Surviving the Beer Wars: a Movie Review by Richard M. Blau
SURVIVING THE BEER WARS
A Movie Review by
Richard M. Blau1
Last night, I attended the movie premier of “BEER WARS,” a self-styled documentary by filmmaker Anat Baron portraying the beer industry in America from the vantage of small artisanal brewers and specialty beer producers.
It actually was more than just amovie premier. It was a cinematic happening orchestrated by NCM Fathom Events – a company that has created a niche in one-night screenings of live broadcast events and independent films at conventional movie theaters. In the case of BEER WARS, the “premier” encompassed a multi-media odyssey the included a strong grass-roots, Web 2.0 publicity effort buttressed with an official online blog posting teasers and generating buzz during the preceding 30 days, plus plenty of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and, yes, even Twitter, content leading up to the Big Night.
When that April 16th evening finally arrived, beer enthusiasts and documentary connoisseurs purchased tickets (mine was $15) at more than 400 participating theaters across the country for an experience that would “take you inside the boardrooms and backrooms of America’s beer industry.”
Instead of previews for upcoming films, BEER WARS viewers were treated to a pre-show of beer-related shorts and trivia questions. Additionally, the screening of the movie was followed by a live broadcast panel discussion (simulcast from Royce Hall in Los Angeles) with independent brewers and beer industry “experts” that was attended by the filmmaker and hosted by economist/humorist/actor Ben Stein.
So, how was the movie? Much like the beer that bore the brunt of its critique. BEER WARS is easy to watch, it has solid production values, and it’s entertaining. But at the end of the day, the movie lacks the heft, substance and enrichment that artisanal brewers insist are their prime objectives of their efforts.
First, let me give credit where credit is due. Anat Baron assembled a terrific collection of personalities to tell her tale. As an attorney who works extensively with the laws that govern the beer industry, I am fortunate to know firsthand many of the people presented and referenced in the movie: Benj Steinman, the publisher of Beer Marketer INSIGHTS;
Jeff Becker, the CEO of the big brewer’s trade association, The Beer Institute; and even a fellow attorney, Marc Sorini (imagine the moment of incredible jealousy I experienced seeing Marc projected larger-than-life on the Big Screen – who’d have thought a liquor lawyer ever could make it into the movies!). These people know what they are talking about, and it’s a credit to the movie that they were interviewed to share their knowledge on a broader level.
Equally important, the movie scores well when it comes to putting a human face on the tangible challenges of producing and marketing craft beers. Kudos to Anat Baron for introducing us to Sam Calagione, the impetus behind Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. Mr. Calagione has the makings of a classic matinee idol, combining natural good looks, down-to-earth charm, and determination with a personal devotion to the beers he invents.
The movie almost could have been retitled “Mr. Smith Becomes A Craft Brewer.” Except that, to her credit, Ms. Baron expanded the reach of BEER WARS beyond the one facet of the brewing world that Mr. Calagione represents so well. Jim Koch and Dick Yuengling, for example, were portrayed deftly as examples of commercial brewers who successfully meld the consumer’s desire for creative artistry and traditional crafting with modern commercial production.
At the other end of the beer industry spectrum (and perhaps the movie’s biggest scene-stealer) is Rhonda Kallman, the enterprising, talented, indefatigable entrepreneur who is determined to pursue her dreams to create a new category — caffeine-infused beer — no matter what obstacles get put in her way (and there are many). BEER WARS does an admirable job of sharing Ms. Kallman’s story in a way that saddens yet inspires.
Beyond, the movie, Ms. Baron, her production company Ducks In A Row Entertainment Corp, and distribution partner NCM Fathom Events did a great job in creating what was more than just a movie premier. Getting an independent, low-budget documentary shown on 400+ screens across America is no mean feat – even if it is just for one night.
Adding the post-game show, hosted by Ben Stein and featuring the likes of BeerAdvocate’s Todd Alstrom and Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch (one of the most erudite craft brewers in America today), added great value and made the experience especially informative.
Given these great production qualities, what’s not to like about BEER WARS? A few things come to mind. One of the movie’s primary goals was to educate the audience about America’s beer industry. Indeed, during her live-broadcast introduction before the movie, Ms. Anat specifically told us so. Yet much of the complexity associated with producing and marketing alcohol in America was glossed over or presented with stilted stereotypes that were neither accurate nor educational.
Obvious examples were the movie’s sinister, almost malevolent characterizations of stock bad guys like corporate executives, lobbyists, and of course the dreaded wholesalers. August Busch IV doesn’t jump at the opportunity to be appear in BEER
WARS when confronted on the fly by Ms. Baron during a beer industry convention: but in today’s world of Michael Moore movie editing and Bill O’Reilly “gotcha” interviews, is it any wonder that a business executive like August IV would be cautious about a surprise invitation from a person he didn’t know to be interviewed for a movie about Big Beer’s oppression of artisanal craft brewers?
Lobbyists take the obligatory beating as well. When the movie covers the beer industry’s annual legislative conference in Washington DC, Ms. Baron rhetorically asks what on earth beer companies would want to lobby lawmakers about. Well, how about the government’s ongoing efforts to impose ever-higher taxes on beer? After all, wasn’t it just one day prior to the BEER WARS screening that thousands of “Tea Party” tax protests were held across America?
It might have been less entertaining, but definitely more educational, if the movie had mentioned that Congress currently is contemplating another increase in the federal beer excise tax rate, even though the National Beer Wholesalers Association reports that the beer industry last year paid over $41 billion in business, personal and consumption taxes, including $5.4 billion in excise taxes and $5.7 billion in sales, gross receipts, and other taxes.
