It took me a long time to get around to seeing Beer Wars, the doco about Big Beer versus Little Beer by film-maker Anat Baron. That’s because it only seemed to screen at beer festivals I wasn’t at and because purchasing a DVD via the website was a pain in the butt and put me off.
But once I got a copy and sat down to watch it, it didn’t take me very long to realise that Beer Wars wouldn’t be very good. I only had to watch for the first few minutes to get that feeling. That’s when Baron mentions she used to run Mike’s Hard Lemonade – essentially an alcoholic soft drink – and seems to think it is a beer. She talks then – and numerous times thereafter – about how she used to work in “the beer industry” or “the beer business”.
It’s not a good sign when the maker of a documentary about beer doesn’t understand the difference between a beer and an alcopop.
Those first minutes also feature Baron – and no-one else. First we get a cutesy cartoon version of Baron giving us her work history. That’s followed her attending beer industry function and catching up with the people she would run into during her days at Mike’s Alcopops.
It’s all totally irrelevant and yet this is virtually the first thing someone watching the film sees. It made me think three things.
1) Baron has watched too many Mike Moore documentaries.
2) She needed a strong editor – to cut scenes like this.
3) That her ability as a film-maker was questionable.
In those early minutes there was also another thing that made me wary. She refers to herself as “a little bit out there”. In my experience, people who describe themselves as “out there”, or “zany”, “madcap” or anything similar are almost never that. Instead what they tend to be is a bit of a pain. But maybe that’s just me.
Back to those three points. They all came to pass. Baron uses all the Mike Moore cliches – inserting herself on camera as much as possible, retro TV commercials, insisting everything is black and white with no shades of grey, casting the corporations as evil and the smaller business as the good guys, trying – and secretly hoping to fail – to get an interview with the boss of the evil corporation and blathering on about the “American dream”.
As for the editing, I found plenty of places where scenes could have been cut. For instance, every time Baron introduces a new area of discussion, she starts by asking random people in the street if they knew anything about it. It’s an utterly pointless tactic even when done once but to do it over and over is just too much.
The editor could have also helped her to find the narrative threads in the film because Baron doesn’t seem to understand how to do that. What Baron does is throw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks – so we get bits about distributors, “neo-prohibitionists”, politicians, lobbyists and a load of other stuff that just doesn’t fit in.
There is the raw material for a good narrative, but Baron largely misses it. Two of the “good guys” in the film are Sam Calagione from Dogfish and Rhonda Kellman, who is trying to launch her own beers – including an ugly-sounding caffeine-infused beer called MoonShot (should have been called Long Shot if you ask me, given the very limited chance of success).
She could have taken Calagione, Kellman (even though I think her inclusion is a mistake because her product is a gimmick beer) and even Sam Adams founder Jim Koch – who appears briefly – and shown what it’s like for small companies. Forget about trying to interview Augustus Busch III and all the side issues – focus on those three.
But, in the process, don’t paint them as the “good guys” (an example of Baron’s “black and white” view here). Put them under some scrutiny as well. Calagione talks about having to double their brewing capacity – but getting bigger is something Baron criticises Anheuser-Busch for in her film. So the obvious question to ask (and one Baron obviously doesn’t as it would cloud her black and white view) is, why is it okay for craft brewers to get bigger but not mainstream brewers?
Following on from that, Koch’s Boston Brewing Company is one of the biggest craft brewers in the US – it’s big business for Koch. So why does he get to be considered differently to the big mainstream brewers? It could be argued that Sam Adams uses its market position to take shelf space away from smaller brewers.
As for Kellman, Baron could have quizzed her on the viability of her caffeine beer, and whether a person with a marketing and not a brewing background designing a beer to fill a niche smells more of business than brewing.
There was so much scope here for a big, juicy story. Instead, Baron went down the tired Mike Moore route – the little guys is always good and the big guy is the evil enemy. Still, you should see it because, right now, it’s the only documentary on craft beer that exists. But, with the rate craft beer is picking up, I’m sure a new – and hopefully better – doco isn’t too far away.
Categories: TV, DVD, podcast