directed by Paul Kermizian
Let Michael Moore one day go the defensive on Anheuser-Busch if he wants. Filmmaker Paul Kermizian approach is to support the minority, and in American Beer his focus remains on small companies across the United States. Following the forty-day road trip of five young men, the documentary pays visit and tribute to breweries and brewpubs from Maine to Washington.
Through the entrepreneurial stories and in-depth tours is learned the beer-making process and the histories of long-standing businesses like D.G. Yuengling and the ambitious start-ups made possible through President Carter’s legalization of home-brewing thirty years ago. There are mentions of the struggles of free enterprise: a drought in 1988 nearly killed Bell’s Beer and distribution difficulties in a market ruled by the “big three” (Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller) have been tough on the growth of each venture; Redhook Ales is even labeled a sell-out for its partnership with a major in order to become a national brand.
The craft beer industry is rare, though, with its mostly harmonious coexistence with the big corporations. Peter Bouckaert of the New Belgium Brewing Co. points out that as long as the majority of beer drinkers consume Bud Light that the little guys won’t be seen as a threat, and that balance needs to continue (the “big three” still account for 79% of beer sold in this country). All the owners insist that drinkers of mainstream beer are far more likely to convert to specialty brew than vice versa, but even constant guerilla marketing, such as Hale’s Ales’ use of a double-decker bus with a bar inside, isn’t likely to put a dent in the business.
Whether or not Kermizian even thinks that dent is worth an attempt, he nonetheless does a wonderful job of promoting a slew of alternatives. Putting attention on McDonalds or Nike or big media may work for turning viewers off of that stuff, but any publicity is good publicity, and the brew-loving travelers in American Beer would rather promote the good stuff than the bad, even if that means gaining weight and nasty hangovers in the process. Much of the road-trip narrative may be excessive and expendable –there is no need for unrelated sightseeing footage –considering the story of five guys bickering their way cross-country has little correlation with the doc’s central celebratory direction, but during each brewery spotlight, the informal sociability of Kermizian and friends works well to accentuate the folksy personality that comes with most small breweries.
Ten years ago I couldn’t have cared less for a movie about beer. With my only exposure being a taste of my father’s Budweisers, I never touched the stuff. Eventually I discovered the more flavorful import and craft varieties so that now my appreciation for the beverage has generated an interest in a documentary like American Beer. But the movie is more than a beer-lover’s accessory. It is for anyone who endorses the underdogs and the mom-and-pops.
Soon every big business will have its combating documentary, but few will actually exhibit such positive encouragement for opportunism as this.