Movie Review: BEER WARS

Don R. Lewis

by: Don R. Lewis
November 19th, 2009

Beer Wars Poster

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Anat Baron

I love beer. Like, I love it way too much. While I’ll pretty much drink and enjoy any beer, I tend to put my beer snob hat on whenever I can and go for whatever microbrew is on the menu or in the cooler at the store. And I’m also extremely lucky, as I live in Northern California where microbrews are plentiful (big ups to local faves Russian River Brewing and Lagunitas!). Anat Baron takes a look at the changing beer landscape in her interesting documentary BEER WARS. And while the film's subject matter is near and dear to my heart, this wasn’t exactly the kind of in-depth, probing look at the beer industry I was hoping it would be, although it’s still pretty good.

Baron has been in the beer business for a while and made her mark by putting “Mike's Hard Lemonade,” that Godawful malt liquor lemon drink, on the map. I’ll give credit where it’s due, as Baron took a drink that is in all truth just plain nasty and through her marketing and business savvy, gave it a short-lived day in the sun. So, Baron knows how to sell things. However, she’s also allergic to alcohol, which means she’s just really good at selling products and her passion for the taste, buzz, and nuance of microbrewing is totally non-existent.

So, right out the gate I wasn’t really on-board with Baron, who serves as the film's executive producer, writer, and director, as well as the ubiquitous narrator. It’s my feeling that if you’re going to command a large chunk of face time in a documentary, you’ve really got to be passionate about the subject and a joy to watch. Baron is neither. That being said, BEER WARS does manage to cover the corporate and political landscape of the beer business pretty darn thoroughly, as well as touches upon the struggle for smaller brewers to make a living.

For my money, the best parts of the film are when Baron digs deep at just how brutally cutthroat the big three beer makers are. Obviously the big three are Budweiser, Miller, and Coors and these corporations will stop at nothing to keep their domination intact. While I’ve been known to swill pints of Coors Light by the bucket load, I would never lie and say it’s the greatest beer in the world. Baron takes this idea a step further by conducting blind taste tests in bars with lovers of one of the big three and none of them are able to tell which beer is their favorite. She also details some pretty sleazy moves by the big corporations which were eye -opening to me, someone with little knowledge of how big business works. This all coalesces nicely into her look at smaller beer makers trying to turn their passion into their career.

Of all the smaller, craft beer makers she peeks in on, I found Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head brewing to be the most intriguing. Not only is Dogfish Head beer amazing, he’s a guy trying to do things the right way. Would he love to be a billionaire beer maker? You bet. But he also wants to keep a firm grasp on making beer that’s tasty and original, and thus far he’s more than succeeded, as Dogfish Head beer is killer. He also doesn’t want to grow his company so fast they lose sight of what’s important: great beer. However as he plugs along, he’s still facing pushback from the big three breweries which in truth, he has nothing in common with. Calagione really gets at what Baron and BEER WARS  is trying to get at when he makes mention that people would probably like and try more varieties of beers if the big three weren’t so dominating and politically active. Is there room at the tap for Dogfish Head and Bud Light? Sure. But don’t tell Anheuser Busch that. Every beer is a threat to them, even a little guy like Calagione and Dogfish Head are targets for frivolous litigation.

Also interesting was a look at the political side of beer. Although not surprising, I for one never realized there was a beer lobby in Washington and not only that, but they’re in the top 5 in political power. However, their power lies in keeping distribution of beer tightly wrapped up to serve the big three the best, and that’s not fair. I was also surprised to find that nearly half of the fees we pay for beer goes to the government in the form of taxation. Couple that with our nation's alcohol and obesity problem and it’s easy to see beer makes the U.S. a ton of cash, and changes to that are probably never going to happen.

When BEER WARS is looking at the nuts and bolts of how the beer industry works, it’s a fascinating film. Also intriguing are the smaller brewers trying to create something great in the face of corporate dominance. Yet too often BEER WARS gets off on tangents where Baron tries to make the film like every documentary we’ve ever seen. There’s silly animation sequences and scenes where she chases down August Busch IV in an attempt to seem like Michael Moore.

While I’d never rate a film based on what I preferred to see, I just felt like BEER WARS needed a solid point of view rather than skipping all over the map trying to focus on craft brewers, politics and the corporate world and it’s dog-eat-dog nature. It tries to be everything all at once and as a result, falls a little short. Still, beer lovers should all see BEER WARS, as it’s an enlightening look at America’s favorite pastime: drinking beer.

Check out the film's site HERE.

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