Monday, October 12, 2009

American Beer Industry Documentary Features Underdog Labels

In this 89-minute documentary, writer/director/producer Anat Baron uses her insider knowledge to educate and entertain about us about a $97 billion a year industry. Using engaging real life examples, stylistic presentation and clear explanations of complex historical and government structures, Beer Wars keeps curiosity on tap while encouraging consumer awareness.

As general manager of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Baron created over 50 television and radio commercials. Her additional background as a Hollywood producer combined with her allergic reaction to alcohol provide for a surprisingly objective review of the industry. She cans mundane business detail into an entertaining box that’s easy to handle. By comparing/contrasting the tale of two small brewers with the giants who have dominated liquor stores and menus for more than 50 years, Baron provides a limited yet insightful look into the American beer industry.

Baron, who narrates the film, asks questions most consumers never think about, like where does your beer come from? As she goes on to explicate, American beer consumers are more limited in their product choices than they realize – though not as limited as 15 years ago (a point she fails to mention). Even as the choices become more diverse, it still remains a challenge to take a new brew to market. The reason is not so simple.

Beer is not like chicken or tomatoes. Beer has its own constitutional amendments*. In an attempt to explain this reality, the film juggles the complications of national product distribution, marketing and sales, and how the government regulates alcohol. And it does it pretty well. Baron guides us through the challenges of getting this product to the consumer using cartoon imagery in a clear, non-pedantic way, along with balanced interviews with entrepreneurs like Sam Calagione.

Sam Calagione has more than a likable on-screen persona; he also has one of the fastest growing local brew houses in the nation. Using his English degree to pull down relevant quotes in an impressive nano second is just one of his better qualities. He is also on the Inc. 500 list. After experimenting with micro brews as a bar tender in New York, Calagione launched his own and is operating successfully as the president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware – a state that did not allow such activity prior to his push for changing the legislation. Several of the Dogfish Head labels are chilled and tasted in boardrooms of Anheuser-Bush (along with other local brews). Why join them if you can beat them?

The other profile focus is on one struggling beer-industry veteran, who seems to be having a much more difficult time growing her business. Rhonda Kallman, founder and CEO of New Century Brewing Co. is peddling a caffeinated beer called Moonshot. Her unwavering confidence in sales stems from her successes as co-founder of The Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams. Kallman’s battle is uphill not just because of her limited marketing budget, but also because one of the biggest brands in the industry launched a similar product years ago and it bombed horribly – what’s known as a “category killer.”

The 1,400 micro-brew labels in the U.S. along with imported brews represent 22% of the total domestic beer market. On the other hand, 3 corporations, Anheuser-Bush, Miller Brewing Company, and the Coors Company claim the rest of U.S. sales. The point of the film is that those numbers don’t necessarily mean they offer the best product. “It’s about maximizing shareholder value versus maximizing taste,” explains Calagione. The big three also spend about $800,000,000 on advertising – including oodles toward political event sponsorships.

Today it is illegal for brewers to sell beer online. For now, the beer wars are taking place in “supermarket jungles” where eye-level space is sold at a premium. Consumers are encouraged to “vote with your wallet,” according to Baron. She also advises consumers to use the Internet to find out where your beer is from. There seems to be a massive shift toward the empowerment of the middle class in America. There is a hope than an educated consumer is a dangerous consumer to lazy mega-corporations. “We’ve seen too many examples where corporate America has lost its way or gotten in the way,” Baron states in the film’s promotional materials. “We should remove the roadblocks and allow free enterprise to flourish.”

I’ll drink to that. And I don’t like beer.

*Amendment 18
"the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."

Amendment 21

"1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited."