Friday, December 17, 2010

Matt's Beer Den at the Movies: A Review of "Beer Wars"

“Frankly, over here we find your American beer is a little like making love in a canoe.  It’s fucking close to water.” - Eric Idle

If the beer industry landscape as portrayed by Anat Baron in her 2009 documentary film "Beer Wars" is to be believed, then it is most certainly a very bleak one indeed.   In the increasingly-aggressive competition to win the patronage of the American beer-drinking consumer, flavor is out and sameness is in, at least for the major breweries that dominate the market.  As the film explains, there really are only three major American brewery players in the game, and they want things to stay that way.  At the time of the film's release, Anheuser-Busch held a nearly 50% market share of the nation's beer, and with its total output combined with the two next-highest sellers, Miller and Coors, respectively, the Big Three (referred to derisively in the beer geek lingo as 'BMC') hold more than three quarters of the entire market.  A serious, possibly insurmountable challenge for the nation's micro or "craft" breweries to overcome.  To be fair, the status quo of brewing world can hardly be said to differ from that of most other industries, with a few winners soaking in the sun and hundreds of smaller  pretenders finding a niche and surviving as best they can.  But the trees that occupy the canopy are not satisfied with simply being at the top.   The big breweries utilize whatever tools they can to maintain and to increase their market share, be it through brewery acquisitions or buyouts, aggressive marketing campaigns and lucrative sponsorship, glutting the market, and even outright imitation and duplication of rivals' practices - just as other large companies in other fields have done in order to secure their primacy.  It's a tough world down at the bottom, but there are some interesting characters to be found there.

What follows in "Beer Wars" is Baron's exploration of the recent successes of the 'craft beer movement' and the counter-revolution initiated by the Big Three brewers.  "Beer Wars" is above all else a film, and it is a highly enjoyable one at that.  Baron uses some classic documentary film tricks (animated segments and backstory, adorable 1950s commercials, apropos clips from Monty Python, Cheers, etc.) to keep the entertainment level high.  Not that I needed additional sources of entertainment - learning about beer is all the excitement I need for one afternoon - but I appreciated the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock feel.   Anat Baron is also an interesting character herself: a former executive with Mike's Hard Lemonade who, lamentably, cannot drink herself!  Because of this allergy to alcohol, at the very least we can say that Baron is not swayed one way or another by personal tastes.   Baron, like many documentary filmmakers, frames her story around several important figures to give the beer industry story a human face.   Unsurprisingly, the human face is represented by the craft brewers and brewing entrepreneurs, which include Jim Koch of Samuel Adams, Brooklyn Brewery's brewmaster and beer chef Garrett Oliver, and even a quick word from the founders of Beer Advocate, the Allstrom Brothers.  The two figures that receive the most of Baron's attention are interesting characters to say the least, although I am not sure I completely agree with one of her choices. 

She first makes the journey out to Delaware to meet with Sam Calaglione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and one of these so-called "lunatic-fringe" brewers who, fed up with the lack of selection and flavor available in mainstream beer, began brewing the kind of beer he wanted to drink at home in the early 1990s.  Consumers have responded favorably to his wares, and sales have been steadily rising (his 60 Minute IPA is occasionally available at the LCBO), allowing Dogfish Head to grow to be one of the largest independent craft brewers in the Eastern United States.  Though Sam and the Dogfish team have achieved what can be declared a 'success-story' in the craft brewing world, theirs is a business fraught with challenges.   As Baron demonstrates, perhaps the greatest obstacle facing new brewers is the act of physically getting their products on the store shelves and in the bars.   Brewers like Dogfish are limited in their ability to ship their brews over long distances because of the so-called "three-tier system" of beer delivery.  Simply put: in order to keep breweries far away from the retailers (a throwback to the Prohibition repeal process), brewers must work through intermediaries - wholesalers - to deliver their products to the nation's supermarkets,  liquor stores and retail outlets.   This works well, if of course you happen to be one of the larger brewers that owns shares or contracts with the wholesalers; smaller brewers must either hire their own wholesalers (too expensive), piggyback on bigger brewers' trucks (unlikely, expensive, no guarantee space will be made), or become affiliated with the larger brewers through ownership (loss of control).  This system, the one the political beer lobby and the major brewers wholeheartedly favour, effectively restricts smaller breweries from expanding their output past a certain range, or forces them to ship privately to other markets, raising their costs - and thus the price - significantly.

But the problems don't end there.  When the beer finally makes it to the stores, there is still no guarantee that craft brews will receive favorable positioning and shelf space because the bigger breweries have already set up arrangements with retailers to  put their products in the 'plum' spots (at eye level, just inside the fridge door).  In one liquor store visited by Baron, Bud Light alone controls an entire section of fridge space, the shelves packed with endless (and probably unnecessary) permutations of its product: 24 pack, 12 packs, 6 packs, 6 packs of cans, individual cans, etc.  By flooding the shelves with product, Bud Light achieves what is known as a "billboard effect", whereby the sheer volume of beer on display acts as a sort of advertisement in and of itself, while also effectively shutting out the competition from a critical section of the beer aisle.  A similar effect occurs in Ontario's 'The Beer Store', which is majority-owned by the largest breweries in the province: Labatt, Molson-Coors, and Sleeman.  While their products are displayed in large piles on the floor for easy impulse access,  those of smaller breweries are relegated to "somewhere inconvenient in the back."  On top of all of this, craft breweries often find themselves on the receiving end of lawsuits from major brewers; in the film, Dogfish receives one such suit from Anheuser ordering them to cease marketing certain brews because of 'name infringement' (this case was eventually dismissed).  Few of these lawsuits have much merit, and appear to be designed to intimidate or pressure smaller brewers, rather than as a means to correct wrongs.   Indeed, a constant theme of "Beer Wars" is of Anheuser-Busch's increasingly aggressive tactics to prevent craft breweries from growing into a position where they can pose a legitimate threat.   The question remains: what exactly is Budweiser, with its 50% marketing share, afraid of?   Is it the fact that Americans are increasingly becoming drawn to beers that differ from the standard industrial pale lager fare?  It can sometimes be difficult to tell.

All, or at least most of these aggressive business practices could be excused somewhat if the company in question manages to produce a quality product that deserves to be found in shops across the country.  That is, after all, the supposed benefit of a capitalist market for the consumer - that the better product will win out.  An early South Park episode ('Gnomes') hammered this point home with its spoof of the success of Starbucks ('Harbucks' in the show). When Harbucks begins plans to open a new store in South Park, the company is immediately perceived to be a a villainous, greedy, soulless megacorporation - much to the satisfaction of threatened 'small-town' coffee shop owner Mr. Tweak. Yet when the townspeople eventually finally overcome their initial aversions and agree to try Harbucks coffee, they find that they actually enjoy it - far more so, in fact, than the local coffee produced by Mr. Tweak.  The real Starbucks achieved its success in part by producing good coffee, perhaps not enough to justify a place at nearly every street corner in North America, but certainly enough for some degree of ubiquity.  This isn't to say that small coffee shops can't make a great cup of joe; indeed, some of my very favorite caffeine sessions have been in little shops in small towns across the counry.  But the point is made that small shops aren't necessarily, by virtue of their being small, better.  Returning to the beer, while BMC might maintain a massive percentage of the market, did they get there by producing the a better beverage or appealing to what the public wants?  A filmed taste-test conducted for the documentary seems to demonstrate otherwise. Volunteers, many selected specifically because of their avowed devotion to either Miller, Coors or Budweiser, were unable to identify their favorite brew from amongst their competitors despite years of practice. All three brewers are producing beer that is virtually indistinguishable from one another - it's golden, thin, easy to drink and tastes more or less the same as its major competitors (though BMC representatives will vigorously refute this assertion).  As Canadian beer-writer and instigator of the Canadian craft beer movement Frank Appleton declared: "Corporate beer is not too heavy, not too bitter, not too alcoholic, not too malty.  In other words, corporate beer reduces every characteristic that makes beer beer." Thus, Boston Brewery founder Jim Koch's statement in the film that "most Americans have never had a real beer" rings particularly true.  As more and more Americans become aware that there is more to beer than the industrial pale lager, wallets are more frequently lightened with craft beer purchases than ever before.  Although their overall market share is still at a mere 10%, American independent brewery sales are growing annually; in some regions, like the microbrewing mecca of Portland, Oregon, that number hovers closer to twenty percent. 
Step One: Brew Beer.  Step Two...  Step Three: Profit!!

