So back in January during my rants against the mega-breweries closing down British real ale breweries I briefly mentioned the movie “Beer Wars” (trailer here), a documentary on the battle raging between the mega-breweries and the small independents in the USA. Well tonight the wife and kids are away on school break in sunny San Diego and I am home bound in cold wet Marshfield. To make matters worse I am on the tail end of one of the most painful bouts of flu I have ever had followed immediately by a nasty 24 hour stomach virus. I had planned to brew beer today and then crack open my London Pride clone and write the review but I am feeling really fragile and been bed ridden for the best part of the day and the thought of food or beer is not sitting well in a churned up belly. So what better way to pass a quiet evening in than to rent Beer Wars on iTunes and jot down some thoughts.
The documentary starts off with an overview of the US beer industry, the 3 big guys, Anheuser, Miller and Coors controlling 78% market share with the remaining 22% being contested by a mere 1400 breweries. Does not sound like war to me it sounds like domination especially considering that 50% of all consumption is an Anheuser brand. The movie then goes down into some history of how the giant 3 have grown over the last 50 years, essentially all selling the identical beer to the American public, one indistinguishable from the other (Anat Baron, Producer, writer and narrator) even does a taste test to prove it with die-hard Bud, Miller and Coors drinkers not being able to tell one from the other. Not hard really, I would have better luck telling you Marshfield town tap water from neighboring Scituate water.
The narrative moves swiftly on to the small independent brewers focusing on a local South Shore of Boston gal, Rhonda Kallman (whom I have met a few times around town, typically in the old Mount Blue Restaurant) and my personal favorite Dog Fish Head Brewery in Delaware. The contrast between the big and little guys is the most startling part of the documentary. We have the big guys buying massive blocks of advertising (apparently Anheuser spends $800M per year), sponsoring every sport under the sun, with Bud even sponsoring the Presidential debate. Then we have Sam the founder of Dog Fish calling his winning the hearts and minds (and beer mugs) of the US population one individual at time, the ground war. It felt good to know that homebrewers like myself, but with passion and a certain risk taking sensibility like Sam, were out there helping America finally learn what the rest of the world has known for centuries, what beer really tastes like.
But it’s at this point the movie lost me for a while, it became less about the beer and more about the politics. How through lobbying (Bud contributed more than guns and tobacco combined) and unfair practices the big guys stop the little guys, making it hard to enter the market and blocking them when they do. I guess its not meant to be easy, I have worked in the finance industry long enough to know the playing field is never flat. It takes hard work and a certain level of insanity to succeed. But I think this part of the movie missed the point, its about the beer, and people who want to will always find good beer. Back in the 70′s and 80′s people could not get anything but bland old Bud so the homebrewers rose up and from this movement over 1400 microbreweries now exist. Today I can go down to my local and get a Dog Fish Head 90 min and I don’t mind paying premium for it because it is worth paying 4x what a Bud is worth. Its a steal considering the beer is 10x better on every level. The people that drink Bud, drink it, its what they have been told to like for generations and they like it, its a commodity, cheap and cheerful. It’s about choice, of course the big guys play unfair, its their market to lose and they have nowhere to go but down.
Towards the end of the film it does all come together, the little guys are growing, the big guys are going global, and Government is getting fatter. Sounds like America to me. The one piece that made me upset was the role of Government and the 37,000 beer laws the movie cites. It has been sad to see my home country become such a “Nanny State” where the Government is so deep into your personal space they can tell you what you can and cannot eat. The end of this movie reminded me that the US is going down the same path. Whether you are a Big Gov liberal or a Small Gov Consrvative no Government should be deep inside your home telling you how to live your life and control the choices we can make, especially when those choices are influenced by deep pocketed corporation with nothing but global growth on the bottom line.
I am happy I am free to brew my own beer, to buy from a good selection of brews, but for how long? This was not covered in the movie but how long before the Beer Lobby influences some bozo Senator to put a Bill before Congress to stop homebrewers like me from brewing “for our own good”, just like smokers cannot smoke anywhere anymore or New Yorkers cannot get MSG and the lastest in NYC is the attempt to ban salt in food, because it for our own good.
I know what is good for me, I know my beer is great, because I know whats in it, which is more than I can say for a Bud. It was a good documentary, every beer drinker should see it. It was not my favorite documentary this year. That honor belongs to “It Might Get Loud”, the documentary covering a Summit meeting of 3 guitar legends Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. That was an amazing film. But go rent Beer Wars today, get informed and have a beer.