Beer lovers take heed! Beer Wars wants you on their side. This 2009 documentary goes into the trenches in the war between craft brewers and beer heavy weights (i.e. Anheuser-Busch) in the USA. The film is undoubtedly one sided, throwing it’s lot in with the little guy. Beer Wars paints a very David and Goliath battle between the two factions of the liquor industry. We learn all about how Anheuser-Busch throws its weight around to lobby politicians, preventing change in the industry, swallowing up competitors, and what craft brewers are doing to survive and in some cases, thrive as the only growing segment of the beer industry.
Beer Wars was the creation of Anat Baron, the former head of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Baron wrote, directed, produced and narrated the film, and although she clearly holds a bias, this does not prevent the film from being a charming look at craft brewers. Baron’s film circles around two main points, both of which she argues to varying degrees of success. She argues that the current beer oligopoly is both poor for consumer choice, and crushes or swallows small businesses, putting people out of work and depriving the industry of creative, alternative offerings. Companies such as Anheuser-Busch dump millions of dollars every year into advertising that sells an image, and hawks a product that the masses have learned to accept. They promote the idea that what you drink defines you. Baron argues that while the image of each beer brand maybe different, they all roughly taste the same, with little variation.
A section of the film also analyzes the United States’ three tier distribution system that was put into place during prohibition. This system was ultimately supposed to keep the liquor distribution fair, by introducing a middle man, thus preventing breweries from selling directly to stores. Unfortunately things are not going according to plan. Currently 70% of distributors are controlled by Anheuser-Busch and carry their products alone, making it exceedingly difficult for independent craft brewers to get on the shelves. Consumers are instead given the illusion of choice, with Anheuser-Busch currently owning a number of domestic and foreign brands including: Budweiser, Stella Artois, Beck’s, Kirin, Hoegarden, Brahma…the list goes on.
Beer Wars hammers in these points and advocates for consumer choice in the beer market. Baron presents the facts in the film in very entertaining way, through interviews, anecdotes, cartoons, old commercials and various facts and figures. Undoubtedly the strongest part of the film is when it follows current craft brewers, some of whom, such as Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery have already found some success. He took the state of Delaware to task and lobbied to change their restrictive laws around breweries to make it legal for him to brew beer in the state. Calagione is a loveable guy with a Keanu Reeve’s-esque diction. You just want to be his best friend, and boy can he brew some mean beers (I for one have downed the delicious Black and Blue, and the 90 Minute IPA). If you can find Dogfish Head beer anywhere be sure to give it a shot. We also see the other end of the spectrum, highlighted by struggling entrepreneur Rhonda Kallman, the creator of a caffeinated beer called Moonshot. Kallman hustles investors and distributors, desperately trying to get anyone to buy into her product. Though Kallman was a co-founder of Boston Beer Co., she has to start from the bottom with her newest venture and wonders how long she can keep going as she digs herself deeper and deeper into debt.
This film is informative and fun, shedding light on the struggle of craft brewers. With Vancouver’s Craft Beer Week swiftly approaching, this is the perfect introduction to the industry. My advice to you: stock up on your favourite craft brews, and settle in for a night at home with Beer Wars.