'Beer Wars' Falls Flat

The movie doesn't live up to its hype.

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Today’s guest post comes from Amy Mittelman, author of Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer.

'Beer Wars Live' was a unique event, which I suppose was what Anat Baron, the director, intended. The film itself was slow moving and rather dated. The two main villains are Anheuser-Busch and the three-tier system of beer distribution. The protagonists were Sam Caligione, the very charismatic and appealing owner of Dogfish Head Brewery and Rhonda Kallman, co-creator of Sam Adams and current promoter of Moonshot Beer.

Baron attempts to provide a story by focusing on Caligione and Kallman, but there isn't much drama. Caligione appears to be succeeding, although he does worry about the financial risk he is incurring. Moonshot is a caffeinated beer and Kallman meets a lot of resistance to this idea. Personally, the beer does not seem appealing to me.

Baron tried to provide tension by searching for August Busch, great-grandson of the Anheuser-Busch founder, and demonstrating, to good effect, the impressive political and economic power of wholesale distributors. However, in her portrayal of the beer industry, she conflated some of the facts. The Beer Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) represent two different aspects of the beer industry and do not share identical interests. Further, the Brewers Association often shares some of the political agenda of both bigger organizations, especially in the areas of taxation and alcohol control legislation.

[For more, read a Q&A with the film's directer.]

Baron made Beer Wars prior to the merger of Miller-Coors and the sale of Anheuser-Busch. At the end of the movie, she portrays the Miller-Coors merger as inevitable given Anheuser-Busch’s invulnerable and powerful position in the market. When she has to acknowledge the surprising sale of Anheuser-Busch to InBev, she offers no explanation. Since she completed the movie, the country has gone into a deep recession and our changed economic circumstances made the movie feel out of touch. Although the craft brewers seem like "regular" people, much of the movie takes place in a corporate, overwhelmingly white environment.

When the movie was over, Ben Stein moderated a panel discussion. Although Baron received a lot of criticism online for choosing Stein, I thought he did a good job. At the end of the discussion, he asked both Sam and Greg Koch, founder of Stone Brewing, if their breweries had been growing. Both answered that they had grown phenomenally in the past ten years. This directly refuted Baron’s main point about the stranglehold the three-tier system puts on small brewers.

I went to see 'Beer Wars' as someone who already knows a lot about the beer industry. My sense is that the audience, both in my theater and at the live event, was in a similar position. Baron is essentially preaching to the converted. I don’t think 'Beer Wars' will convince a committed Bud drinker to change his or her mind.