Beer originated elsewhere, but it has become the quintessential American drink. Gallup polls since 1939 have consistently reported that roughly two-thirds of Americans identify themselves as alcohol drinkers; the 2008 poll reported that 42 percent of drinkers drink beer more often than either wine or hard liquor. Sports teams and events, big ticket music acts, and cultural happenings all have become little more than advertising media for brewers to increase their reach to the beer-buying public, and more often than not those headline sponsors are Coors, Budweiser, or Miller.
Although beer is infused into our culture in a way that few other things are, the ways in which government regulation affects (or restricts, depending on your point of view) the choices available to the quaffing masses is given scarce thought. Beer Wars is a documentary by Anat Baron – herself a veteran of the malt beverage industry – that seeks to examine the state of America’s brewing industry by using the experience of two idealistic beer makers as a baseline from which larger issues about free markets and consumer choice are discussed.
The film’s timeliness – available September 22 on DVD at the film's official site – is uncanny, as it releases when the beer world seems poised for change, simultaneously sustaining a small number of massive and powerful producers and a flourishing appetite for craft brewed alternatives to the mass-produced light lager that seeks to crowd out competition in the grocery store cold case.
Beer Wars is neither a staid and static analysis of beer economics, nor an exposé-styled escapade. (Even when Baron is face-to-face with August Busch IV, Anheuser-Busch’s CEO, after having multiple interview requests ignored, she allows him to walk away without any confrontation.) What Baron seeks to persuade audiences of is that alcohol distribution laws – the “three-tier” system implemented after the repeal of Prohibition – although created to protect consumers, have actually erected immense barriers to entry that in turn reduce the opportunities consumers have to choose from a variety of quality beverages. Because the three-tier system prohibits breweries from selling directly to the retailer or the individual customer, the basic mechanism of a free market system – producers and consumers "communicating" about needs, wants, prices, and such – is not functioning.
Despite its theme of economic disparity, the brilliance of the film is that it chooses not to focus on the economics. Those lessons are taken care of in short segments with the use of clever and clear animations. (They inspired in me visions of Monty Python’s genius Terry Gilliam being set loose with a stack of 1950s LIFE magazines and a pair of scissors.) Baron’s message is conveyed by the stories of Sam Calgagione (founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery) and Rhonda Kallman (founder and CEO of New Century Brewing Co., and co-founder of The Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams), passionate entrepreneurs who she follows as they sacrifice and toil almost quixotically toward their goals of brewing success. In their stories lies Baron’s best argument for why passionate entrepreneurs should be encouraged, not have their efforts hampered by antiquated hedgerow regulations.
Baron’s treatment of Kallman as she tirelessly markets her “Moonshot” caffeinated beer to tavern-goers, store owners, and anyone who will listen is adept at capturing the particular tone of melancholy recognizable to anyone who has participating in a failing venture that they were desperately passionate about. In particular, footage of Kallman comforting her crying daughter before leaving home for a late-night tour of bars where she would undoubtedly face additional rejection was heart-rending. Juxtaposed against news clips announcing Anheuser-Busch’s intent to produce a caffeinated beer, one can almost hear her dreams being crushed under the trotting hooves of eight Clydesdales.
An incredible bonus to the 89-minute documentary feature is a nearly half-hour panel interview moderated by writer and economist Ben Stein with the filmmaker and several familiar faces from the film, including Calgagione and Kallman. The discussion that ensues provides further information about the topic, and was extremely entertaining in its own right.
Above all, Anat Baron’s Beer Wars is a film that cuts through the glaring neon of Big Beer to prompt viewers to consider whether a system of regulations that benefits big business and discourages people from pursuing their dreams is such a good system to have. Films that show the human cost of government over-regulation are rare, films that do it as well as Baron’s work are rarer still.