On April 16, Anat Baron premiered her craft beer documentary – “Beer Wars” – at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The event attracted beer luminaries like Stone Brewing Co. co-founder Greg Koch, Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione, Beer Advocate’s Todd Alstrom and Charlie Papazian, Brewers Association President and “cheerleader of the craft brewing industry.” The documentary illuminated some industry practices that were no-doubt common knowledge to those experts, but fairly informative to burgeoning beer lovers like myself. Better yet: the experts stuck around for a post-screening panel, moderated by Ben Stein, that delved somewhat deeper into the issues facing craft brewers. Here’s what jumped out at me about the evening:
Baron began her movie by identifying Busch, Miller and Coors as The Big 3. Those breweries were all founded in the 1800s and systematically used their marketing power to obliterate the competition. The U.S. housed 1800 breweries in 1900. By 1978, that number dipped to 45 breweries. In 2005, Anheuser Busch had a 49% market share, Miller 18% and Coors 11%. Last year, The Big 3 spent over $1.5 billion on advertising to maintain their crushing dominance.
Baron showcased craft brewers like Dick Yuengling, the fifth-generation owner of Yuengling in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Stone Brewing Co.’s Greg Koch proudly admitted to making “angry” beer. His approach seems to be working in Escondido. Stone has grown an average of 47% per year for the past 12 years, and Koch now owns the Stone Bistro & World Gardens, which is well worth visiting.
Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head was one of the stars of “Beer Wars.” He’s become a cult figure in the beer world due to his experimental beers (Punkin Ale, Chicory Stout) and no doubt due to his feature-length profile in The New Yorker. He said, “If it’s already being done, it’s not really something we’re interested in doing.” Ten years ago, Caligione could have filled the stage with his annual output. Now he could fill Royce Hall. “Beer Wars” focused on his Delaware expansion. Calagione came across as very likeable because he epitomized one of his quotes: “We take beer very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”
Rhonda Kallman co-founded Sam Adams and now produces Moonshot, a caffeinated beer; and Edison, a light beer. She’s fought just to survive, visiting bars on a nightly basis to push her product. On the surface, she manages to maintain an indefatigable spirit despite long odds.
Leading up to the premiere, Baron emphasized the “contemporary David and Goliath” focus of her documentary, pitting “corporate behemoths” against “small, independent brewers who are shunning the status quo and creating innovative new beers.” Baron probably should have taken time to define the term “independent brewer.” There was no baseline that defined a craft brewer, either in terms of volume or quality. It seemed too simplistic to divide brewers into The Big 3 and everybody else, and to just focus on economic duality. Also, certain brewers are no doubt more committed to utilizing high-quality ingredients and employing more creativity.
The documentary graphically illustrated the importance of prime shelf placement. The goal is to be at the handle, at eye level. That’s the space The Big 3 commands, and craft brewers covet.
A dull stretch of “Beer Wars” focused on the high-powered beer lobby. Since the 1930s it’s been illegal to sell beer directly to consumers. It’s also illegal to sell beer online. As a result, a three-tier system – producer, customer and wholesaler/retailer – was designed to create a fair market. The system backfired. Now the three-tier system benefits The Big 3 thanks to a forceful lobby that shouldn’t have received so much screen time.
Overall, “Beer Wars” was worth watching, and there were some hilarious moments, like the compilation of Big 3 commercials that had nothing to do with beer and everything to do with pratfalls and women in bikinis. A real strength was Baron’s decision to feature personal tales about Calagione and Kallman, beermakers at different stages of ascension.
After the 5 PM screening, Ben Stein moderated a 30-minute discussion with beer experts like Charlie Papazian (Brewers Association President) and Greg Koch (Stone Brewing Co.).
Other panelists included Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head), Rhonda Kallman (Moonshot, Edison), an unnamed contrarian, Todd Alstrom (Beer Advocate) and filmmaker Anat Baron (far right). Stein’s a character and has a rapid-fire delivery that’s no doubt designed to knock interview subjects off guard. Unfortunately, his questions didn’t really vary from the David vs. Goliath theme of the movie, although he did spur Koch to say, ““There are no real secrets in the brewing industry. The big brewers could make really good beer if they decided to. They haven’t decided to.” He also played a clip of Alstrom calling Moonshot craP, not crafT. Kallman was gracious in response, saying she’s just trying to keep beer drinkers from turning to options like Red Bull and vodka. Good idea.
Since Baron started making “Beer Wars” in September 2005, Miller and Coors merged and inBev bought Anheuser Busch for $52 billion. Based on that, you’d think there’s even less hope for craft brewers, but Baron pointed out that there are currently 1489 craft brewers in the U.S. Calagione also emphasized that, “Americans in general are fed up with big business. Think of Enron and Madoff. They want to support the little guys.” Given that, there’s actually some hope for craft brewers that wasn’t emphasized enough in the movie. Breweries like Dogfish Head and Stone are producing quality beer that’s clearly being embraced by the market. Apparently quality does matter, even if prime shelf space and distribution isn’t an option. Big picture, even if Dogfish Head never captures more than 1% of the market share, Calagione and his family should still earn a good living.
After the panel discussion, we were led into a VIP reception on the west side of Royce Hall that spilled out onto the patio. Apparently every attendee was a VIP, since the lines were 40 people long and the bar instantly ran out of bottles of Dogfish Head. It wasn’t exactly painful to drink bottles of Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale and Pale Ale. Still, it would have been fun to try Calagione’s beer, which is currently in short supply on the West Coast.