During my last trip to Las Vegas I was intrigued by the fact that I only seemed to be able to find the same dozen or so beers for sale almost everywhere on the Strip, no matter where I went I could find many incarnations of Bud and a few ‘craft beers’ or at least beers that sported craft looking labels but nothing else. Where did the other beers go? Did Budweiser buy Vegas? Shortly after I returned a friend recommend the documentary Beer Wars, which tackles this very subject. After watching this doc I happened to be channel surfing one morning when I came across a similar show on Discovery called What’s that About The Brewery. What follows is my review of two programs that provide a behind the scenes look at brewing in North America.
Beer Wars: The synopsis states “In America, size matters. The bigger you are, the more power you have, especially in the business world. Director Anat Baron takes you on a no holds barred exploration of the US beer industry that ultimately reveals the truth behind the label of your favourite beer. Told from an insider’s perspective, the film goes behind the scenes of the daily battles and all out wars that dominate one of America’s favourite industries”. This doc is told from the perspective of the former head of Mike’s Hard Lemonade who, along with the owners of Dogfish Head and Moon Shot, contrasts the macro and micro brewing worlds. What I liked about this film was the exploration of the marketing and distribution aspects of brewing, which were shown to be the real ‘make it or break it’ battleground. I was shocked to learn the extent of Anheuser Busch’s monopoly on the American beer market, sadly learning that many brands I enjoy(ed?) have been appropriated into this massive beer empire. The blind taste test of the major light beers was quite funny and the behind the scenes at Dogfish were well done. The profiles of Moon Shot and Dogfish Head clearly demonstrated the different stages of forays into the craft market niche. What I did not like as much was the reserved manner of the documentary, which never delved quite far enough into the larger issues that seemed to be surfacing; for instance, who supplied beer to the lobbying meeting on the three tier distribution in Washington (it looked a lot like Bud)? Who, if anyone, can and should monitor the distribution system to ensure equity? How do the craft brewers feel about those who sell their labels to the big breweries? What are the relationships to other beer markets in Canada, Europe and the rest of the world? Overall this documentary is worth a watch because it shows us the often-obscured corporate reality of the beer world.
Out of a possible five I would give this documentary a 4.0
What’s That About -The Brewery: The tagline reads “How do beer giants make beer taste exactly the same in billions of bottles every year? Meanwhile, small and original brewers blaze new trails in beer making. Can chemical warfare help make better beer? Meet the builders of the latest high-tech breweries. On location in Charlottetown, PEI; Moncton, NB; and Toronto, ON, see who’s making the best – and some of the strangest – new suds on the market today”. While I admit it was a chance encounter that led me to watch this program I am certainly glad I did. In Discovery Channel fashion this show provided lots of information on the ‘how it’s made’. From the construction of kettles, to sterilization, to harvesting hops, to hand bottling, this program covered a little bit of everything. Several small scale brewers such as Dieu Du Ciel (Oh my God) and Church Key talked about catering to specialty niches –cask aged lambics and super hopped varietals. While equal screen time was given to the large scale guys who brew 95 million bottles a day each beer each beer designed to taste exactly like its brethren. A beer bottle collector spoke to the rationale for inventing the stubby – a means to curb broken bottles upping the ante in bar fights, I learned that fermentation temperature determines the classification of a lager or ale –the former being low temp and the latter high temp, and Steam Whistle packs their green bottles (a throwback to the original Molson bottle) in opaque boxes to avoid light exposure. Overall a great show.
Out of a possible five I would give this program a 5.0