Beer Wars Live has come and gone, with extremely mixed reviews. I have to say it wasn’t a bad way to spend an evening, but it was rife with issues.  

A half full theatre with raucous, interactive beer lovers, who cheered, applauded and laughed throughout the two hours. And the film and panel certainly captivated all, bringing out some interesting questions and ideas. All in all, Anat Baron did a nice piece of work that will, at least, inspire the conversation that she talked about in the press.

The difficulty for this movie, or any movie, about the beer industry lies in the ease in which anyone can skirt over the complexity of the issues in favor of looming, and very sexy, points of view, such as David vs. Goliath. Most of what was covered in the movie, access to market, is a 20 to 40 year old story, fought every single day by all the breweries in the industry, and is far more complex then simply a legion of heroic entrepreneurs stymied by the world’s biggest, baddest, brewery.

Anat’s portrayal skirted over too many critical issues. Three-tier system is set up as the impediment for entry? A lot of today’s defense of the three-tier system is against the onslaught of mega-retail. Were Wall-Mart to dictate the terms of beer distribution, a majority of today’s wholesalers would be gone and much of the present access to market for craft brewers would wither.  It’s a complicated issue.

The mere success of both craft brewers on the panel, Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head Brewery, pointed to improved access to market. The consumer spokesperson. Todd Alstrom of Beer Advocate, and the industry spokesperson, Charlie Papazian of the Brewers Association, both revealed the secret of craft brewer’s success. They are making great beer that more and more people like to drink.  And the distribution industry has come around to recognizing that. Those supermarket sets from the movie are far from representative now. More frequently there is a wall of light lagers and another wall of craftbrewers.

 The telling difference between the near total demise of the pre1970 American beer industry and today’s revolution could lie in the beers themselves. It’s a pity Anat can’t drink alcohol, because that might have been the pivot point of her whole narrative. Both she, and noted beer historian Maureen Ogle, might have curbed their dour predications of the fate of the small guys if they were more “immersed” in the flavor profiles and the consumers’ passion for these beers.

That certainly is the case for the speakers. Both Stone and Dogfish Head make uncompromising, off-centered beers for a unique, but expanding, market. The breweries of yesterday, made light lagers, which could only compete on branding because the flavors weren’t that distinctive. (Perhaps this is the problem with the struggling New Century Brewing, and not funding or restricted access to market.)  

Today’s craft brewers make beers of intense personality and make them with love and passion. As Greg and Sam both said, they could never become an Anheuser-Busch. Their culture is too far from that. 

This also brings up Anat’s portrayal of the political clout of the beer industry, which works on so many more levels than just defense of the three tier. Alcohol is the stock villain in any public policy debate with armies dedicated to the destruction of the supply of alcohol. Taxation, regulation, and public access are a few of the weapons of the detractors. Presenting them as well meaning people unfairly labeled as “neoprohibitionist,” skirts over their zero-tolerance agenda which unites in opposition all members of the beer industry.

Furthermore, the rise of craft brewers has lead to their own version of political clout. In fact, Charlie’s trade association’s budget may actually eclipse that of each of other two leading industry associations.  State craft brewing guilds are now valued allies with other industry associations on certain issues and can effectively counter pressure on their interests.

I am not so naïve as to think we’re all one big happy family. After all this is a capitalist economy and we are talking about business. But craft brewers kept repeating the same mantra. They are about beer, unusual and exciting beers, not about maximizing shareholder value. This gives them an edge, which as Greg pointed out, they can effectively exploit through direct contact with consumers. The present Big vs. Little crisis of faux craft beers coming out of big brewers is deflated by using the Internet to correct potentially misleading breweries of origin.

This is an industry in continued evolution. There is no end game. There is no steady state. There is only change.  Beer Wars Live freezes all of that, which is an injustice to the accomplishments of yesterday and today and the challenges of tomorrow. It is a snapshot, a point of reference, and a possibly beginning point of a discussion. After all, isn’t it time our consumers were fully apprised of our industry.  And Anat has made a good beginning.