Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | November 16, 2009

Beer Wars

I just finished watching Beer Wars, a documentary by Anat Baron about brewing beer in America. Baron, a former executive at Mike’s Hard Lemonade, tells the history of America’s breweries, particularly the rise of the Big Three (Anheuser-Busch, Miller & Coors) after the end of Prohibition and, more recently, the rise of independent microbreweries who are bringing taste back to the American beer drinker.

Baron spends a good deal of time explaining how the Big Three convinced the American public that we really did like bland, uniform beers. Billions of dollars a year in advertising and sponsorship have made Bud, Miller, and Coors ubiquitous. But Baron drives it home in a number of scenes that show people who have succumbed to advertising that creates brand loyalty can’t tell one beer from the others. It’s depressing to watch and frankly an indictment of a lot of people like myself, who spent years in college and afterwards knocking back bottle after bottle of light American lagers. Even now, as I’ve gotten into high quality, craft beers over the last three years, I still am pretty likely to be drinking something brewed by the Big Three on a given Friday or Saturday night out at the bars.

As Baron introduces us to some of the most prominent founders of microbreweries, Beer Wars becomes a story about bringing taste back to our national beverage. She interviews and includes extensive footing from the founders of Dogfish Head, New Century Brewing, New Belgium Brewing Company, Stone Brewing, Yuengling, and Boston Beer Company. These subjects, especially Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and Rhonda Kallman of New Century Brewing, show the passion and creativity these brewmasters and entrepreneurs have in common. They speak powerfully to how hard it is going up against the Big Three’s monopoly and how far AB, Miller and Coors go to quash even the smallest microbreweries.

Two things follow from watching Beer Wars. First, it’s time for me to stop being lazy in my beer drinking habits. There are some great independent breweries in the US, some of whose products I can buy in Washington, DC. These companies need the support of people who know what they like to drink to succeed. Every time a knowledgeable customer like myself takes the easy and cheap road, the chances of these breweries carving out and sustaining a market share against the Anheuser-Busch’s of the world is less likely. Yeah, I’m like you and will usually fall back to Bud or Miller Lite while eating hot wings and watching football at a bar on a Sunday afternoon. But nuts to that. I know what I like and I like flavor. Supporting the Big Three after seeing the back alley shenanigans they pull on good companies like Dogfish Head and New Century Brewing is equivalent to condoning their actions to crush independent brewers. I’m just not comfortable having that stain on my coaster.

But Beer Wars doesn’t just make me want to go out and drink a great microbrew while eschewing the bland corporate water that’s sold to me. It makes me want to go brew my own beer, work until I find a recipe I like, and then see if I can walk the hard and rough path these brewers have done to carve out a niche for themselves. I had a similar reaction after visiting the Dogfish Head and Harpoon breweries this past summer and trying their powerfully creative and diverse beers. I have the utmost admiration for the women and men who are doing what they love, no matter how hard it is. And seeing their story, their passion, and on some level, the fun they have doing it all is really appealing to me.

Independent microbreweries are certainly on the rise. But they have a huge mountain to climb before we see anything approaching parity with the Big Three. For independent breweries to succeed, consumers have to try new things. We have to support our local breweries. We have to explore flavors and recipes that are unfamiliar and along the way, find out what we really like. I’m willing to put some money down that when all is said and done, Americans will find out that different and unique flavorful beers are more appealing than uniformly bland beers. Hell, good people whose work I respect have already put their money on it. Now it’s just about making it a reality.

***

Disclosure: This post was made possible because I received an advanced DVD copy of Beer Wars.

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