The small selection of craft beers at the grocery store makes Judge Jim Thomas hopping mad.
Just a few months ago, my home state of Alabama passed the Gourmet Beer Act, a law permitting the sale of higher-alcohol beers, such as Chimay. Several of my friends were ecstatic, and couldn't wait to get themselves some. Many are still waiting, as the beers are oh so slowly making their way to market. While part of the delay is certainly due to red tape, the major breweries are also likely bending a few arms to keep the good stuff off the shelves, lest people find out what they're missing.
Beer Wars, a film by Anat Baron, takes a look at the beer industry, specifically the "competition" between the two major breweries who dominate the market and the host of small breweries struggling to find a small space on the store shelf to call their own.
Let's start with two key facts:
Eighty percent of American-made beer comes from two companies: Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors. Anheuser-Busch alone has around fifty percent, with around eighty-five brands of beer and malt beverages. Combined with their various imports, they control well over ninety percent of the market.
The third largest beer producer is the Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams beer (the court's brand of choice). It holds only half a percent of the U.S. beer market. (It's also the largest American-owned brewery in the United States; the big two are now owned by overseas conglomerates.)
Despite the overwhelming market share of the Big Two, sales of craft brews have increased in recent years, while sales for the big two have held steady. Anat Baron, film producer and one-time General Manager of Mike's Hard Lemonade, became interested in the growing number of independent brewers, and spent three years interviewing people at all levels of the industry. From that footage, he assembled Beer Wars. Baron, incidentally, is allergic to alcohol. That's just cruel.
Baron illustrates the situation with two major narratives:
• Sam Calagione is the founder and President of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware. These days Dogfish Head is the fastest growing small brewery in the country and the only brewery in America to be named to the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies. Sounds great, and really, it is great, but here's a dose of perspective—Dogfish has a 0.0002 percent market share. We see Sam poring over the expansion plans, going to beer festivals, running a "beer dinner," and playing with his kids. His success draws the attention of Anheuser-Busch, though, and Sam finds two of his brews targeted by AB marketers…and AB lawyers.
• Rhonda Kallman is having a rougher time of it. Together with Jim Koch, Rhonda cofounded The Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams, in 1984, and helped build it into the third largest brewer in the nation. Seeking new challenges, she founded New Century Brewing Co., makers of Moonshot Beer, the only beer with caffeine. You'd think that with all her experience, she'd be in a perfect position to start a new beer. However, the odds are stacked against her. She spends her days doing research and working the phone, and at night she hits the road searching for both markets and investors, while placing everything she owns on the line. This section is affecting, but Rhonda's difficulty marketing the beer really begs the question—just how good is the beer, anyway? The Big Two can get away with marketing substandard beers, but the craft beer market just won't stand for it.
Intertwined with these two narratives is a look at the big two, and how they leverage their market share to make it as difficult as possible for small breweries to get their wares to the public. This section has a slightly goofy tone at times, as well as a Roger and Me approach that is at odds with the other stories. To Baron's credit though, while she pokes fun at the Big Two's market-speak, she doesn't go to Michael Moore extremes in demonizing them, allowing the facts to more or less speak for themselves. The time spent in several Michael Moore-type activities—such as trying to get an interview with August Busch IV—wastes time that could be better spent elsewhere. Both Sam and Rhonda are charismatic, engaging figures; unfortunately, the film gets us invested in their situations, only to leave both stories hanging in midair. On a larger level, given that the whole premise of the movie is how hard it is for small breweries, how is it that they are succeeding (albeit on a small scale)?
Video is solid, with strong colors and none of the blurring or flaring you associate with hand-held video. The sound is good, but the dialogue is not always clear in the various crowd scenes. The extras include a roundtable discussion with Baron and the major interviewees, moderated by Ben Stein. The discussion, pitched as "Beer Wars Live" was broadcast April 16, 2009, from UCLA's Royce Hall as part of a simulcast of Beer Wars to 440 theaters across the United States. It's great to see these people again, but the discussion doesn't really go into new territory. The film shows both Sam and Rhonda facing substantial adversity, but the discussion never addresses how they have fared in the interim. There are a number of brief deleted scenes, most of which have a certain charm; it'd be interesting to know why they were cut, particularly Sam's definition of "compatriot" v. "competitor," which really cuts to the heart of the matter.
The film should be mandatory for anyone interested in marketing or entrepreneurship, as it effectively illustrates the difficulty of establishing a new brand in a crowded market. The basic concepts can easily be applied to other industries, from fast food (McDonald's is all about brand recognition, not the food itself—seriously, have you tried one of their new Angus burgers?) to the movies (How many movies can you name that made money based on marketing hype as opposed to the movie's own merits?). Anat Baron clearly has great affection for the subject, but Beer Wars wants to be (needs to be?) a celebration of the small brewers, the champions of good beer. The film spends too much time—and unfocused time at that—on how the Big Two operate, when the strongest sections are those in which the small brewers just talk about their love for their product.
I must give Baron credit, though—if I ever see Dogfish Head beer on the shelf, I'm buying it.
Not guilty. Of course, I've just had a few beers, so…
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