Joe Sixpack: Beer on the big screen: Documentary details battle between major, craft brewers

Posted: April 10, 2009

AFILM DOCUMENTARY about the three-tier beer distribution system sounds like the kind of yawner they show in Economics 101. But as "Beer Wars" opens Thursday with a one-day nationwide screening, suds lovers are foaming over in joyous anticipation.

The film, by director, writer and producer Anat Baron, is described as a "David and Goliath tale" about the battle for market share and shelf space between micro- and macro-breweries.

Beer blogs have been filled with speculation about the first theatrical movie devoted to craft beer. With a live panel discussion about the film to be beamed to theaters following the screening, beer clubs are organizing meet-ups and other gatherings to fill the seats.

The documentary features some of the biggest names in small brewing, including Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head in Delaware, Greg Koch of Stone Brewing in California, and Jim Koch of Boston Beer.

These are people who revolutionized beer around the world, both with inventive, unusual styles and with unique entrepreneurial prowess.

"It was a world I didn't really know much about," Baron said of craft brewing. Her own background was in mainstream beer marketing, as a manager of Mike's Hard Lemonade. "Then I met all these craft brewers doing all these crazy, kooky things . . . "

But Baron cautioned that "Beer Wars" is not a big, wet kiss to the offbeat world of microbrewing. Instead, her documentary focuses on that dreaded three-tier system, a post-Prohibition requirement that brewers use a middleman, or wholesaler, to distribute beer to retailers.

I know what your thinking: Zzzzzz . . .

But wait - it's a topic that's just ripe for a Michael Moore-like takedown.

On one side, you've got beer barons mass-producing an inferior product, scheming to grab every inch of supermarket shelf space. On the other, little start-ups run by struggling American craftsmen who make pure, all-malt goodness.

Rhonda Kallman, who is founder and CEO of one of those start-ups, New Century Brewing Co., calls it "hand-to-hand combat."

The battle is fought hardest among the towering stacks of kegs and cases at wholesalers.

"The political power of the National Beer Wholesalers Association is pretty incredible," Baron told me. "Their PAC in 2006 contributed more than guns and tobacco. You've got to ask yourself, 'What are they trying to protect?' "

Surely they're not worried about tiny craft brewers. The segment represents a mere 5 percent of the beer industry.

Over an ominous shot of "soulless" robots and conveyor belts, she intones, "Anheuser-Busch got this big because it had politicians and laws on its side. And by using its humongous marketing machine, it was able to push consumers to buy its product, rather than respond to market demands."

And now, faced with years of flat sales, Baron said, Big Beer - with its "insatiable appetite for growth" - sees craft as a profit-making opportunity. "When you're a monopoly like Anheuser-Busch," she says in the film, "you just can't let anything slide. Everyone's a threat, no matter how small."

In one scene, Baron - who appears often on camera - goes hunting for the source of Wild Hop Lager, a craft beer made by the mythical Green Valley Brewing in Fairfield, Calif., only to "discover" that it's actually a front for a mammoth Budweiser plant.

So, the very people who numbed our palates with the likes of flavor-free Michelob Ultra are copying the small brewers to make a variety of distinctively hoppy ales and malty lagers.

It's a nasty war, says Baron. You don't have to pick a side, but she hopes beer lovers ask themselves: Does it matter? Does it matter who makes your favorite beer? *

"Beer Wars" will screen at more than 400 movie theatres nationwide on April 16, including AMC Neshaminy, Regal King of Prussia, Regal Riverview Plaza, The Bridge at Penn, AMC Plymouth Meeting and Ritz Voorhees.

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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