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Beerfest, Beer Wars, and Beer By Itself

Categories: Booze Hound
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Thoughts from all over:

-Saturday is the 12th Annual New Times Original Beerfest, in case all the fanfare has eluded you. Show up at 7 p.m. with $25 in hand (or buy tix in advance now - highly recommended), and you'll be rewarded with four hours of non-stop beer sampling, eating, and live music. If you went last year and were slightly disappointed by the long lines, crowded spaces, and shortage of craft beer, don't worry. Organizers this year have worked hard to make this fest bigger, more spacious, and full of delectable brews to sample. Plus, you may just get a chance to meet your favorite New Times writers and drunkenly berate them. Who said we did't care.

- Caught the premier of Beer Wars last night at Regal Magnolia in Coral Springs. Ealier in the week, I posted an interview with the documentary's director, Anat Baron, that gave a little primer on the film's premise and where she's coming from. Obviously, some people don't agree with the basic theme of the film, which is the big three two beermakers, SABMiller and AB-InBev, are basically doing everything they can to quash the many thousands of American craft brewers who are eating into their market share. Craft beer is getting hugely popular, so that market share must be growing a ton, right? Eh, not so much. American-owned producers of craft beer, including Sam Adams and Yuengling, account for only 5% of the total beer market.

So after seeing the film, does that theory hold water (or a watered down Bud, that is)? Check out my impressions after the jump.

 
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First off, the event itself was hosted by NCM Fathom, the folks responsible for bringing This American Life! and the Met Opera to theaters nationwide. So aside from the movie, there was a live Q & A with industry figureheads afterwards, hosted by Ben Stein (who were all in the movie as well, as a matter of fact). The theater I went to, Magnolia in Coral Springs, was woefully empty. The event was $15 to attend, and I'm not sure that many people had even heard of it. There were maybe six other people in the theater aside from me and my +1 - and we had been comped. Sort of sad. I hear the Delray showing had better attendance, as many beer groups in the area planned meet-ups there.

So how was the film? Well, it was actually very entertaining for a movie so steeped in technical talk and nuanced arguements. The brunt of it focused on two upstart producers of craft beer, each at different stages in their development.

The first is Dogfish Head, the now well-known craft brewer out of Delaware headed by the charismatic Sam Calagione (who you discover quickly is the kind of guy who would probably be following Phish on tour all year if he wasn't making beer). Dogfish's story starts out as a small-town success - a local boy who loved making homebrew so much, he scraped up the cash to open a small brewpub, only to find it was illegal to do so in Delware at the time. By the time the movie joins up with Sam and company, Dogfish is in the midst of a risky expansion that will see their brew capacity increased exponentially. Meanwhile, they're getting saddled by legal threats from Budweiser and stuggling to compete in a marketplace that, at first glance, appears to be hopelessly skewed in their competitor's favor.

The other half of the tadem of tales follows Rhonda Kallman and her new company, New Century Brewing. Rhona came to be a figurehead in the beer world when she co-founded the most successful American-owned brewery, Sam Adams. Hoping to recreate the success she had with Sam, Rhonda sets out to promote her new brand, Moonshot - a party beverage that combines caffine with beer - by literally driving from store to store trying to convince clerks and bartenders to place her product. The only problem is today's climate seems to be unlike the one she entered into 25 years before. She has a hell of a time finding investors that are willing to back an unknown brand, and she's also had to deal with Bud essentially ripping off her ideas and purportedly bribing Boston area retailers to ditch her product.

As the movie meanders through these two concurent streams, it begins to build an argument: that the field on which craft brewers and mega brewers are competing is not level. The biggest contributor to this, according to the film, is the three tier system which requires brewers to use middle-men called wholesalers or distributors to get their product to retail. The system, it seems, was designed to create a sort of checks and balances in the liquor industry, so that the consumer would never be going straight to the maker to get product. Somewhere along the line, however, the system went astray. These days, almost every market is dominated by distributors who serve the interests of the big three, and the big three alone. The end result is craft brewers have a difficult, if nigh-impossible time getting their product in front of the customer. On top of all this, there's this schizophrenic notion that, while America is clearly beer country, alcohol is inherently evil business, and it's the job of responsible government to temper our craven urges.

Whether you agree with the premise of the film or not, Beer Wars certainly raises some interesting questions, the most potent of which is, is this what capitalism was meant to be? In an era punctuated by catastrophic collapse of industry and an economy that doesn't look like it's going to be recovering any time soon, is it time we stepped back and thought about whether or not the age of all-powerful mega corporations and their strict allegiance to stockholders has run its course? It's quite obvious by the films conclusion, that this system is failing us. It's not working for the big companies any more than it's working for consumers - this must be the case, since every Bud exec is a walking tomb stone, eulogizing the death of an industry at the hands of an evil, insidious rebellion (that would be the craft brewers). And when even the most powerful beer maker in the world - and truly one of America's greatest success stories - is forced to get bought out by a foreign conglomerate just to remain competitive, what does that tell you about the nature of this parasitic form of macro capitalism that's come to dominate the world's finances?

Perhaps even more interesting on a personal level is the dynamic between the craft brewers and the beers they make. To them this is art. Their life's pursuit is simply to be allowed to do what they love doing and share that with the world. Isn't that the American dream, after all? Or is the American dream to someday sit atop a faceless corporation, confident that you've been able to crush everything else under your massive sabatons? These are all questions that Beer Wars poses, and they're good ones. They're also relevant to much, much more than just a glass of suds.

The discussion that followed built on these questions, and maybe brought in some more opinions on them. In the end, I really enjoyed the film. I've already been a longtime supporter of craft beers, and for much, much longer than that, I've been a detractor of corporate Beer. To many people, they're argument against this film will be, "it's all about taste in the end." To that I say, correct. It is. It's about whether or not you prefer art in your life - whether you seek the easy route, and buy what's in front of you simply because it's there, or you search for the unique, for the surprising, and the unexpected. There are plenty of ties to be made between the world of craft beer and the organic movements, the local and slow food movements, the growth of farmers markets, the advent of foreign cinema in America, the popularization of independent music. There are going to be people who will rally against those values, and frankly, they can't help it - it sucks to realize that the decisions you've been making haven't been your own. But the good news is, the day you realize that, you'll find there's a big, beautiful world out there waiting on the other side. Cheers to that.


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