So clearly, smaller breweries are better - right?  Does craft beer in general thus deserve to be so universally lauded while the standard bigmarket output is so universally maligned?  This crucial question is given little attention in the film, and some consideration of the issue would have done wonders to help "Beer Wars" rise above the simple 'David vs. Goliath' theme that is featured in countless other 'anti-corporation' documentaries.   In my opinion, most craft brews out there are indeed a great deal better than the 'corporate' BMC fare, but I also feel that simply being a small brewer doesn't guarantee that the beer will be any good.  Indeed, I've had many brews from small, craft breweries that failed to impress to the point where a Keiths or Moosehead would have been the far-preferable option.  Being the little guy isn't enough.  Baron attempts to demonstrate the challenges of new breweries to break into the scene, but does so with a lousy example, the film's second major character. 

New brewery owner Rhonda Kallman is a young, attractive mother of two and a former second-in-command with Samuel Adams, one of America's largest craft breweries.  After determining that she had learned all she could learn at Sam Adams, Kallman decided to enter the brewing world for herself, eventually founding the New Century Brewing Company in Massachusetts.   Her flagship brew, "Moonshot", is a unique one: a light lager infused with caffeine to provide an extra jolt to help consumers 'keep the party going.'   Though a few bars, restaurants and stores in the Northeast have picked up Moonshot, the overall company outlook has not been good.  Shots of Kallman pitching her brew to various players in the industry (including, perhaps out of desperation, some BMC reps) indicate that she has achieved minimal results.  With Kallman working long hours to get her company off the ground, her family-life clearly has suffered somewhat with Mommy being away from home for so long and the family finances so tied into the success of Moonshot.  It's a sad situation that will be all too familiar to struggling entrepreneurs and business owners everywhere.  Despite all one's hard work - and the comforting presence of countless motivational posters -success isn't a guarantee, especially in such a competitive environment as the brewing industry.  One is undoubtedly supposed to feel sorry for Kallman and draw parallels between her situation and that of the craft brewing movement as a whole. But Baron's study of Kallman's situation fails to address that most critical aspect of any story about brewing: does the beer taste any good?  In all the discussions of how much trouble Kallman was having because of external forces and natural industry challenges, there wasn't a whole lot to be said about the beer itself.  In Kallman's case, her Moonshot brew came across to me as nothing more than a niche-filling novelty brew, something designed to attract the attention of the heavy-drinking, party-till-the-early-morning crowd who rely upon additional stimulants like Red Bull to keep rolling.  But those who want that extra buzz already have Red Bull; those who want to drink a beer aren't likely to be looking for a caffeinated beer.  They just want a good-tasting beer, which doesn't seem to be the case for Moonshot.  Reviewers at Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate have almost unanimously given Moonshot very poor reviews in terms of flavor and quality.  Without a great product or a market niche to tap in to, it doesn't look like Moonshot has a great shot at success, nor does it really seem like it deserves to be there.  Not all breweries fail because of aggressive competition and unfavorable situations; sometimes, the beer just isn't that great.  A bit more discussion into the risks of experimentation and the challenges of establishing a customer base that actually likes the beer would have taken this film so much further, and would have made for a more representative picture of the craft beer industry.

Despite this criticism, I must say I was still generally very pleased with "Beer Wars."  It was well-made, funny, mostly fair, and told an important story - at least an important story for those who love beer.  For those whose idea of the perfect beer is a bottle of cold Budweiser, the film alerted them to the existence of a craft beer alternative that might just be worth a try.  Many baby-boom Americans, like their Canadian counterparts, grew up in an era where there were very few drinking options to choose from, and so their devotion to a particular bland is fully understandabel.   With liquor stores filled with more beer options, many seasoned beer quaffers (like my father and many of my family friends) have whole-heartedly embraced the unique flavors and diverse styles available in craft beer.  The same goes for those eager to support the 'locally grown' movement; as a bartender myself, my heart leaps just a little every time a customer, searching for their nightly beer selection, asks me "What's local?"  Hopefully, the film might encourage even just a few folks to do the same.   For those those who already have developed a passion for craft brewing, "Beer Wars" serves as a reminder that the revolution for flavor and variety still faces serious obstacles and resistance from various political and industrial players.  If you love your craft beer, keep supporting it, because BMC and the big brewery players will keep pushing for your beer dollars. 

Although the film didn't really tell me anything I didn't know or suspect before, it was nevertheless an important film that I whole-heartedly believe will further the cause of craft brewing in the United States (and hopefully Canada). And that's something worth celebrating.

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