Train-Ing Video: Beer Wars (2009)

I recently had the opportunity to watch Beer Wars, a documentary about smaller breweries competing with the big three (at the time) beer makers in the US: Miller, Anheuser-Busch (aka Budweiser) and Coors and I wasn’t all that impressed.

The film starts off promisingly, with some really creative animated sequences that introduce Anat Baron, the narrator and director. She states her history working in corporate America and then moving over to the fledgling Mike’s Hard Lemonade before leaving, only to come back and make this documentary.

I started having problems fairly early on when it seemed like Baron was going to explain some of the history of the larger beer manufacturers only to veer away and move forward. Generally, I like to understand a bit of the overall history of a subject before diving into it, it’s a good way to refresh people in the know and inform newbies. I see now that a possible reason for this is because she didn’t want to make the obvious connection between what Anheuser-Busch was like 100 years ago and what an organization like Dogfish Head is like today. You see, A-B, especially, gets made into the bad guy in by the end, but people tend to forget that these were small, start-up American companies at one time too, but you won’t hear a single mention of that in the doc.

It wasn’t until much later that I really started having problems with the movie though. After a brief and scattershot history of the brewing industry in America (more like a timeline showing how many breweries were in the US over the years), we get introduced to two smaller beer companies, one the aforementioned Dogfish Head, the other a caffeinated beer called Moonshot. Dogfish Head I’ve heard of, Moonshot I haven’t, though it sounds a lot like Buzz Beer from the Drew Carey Show to me. Anyway, after getting into these smaller breweries and talking to the guy who helped create Sam Adams (great beer), the movie awkwardly shifts back to Baron and her Michael Moore-ish attempt at putting people on the spot while attending beer conferences, trying to find A-B honcho August Busch IV and talking to senators.

There is some really interesting information about laws pertaining to beer and how a lot of them don’t seem to make sense anymore. It actually sounded a lot like the current talk of health care reform: there’s all these out-of-date rules and regulations, but there’s also plenty of lobbyists wanting to keep it the same and accusations of kick backs and the like. I do agree that it sounds like reform is in order, but there’s enough other stuff going on in the world that it probably won’t be a priority anytime soon. (How great would it be, though, if all we had to worry about were suspect post-prohibition beer laws?)

We eventually bounce back to the Dogfish and Moonshot folks, but towards the end, the doc really starts to feel unfocused and cramped. Is the movie about small breweries trying to make it even though they’ve got a tough road ahead of them, big beer companies vs. the small or breweries vs. big government? We’re never quite given a definite answer on exactly who this war is between, though we can assume “the little guy” is on one side. I guess it’s that unfocused nature that bothers me.

But what really bothers me is the villainizing of the big beer companies. Sure, Coors Light doesn’t taste as good as something like Blue Moon (which I also love), but I’m not an asshole for wanting to kick back and down a bunch of Coors Light and I can’t help but feel like this movie is trying to tell me that I am. Towards the end of the doc there’s this strange paradox where 99% of the film is desperately trying to get me to hate A-B because they bought a successful brewery like Rolling Rock, but don’t make the beer in Latrobe, PA anymore or because they put out similar products as smaller breweries to compete or take shelf space. Yes, that sucks and I’m sure there’s some shady stuff going on there, but welcome to the world of business. I’m sick of “it’s not fair-ism” dammit! Learn how to work within the system, Sam Adams did it (a connection they don’t actually make in the film).

For whatever reason Miller and Coors get let off the hook because people who work there drink together (that’s what I got from it at least). Meanwhile, the woman who owns/runs Moonshot is actually trying to cut a deal with the bigger dogs, though, of course, A-B is the last on her list. Demonizing something while one of your highly sympathetic main characters sees it as an end to her financial woes just doesn’t work from a story-telling perspective.

Another conundrum I noticed while watching the end of the flick is that, on one hand, the big beer companies are being criticized for making boring beer, but they’re also criticized for either buying up smaller brews and selling them to a wider audience or creating their own microbrew-like beers to “compete” with the little guys. Make up your mind! Once again, what is the message of this movie?

I’m sure I’m coming off as pro-corporate and anti-small business, but that’s not the case. I’ve only ever worked for smaller, privately owned companies and I completely support them, but I’m also not anti-corporation. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a corp and you’ve got to realize when watching something like this, that your narrator is biased and has an agenda. I’m not saying she misrepresented the facts, but she’s using information like paint to show you a picture and she might leave out some colors or make others brighter. Like I mentioned above, nowhere is it mentioned that the big dogs were once struggling companies themselves. Does becoming big and successful make you bad? I hope not, because that seems to be exactly what’s happening with the Dogfish folks. But also, you’ve got to remember that passionate people work for corporations just like they do small breweries. There is an interview with an A-B brewmaster on this very subject, which I appreciated.

Finally, the film suffers from bad timing, which is not the fault of anyone really. As anyone who follows the business of beer knows, Miller and Coors have merged and A-B got bought out by a foreign company. These huge bits of information are mentioned only briefly at the very end and not really delved into because they probably happened after the movie wrapped. While I can’t fault someone for bad timing on both a beer and economic front (the economic decline and it’s effect on beer isn’t mentioned at all), I would like to think if I was in the position of making a film like this, I’d try and do a few follow-up interviews with my primary people and throw them in. But, hey, I don’t make movies (yet) and I don’t know what the money situation was like, so who knows?

Overall, I liked some of the early stylistic approaches that Beer Wars made, but, in the end just couldn’t get down with message. Now to head home and decide between a Coors Light and a beer from Sam’s Summer Sampler (I love me a sampler pack!).

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