling Rock and Yeungling, but it wasn’t a given that they’d be on the shelves of your local liquor store even if it was a mere 50 miles from the brewery. Today, I live less than 5 miles from two liquor stores where I have my pick of over 100 different beers from all over the US and the world. Works for me!

As a brewer and beer evangelist, the coming of the internet (almost completely neglected in the movie) has made it far easier for me to both brew and talk to others about beer (for better or worse). I have a vast collection of anecdotes about peoples’ experiences with beer, both drinking and brewing, from people I would never have known or heard of otherwise. This helps me, and it helps beer.

Being connected with others, and communicating, and debating and discussing, is ground zero for the formation of any community, and building a community and building a brand are ever so deliciously intertwined.

The tweets, the dinners, the handshakes, answering your own phone and talking to drinkers, having a great time and sharing your beer might be tiring, but it’s great fun, and it’s great community-based marketing, and it doesn’t require you to shed any notion of ethics, integrity, or the idea of creating an honest product that you have a passion for and makes other people happy.

People who drink Bud… well, they drink Bud. It’s part cultural: they drink it because their father drank it. They drink it because the guys at work drink it. They drink it because it’s the coldest beer at the bar where they play in the weekly Bud-sponsored pool tournaments with their friends. Saying “they don’t know any better” might be true, but it’s also a little condescending and taking the easy way out. These people make up vast, virtually uninterrupted swaths of the American population. Taking 50% market share to split up amongst the various breweries is going to take quite some time. The good news is that Sam and Greg are proof that you can at least make a living and drink phenomenal beer while you wait for that to happen.

So take it easy. Let the fighters fight. Drink good beer. Drink real beer. Make an adventure of it. Above all, to quote Papazian, “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew.”

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