Last night I went to the live Beer Wars showing at the Fenway theaters in Boston. I went into the experience uncertain and skeptical due to the talk on HBT and a highly negative article in the Boston Globe, but upon arrival it was exciting to see the theater packed with beer geeks, I'm sure some HBTers were there, and certainly lots of BeerAdvocate users. Here are my thoughts:
Being that this was a LIVE premier of a documentary film, the process was a bit unconventional. The lights went down, and up on screen came nasty old Ben Stein with his offensive voice and turtle-like bone structure. Luckily he was just introducing Anat Baron, director of the film. She appeared extremely nervous, stuttering, she forgot her monologue and had to use a script. She introduced the film and thanked a few people and within a few moments the film began.
The films itself was very well done. As far as documentaries go, this one fit perfectly into the Landmark theater crowd with similarities to other major documentaries like Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom. Narrated by Baron, she began the film with a bit of background, explaining how she got her big break working for Mike's Hard Lemonade in the 90s. She also mentioned that she doesn't drink because she's allergic to alcohol? I found that Strange. But, her experience gives her connections which ultimately help her gain access to events and places that contribute to the film later on.
Beer Wars covers the industry from many different angles. It follows Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head (he's the man) and Rhonda Kallman, co-founder of Sam Adams and owner of something called "Moonshot" beer with caffeine (blech). We also see interviews with Greg Koch of Stone, Jim Koch of Boston Beer Co., Papazian, and other authors and experts. To Baron's credit, she brought forth many different perspectives and had a nicely diverse selection of interviewees.
Many expected this film to simply bash BMC and talk about how unfair everything is, and they were right- the majority of this film is about big brewers, specifically AB, and how the industry revolves around them. But it's not just an extreme, whiny Michael Moore-ish presentation. Baron legitimately breaks down the process of the American brewing industry and exposes all of the ways the AB manages to stay on top and stay so large. And there's more than I thought. She explains how AB, along with Miller and Coors work not only through outrageous marketing techniques and brand recognition, but also through politics, and what appears to be borderline coercion to keep their statuses.
One rather exciting element of the film was being able to go inside some of our favorite craft breweries like DFH, New Belgium, and Stone and see not only their awesome set-ups, but also the way things operate and the overall philosophies of those breweries. During the interviews with Sam and Greg, they explain how for them, they're brewers first, businessmen second. That means that company growth is not their primary focus. Instead they put all their effort and focus into making exciting and interesting beers for their communities and loyal customers that know they have the right to choose whichever product they prefer.
Perhaps the most persuasive part of the film is the segment covering the 3-tier wholesaler distribution process in the U.S. We learn that only 2 states allow direct sales from brewers to bars and stores (California and Colorado). Everyone else is required to use a third party distributor. The main issue here is that the distributors have full control over which beers they carry, and with so much financial incentive from BMC, they often choose to carry less craft brews rather than more. To make matter worse, lobbying firms that represent AB spend countless hours on Capital Hill fighting to keep the 3-tier system in place.
So the film, Beer Wars, was, IMO, very good. But the film was not the only part of the evening. A live panel hosted by Ben Stein and featuring Charlie Papazian, Sam Calagione, Greg Koch, Todd Alstrom, Rhonda Kallman, and author Maureen Ogle.
First of all, from a production standpoint, let me say that this part of the event was horribly produced. People were walking in front of the cameras, no one seemed to know what was going on, and when they showed the audience it seemed as though the theater was about 1/4 full.
Production values aside, the discussion was OK. Ben Stein was horrible. He had no clue what was happening, he didn't know sh!t about beer, and practically every question he asked was covered in the film. Todd Alstrom and Greg Koch had no qualms about giving him smart-ass replies. Papazian gave a great answer to one of Stein's questions and plugged homebrewing like a champ, saying that "it all begins with those homebrewers out there, making beer on their stoves, 5 gallons at a time." All in all, I think we could have done without the live panel. The film was plenty good, the live aspect of the whole evening was unnecessary.
In conclusion, Beer Wars is a good film. It tells the truth, and yes, it makes you want to stay away from BMC products like it is your job. Being in a theater surrounded by other beer enthusiasts is a fun experience, people even cheered for their favorite breweries, but I don't know that I would go to another live film event. Though she did good work, Anat Baron is obnoxious. She would be better off laying low and letting her work speak for her. But, in the end, I walked away happy and somewhat inspired. I definitely recommend seeing Beer Wars.