Sunday, September 12, 2010

Beer Wars

For many years, and probably still true for many people, documentaries were seen as something that had to be objective, unbiased, and informative only. But thanks to famous releases like The Thin Blue Line and Michael Moore's films, documentaries have become better known as what amount to filmic essays, if not polemics, which strive to inform, entertain, and most of all to subtly or overtly attempt to prove a point. Most modern documentaries can be divided into preaching to the choir (Super High Me), strident propaganda that convinces no one and angers the rest (Religulous), or oddly fascinating glimpses into worlds you never knew existed (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control).

Beer Wars is somewhere between those three, though this will depend heavily on your foreknowledge of the beer industry in America. I don't hate the big American breweries, but I do normally buy microbrews, largely because I like to sample new beers I've never tried. This is more a matter of taste than some kind of ethical standard, but I suppose that is one of the points of the film: big American breweries have watered down and McDonald-ized what a beer is or can be, feeding Americans commercials (or propaganda, if you want to put it that way) for decades. Even now when someone says something about “a tall frosty one”, I still picture the idealized pale yellow glass of beer seen in so many Bud Light commercials, sweating perfectly, undoubtedly ice cold and refreshing.

As I said, how this documentary comes off will depend on how much you know about the beer industry, but also what kind of beers you like. Assuming you're like some ex-co-workers of mine and you think anything heavier or with more flavor than Bud Light is gross and undrinkable, you'll see Beer Wars as the sad sack tale of various microbreweries who are whining about how they can't compete with the big boys. Likewise, assuming you're like me, and you only drink beer from the big American companies when you can't afford the good stuff or you're at a party and it's all that's available, then you may enjoy this documentary a great deal more. If nothing else, it is a fascinating study in how marketing dollars and rampant, greedy business practices can attempt to stamp out the little guys even though they pose far less threat than other major competitors. Parallels to the business practices of Wal Mart and Microsoft abound. Seeing how Anheuser-Busch goes after a caffeine infused microbrew with their own version just to make sure they can compete in even the smallest sectors of the beer market is depressing or infuriating. Or both. You'll also learn quite a bit about how the beer industry works, and how the various laws and regulations seem purposefully set up to make it as hard as possible for anyone to go up against the big guys.

Most touchingly, Beer Wars shows the human side of the industry, with the agonies and in-it-for-the-love-of-the-game satisfaction of microbreweries and their founders on display. While the juxtaposition of these people against the “no comment” monoliths and bullshit PR-speak of the major breweries seems like a deliberate and cheap way to force audience sympathy one way or the other, you could argue it's the reality and facts of the situation which do this more than the filmmaker's intent. Anat Baron makes for an interesting director/documentarian, but the smartest and most persuasive thing in Beer Wars is something she couldn't have possibly planned. In one scene near the end, Dogfish Head brewery founder Sam Calagione receives a legal threat from Anheuser-Busch based on Dogfish's use of the highly specific terms “chicory stout” and “Punkin ale”, beers they had made for years. It wasn't enough for AB to release a pumpkin beer; they apparently wanted to be able to use the term “punkin” as well.

As with Beer Wars itself, either you agree this is an outrage and shouldn't even happen in a just world, or you shrug and go back to your crappy beer, thinking that capitalist competition is the only ethical standard by which actions should be judged. If someone can do it for less money, well, them's the breaks, and they should be allowed to. My reply would be this: wait until something like this affects you personally, and then you may not be so quick to dismiss these underdog microbreweries. Or their delicious, delicious beer.

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