Judge Gordon Sullivan writes craft reviews.
Craft beer, where the flavor went.
Beer is a glorious substance. By combining four simple ingredients (water, malt, hops, and yeast), the brewmaster can achieve a staggering variety of different beers (and that's before adding any extra ingredients like chocolate, coffee, honey, or fruits). Furthermore, because of the alcohol and pH, no known pathogen can live in beer, and hops are known to have positive effects on the mood. For all these reason, beer (and by beer here, we mean real beer, craft beer, microbrewed, homebrewed beer, not the typical American-light-lager with the red and white cans) became increasingly popular in the late '70s and early '80s. Home brewing, brew pubs, and microbreweries sprang up all over the United States like wildfire. They offered a viable alternative to beers where the hops were being taken out, and the rich grains were increasingly being replaced by lighter and less flavorful corn and rice. As the '90s wore on, beer started to become the new wine, with restaurants paying increasing attention to the beers they offered in conjunction with their foods. Although it's still a popular thought that the average macrobrewery spills more in a year than all the craft brewers combined can make, microbrews have gained a solid foothold in American culture.
The documentary 99 Bottles shows the effects of this transformation on the craft brewing community in Wisconsin, a state known for its love of beer. Through interviews with sixteen different microbrewery and brewpub owners and operators, this documentary takes stock of the how and the why of microbrewing in the shadow of Pabst and Schlitz. In between the interviews we get an inside look at different breweries, the Wisconsin countryside, and the places where these small beers are consumed. The film presents an eclectic mix of the personal history of each brewhaus, the generic history of beer (especially craft brewing), as well as what it means to be a brewmaster. Those who need a little more explanation of the brewing process will appreciate the way the documentary dissects the process, including a tour of several different pieces of equipment. It's not quite enough to get the novice home brewer started, but it's a nice overview for the uninitiated.
I really appreciated that the documentary gives us a bit of time with a number of brewmasters and brewpub owners. Each of them has a slightly different story with several common threads. Pretty much all of them come from backgrounds outside of brewing (including engineering, police work, and delivery driving) and they all share a common love for what beer has to offer. Their passion and commitment to beer are contagious, and those who've never appreciated beer might learn a little bit from these guys. They also address the business aspects of brewing, including marketing, as well as the challenges that currently face the budding brewmaster.
There's a lot to love about 99 Bottles, mainly because craft brewing is an interesting subject and the sixteen brewmasters are an eclectic and intriguing bunch. However, as a documentary it falls a little flat. There's no overriding narrative that can tie the film together, no event to focus on, which leaves the final film a little listless. To overcome the lack of narrative arc, the director substitutes a few tricks to move the film along. One is to interview brewpub patrons about what they'd like to ask a brewmaster, things like "How did you get started?" or "What's the best beer you brew?" The film then cuts to the various brewers answer those questions. Other times, the film uses graphic transitions to introduce new topics. Both techniques can be extremely jarring and I was sometimes left wondering what the interviewee was talking about for several seconds. None of these problems makes 99 Bottles unwatchable, but I'm afraid they might keep the film from gaining the wider audience the subject deserves.
Verdict was sent a screener copy of the film, so the full-frame transfer and sole audio option were pretty basic. This is not a particularly rich film visually, so the simple framing is fine. The audio is primarily from interviews, and those are easily audible as well. There were no extras on the disc.
99 Bottles is worth a rental for fans of craft brewing, especially in Wisconsin. It's an interesting subject that deserves more attention, because the better the product the craft brewers are making, the better the product (in both diversity and quality) we'll all have on our supermarket shelves.
Despite some problems, I want to have a beer with everyone involved in 99
Bottles. Not guilty.
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