Americans drink a lot of beer. We eat a lot of chocolate; we go to a lot of movies; we smoke lots of cigarettes, drive expensive cars, and watch lots of football games. We spend billions of dollars renting videos, buying computers, and visiting amusement parks. The American consumer is known the world over for their ability to spend money, and we’re reminded nearly every day (particularly during this time of less-than-ideal economic prosperity) that American consumerism is one of the engines that drives the world’s economy.
Still, it is amazing to see how much Americans spend on beer alone. Considering that Americans are thought by many to be an uptight bunch, it boggles the mind to consider how much money is spent on beer the world over. And with so much money to be made in our country alone, it is inevitable that the American beer industry be something akin to that little island where all of those kids crash-landed in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. And, of course, with an industry so mind-bogglingly vicious it is equally mind-boggling to think that there hasn’t yet been a documentary made exposing how vicious that industry really is.
Enter Beer Wars: Brewed in America.
Anat Baron, a former executive with the company that makes Mike’s Hard Lemonade, writes, produces, and directs this 89 minute foray into the cut-throat realm of the American grown-up beverage industry, where corporate back-stabbing, savage capitalism, and American politics-as-usual combine into a bitter brew indeed. Baron, herself allergic to alcohol, is nonetheless fascinated by the industry she called home for several years. Beer Wars (2009) begins by telling the brief history of the American brewing industry. From its peak in the early part of the twentieth century, where it seemed as though every major city had its own thriving brewery, through prohibition and its aftermath, and ultimately to the late 1970′s — when a combination of imperial capitalism and a mess of byzantine alcohol distribution regulations — reduced the number of profitable full-time breweries to a whopping three, the story of America’s love affair with beer is an interesting one.
Where our story really picks up is at the dawn of the last quarter century or so, when so-called “craft breweries” began to single-handedly revitalize a vibrant American beer-drinking culture that lay dormant beneath the dominance of the a few powerful beverage companies. Over the past twenty-five years the craft brewery industries has managed to secure itself a mere 5% share in all of the money spent by Americans on beer. The remaining 95%, distributed between the big three (or troika, as some of the craft brewmeisters would have it) beverage companies: Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. Certainly, this last twenty-five years has had its heroes — think Rebel Alliance vs. Evil Galactic Empire, if you’re buying what Baron and some other of her beverage industry cohorts are selling — like Boston Brewery’s Samuel Adams and Delaware’s relatively tiny Dogfish Head brewery. Beer Wars is essentially a paean to their struggle to maintain their tiny foothold within the beverage industry in the face of the big three’s incredible wealth and influence. It is easy to identify with them; from Samuel Adams’s millionaire top executive Jim Koch who went from a bearded home-brewing hobbyist to one of the first very successful craft brewers, to young Sam Calagione, the beer enthusiast cum brewery CEO behind the Dogfish Head label, everybody involved in the craft brewing industry seems to live by the same motto: Brewing first, business second.
As Baron introduces the various players in the craft beverage game, we sympathize with their plight. Along with introducing us to Calagione of Dogfish Head, we also meet Rhonda Kallman — the co-founder of Boston Brewery (along with Jim Koch) who is now in charge of her own beer venture: a brew called Moonshot that is the world’s first caffeinated beer. Dogfish Head and Moonshot are just two of the many different people battling for room in America’s mugs, and Beer Wars gives us a frank insider’s look into their lives as they struggle to make it in the big show. They are both dreamers who necessarily must tangle with the larger American beverage concerns in order to first capture, then hold, their niche in the market. Anheuser-Busch (who is soon distinguished as the film’s number one heavy) stops at nothing to derail their progress. By marketing their own beers made to look like craft brews, cloning beers (like Moonshot) that seem to be gaining a foothold, and bringing frivolous suit against smaller concerns in order to sue them out of business, Anheuser-Busch proves that the American beer wars are indeed a bloodsport.
However, the film loses some of its fizz well before it’s finished. Once Baron turns from the concerns of the little guys and decides to take on the big three, Beer Wars starts to feel like so many of the other run-of-the-mill underdog documentaries that are out there. In a, conveniently one thinks, naive turn, Baron incredulously looks into the purpose of the American brewer’s lobby in Washington, as if a multi-billion dollar industry concerned with shipping alcoholic beverages across state lines wouldn’t at some point need to grease the palms of a few politicians. And worse, she even attempts a Michael Moore-style ambush of August Busch IV (then CEO of Anheuser-Busch) at some-or-another meeting of beverage executives in Washington. We watch as Calagione and Kallman make the rounds of various conventions trying to find a market for their brews, and listen as Baron criticizes the bully-boy tactics of Anheuser-Busch and the rest. The same refrain grows tiresome as one realizes that Calagione and Kallman are winning this game — they’ve managed to find a spot for themselves in this large and bewildering industry, and they’re among a larger movement of brewers and businesspeople that are bringing their products to market and finding buyers. Just because the going gets tough, Calagione and Kallman aren’t going anywhere — they’re content to continue fighting the good fight even if it seems, at times, a losing battle.
In a final and ironic twist, we learn that Coors and Miller have joined forces to fight Anheuser-Busch, and Anheuser-Busch has been purchased by an even bigger beverage concern. This and the fact that at one point Kallman meets with both Coors and Anheuser-Busch executives in hopes of marketing Moonshot to them, does a bit to take the edge off of all the nasty things we’ve been hearing about Coors, et. al. Before long, Calagione celebrates the addition of another giant tank at his expanding brewery in Delaware and we start to realize that things aren’t nearly as grim as Baron’s been making them out to be.
Still, Beer Wars is an enjoyable look into the world of the American brewing industry and is sure to hold the interest of beer drinkers as much as Bottle Shock and Sideways caught the eye of wine drinkers. The DVD contains deleted scenes and footage from a roundtable discussion featuring Baron, Calagione, Kallman, and others. It will be available for rental and purchase on DVD this Tuesday, September 22nd.