And speaking of wholesalers, what about the way beer distributors are depicted in the film? Even Ben Stein remarked during the after-movie panel discussion that the movie’s treatment of the featured distributor executive gave him pause (“I don’t want to wind up with a horse head in my bed!”).
The overwhelming majority of beer distributors in America are small local businesses – many owned by the same family for several generations. A lot of them do a lot of good in their respective communities, and they deserved a fairer shake than what this movie gave them.
But dissatisfaction with BEER WARS runs deeper than just disappointment over the standard regurgitation of the usual heavies. If the movie truly was intended to educate us about how the industry really works, then the moviemakers should have made more of an effort to understand their subject.
Case in point is the movie’s focus (or lack thereof) on America’s traditional form of alcohol regulation – the “three tier system.” That’s the regulatory framework which requires alcohol suppliers to sell only to licensed wholesale distributors, who sell only to licensed retail vendors, who in turn sell to you and me (assuming you are 21 years old or over, do not live in a “dry” location where alcohol sales are prohibited, and are not obviously intoxicated). According to the movie, that three tier system is the artificial logjam that protects the bad guys and stymies the good guys.
Yet, BEER WARS presents little more than a facile overview for what Ms. Baron’s interviewees contend is a fundamental challenge to their ability to sell craft beers. What the movie does is repeat the canard that three tier regulation is nothing but a tool greedily used by shady wholesalers to line their pockets with easy money, and malevolently abused by big corporate brewers to squelch small fry competition. What the movie does not do is present any legislator, regulator, policymaker, attorney, academic or other knowledgeable stakeholder to explain to the audience how the three tier system: (a) prevents adulterated, counterfeit or contaminated products from reaching the public; (b) assures payment of all taxes to federal, state and local governments; (c) helps prevent access to alcohol by minors and other illegal consumers; (d) maintains an orderly marketplace that assures distribution to all consumers, including those that live in rural, comparatively unprofitable markets; and (e) even promotes temperance in those communities where the concept is of overriding importance. We Americans take for granted the three tier system precisely because it has worked so well for the past 75 years since Prohibition was repealed. To paraphrase the great 20th Century journalist and editor H. L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there’s always a simple solution . . . and its always wrong!” Sadly, BEER WARS’ simplistic assessment of how and why we oversee the selling of beer the way we do fails to explain properly the complex problems of integrating locally-produced craft beers into a national marketplace while still preserving the regulatory benefits of the three-tier system, much less providing a solution that works for all the stakeholders involved.
Which brings me to my fundamental disappointment with BEER WARS. I enjoy an epic battle between good and evil as much as the next movie-goer. I heard the audience laugh during the informal taste test staged by Ms. Baron where a few blind-tasting consumers unintentionally stuck it to the Big Three by failing to distinguish the Bud from the Miller from the Coors.
I felt the audience cry when Rhonda Kallman, near the end of her financial rope, bit the bullet and asked arch-rival Anheuser-Busch to help fund her Moonshot brand to keep the dream alive, only to be receive a cold, corporate rejection.
What I really wanted though, was to learn who is right, who is wrong, and what can be done about it. Perhaps those points were never covered by the movie because, like Mencken warned, there are no easy answers. BEER WARS is predicated on an US vs. THEM mentality, but it never really explains why we have to see it that way.
Are hand-crafted, exotic beers intrinsically better than mass-produced light beers? I know many people who cannot tolerate heavily-flavored, higher alcohol content beers; they enjoy a lighter, cleaner easy-to-drink beer precisely for those characteristics. Are small artisan brewers really “better” than large commercial brewers? Market economics would suggest the opposite is true, because it is the large brewers, and the hundreds of thousands of honest, diligent Americans working for and with them, who have figured out how to meet consumer demand by producing large quantities of these lighter beers with quality, consistency, and cost-efficiency.
Yes, there are different camps. Even the after-movie panelists lacked agreement on the question of who is a true believer in the Church of Beer. During the broadcast panel discussion, Todd Alstrom of BeerAdvocate called Moonshot “crap” instead of “craft,” beer, whereupon Rhonda Kallman retorted that millions of Americans like to drink the light, inexpensive pilsner style beer that accounts for 90+ percent of the malt beverages consumed in America.
I don’t know that either camp is Right or Wrong. I’m just disappointed that BEER WARS was unable to do more to clarify the situation.
1 Mr. Blau is a shareholder in GrayRobinson P.A., and presides over the firm’s Alcohol Industry Team.
Representing clients in connection with the rules and regulations that govern the production, marketing,
sale, and consumption of distilled spirits, wine, beer, and other licensed beverages. Mr. Blau served for
eight years as the Chairman of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Beverage Alcohol Practice,
and lectures regularly on Twenty-first Amendment and alcohol regulatory issues.
2 “Temperance” admittedly is an archaic term that is used, and often misused, in a variety of different ways. Here, the term “temperance” is intended to encompass the broad range of political, social, economic and cultural dictates that many people in a wide range of communities across America associate with the regulation of alcohol. These dictates include sheltering minors, discouraging irresponsible or excess consumption, assuring payment of taxes, discouraging contraband (whether adulterated, tainted, or counterfeit), and promoting the operation of an orderly licensing system that facilitates a community’s ability to control and account for how alcohol beverages are produced, marketed, transported, sold, and consumed. The element of public accountability is a very important responsibility that was instrumental to the development of the three-tier system following Prohibition; sadly, however, it goes unmentioned all too often during public debate over the efficacy of traditional alcohol regulation.
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Entry filed under: 21st Amendment, Beer Wars: The Movie, Temperance/Prohibition, Wine Distribution. Tags: Anheuser-Busch, beer, beer wars, brewer, Coors, Miller, national beer wholesalers association, the beer institute.