12 February 2010

Beer Week: Beer Wars

I love documentaries, and the more obscure the topic the more I like it. Professional Scrabble players? The Donkey Kong championship? Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball? Move over Avatar, I'm going to watch an entire film about the font Helvetica.

Thus I was excited to receive an advance DVD copy of the 2009 documentary Beer Wars, written, produced, and directed by Anat Baron. Baron is the former General Manager for Mike's Hard Lemonade and, despite an allergy to alcohol that prevents her from drinking beer or other spirits, has a deep interest in the way the modern beer industry works and the barriers to entry for smaller competitors and new products. Anat Baron answers questions about the film in a detailed interview on 29-95.com.

A few quick stats:

In 1873 there were 4,131 breweries in the U.S. By 1983, the number had dropped to 80, and those were controlled by only 50 companies. The number has risen above 1,500 thanks to the removal of some regulations in the late 70s and the subsequent craft beer movement. But even today, two companies control 78% of the beer in America: Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.

When a smaller company is bought out by one of the big two, it's possible that the original brewery will be shut down and the beer will be replicated at a larger factory in a different state--but with no change to the name, label, or advertising. Rolling Rock was an example used in the film: brewed in Latrobe, PA from 1936-2006 and successful enough to becomes nationally distributed. It was bought by Anheuser-Busch and production was moved to New Jersey. Likewise, tons of Coors was brewed here in Memphis for over a decade, with our flat landscape and artesian wells producing that "Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water" flavor. (The "terroir" of beer is largely water, which makes up 90-95% of the beverage.) If someone bought Moët & Chandon and moved Champagne production to a plant in Nebraska without changing the name or packaging, there would be rioting in the streets and it would dominate wine discussion for years.

It's one thing to get big through buying up smaller companies and being successful at what you do. It's another thing to do it through writing state and federal laws to maintain oligopolies. There are old laws leftover from the days of Prohibition that determine who controls beer distribution in every state, and which beers you're allowed to consume in your area. The National Beer Wholesalers Association is a lobby that maintains these laws across all party lines and all states. They donate to every single Congressman in the country in order to maintain the status quo, making them one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country. (Baron did find one Oregon Representative that hadn't accepted NBWA funds, but only because he hadn't been offered. He got campaign funds from them during his following election cycle.)

The end result of this is that you want to sell a beer in bars or grocery stores, you don't have many options. The companies that distribute Anheuser-Busch InBev products tend to stay within the family, so you have to beg for truck and shelf space from the companies that carry MillerCoors products. You can't just sell directly to the bar, restaurant, or grocery store.

Imagine if national and local laws were twisted in such a way that 78% of all meals consumed in the United States were either at McDonald's or Wendy's. Independent restaurants would have to work under the good graces of those two. And say it only became legal to cook at home in 1979, assuming your individual state allows you to. Where would American cuisine be today? It sounds crazy, but once one drop of alcohol is involved, reason and common sense go out the window.

The worst part of this conglomeration has been the fact that American beer was largely turned into a generic, tasteless product: a light lager without bitterness or discerning flavor. In my favorite scene, bar patrons who only drink either Coors Light, Bud Light, or Miller Lite are invited to a blind tasting. Baron (on the right in the above photo) admits it's not scientific, but none of the people tested can pick their preferred brand out of the three.

The documentary is not all doom and gloom and railing against corporate interests. There are success stories, particularly Dogfish Head. On the left side of this photo is Sam Calagione of Dogfish, who in 1995 at the age of 25 used everything he owned to start a brewery... not knowing that it was illegal to brew beer in Delaware. He got the law changed mere days before opening the facility. Today Dogfish makes some of the most creative beers in the country. There's a few of the old holdouts who, like Shiner, survived Prohibition and the conglomeration of the 50s and 60s. It was great to see the Yuengling brewery, which has operated in Pennsylvania since 1829. The Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams, is the biggest and most successful independent brewery in the United States. It currently accounts for one-half of 1% of the U.S. beer market.

I'm not angry at distributors, some of whom are personal friends of mine. I get irritated when the system prevents me from trying something I'd like, or how beers have to be downgraded to 3.2% alcohol for Utah, or how Sam Adams' Utopias is illegal in 13 states. Nor am I telling you to go to hell if you prefer macrobrews. Drink what you like. But if you're interested in flavor, creativity, and dynamic innovation, check out the independents. Try your local brewpub, or homebrewers' association, or just give a chance to one of those crazy-looking beers you see in the store. OK, in the last case there's a good probability that it's owned by the big two anyway.

Unlike wine, truly world-class beer can be made practically anywhere and the only limit is the imagination of the brewer. You may have to look a little harder, but great beer is worth the search.

As of February 1, 2010, this movie is available everywhere, including iTunes and Netflix. You can also watch it on Amazon using your web browser for $3.99.

And with that, Benito's Beer Week comes to a close... Fear not, I've got some more interesting brews sitting around and there's always something new to try, and I'll sprinkle them around throughout the year, just like all the other crazy non-wine topics I cover. In the meantime, pick the right glass, don't chill it, and enjoy the golden barley goodness. Prosit!

Cover and screen images ©Copyright 2009 Ducks in A Row Entertainment Corporation. NBWA logo is a registered trademark, used here via Wikipedia with more details on fair use rules.

I received this DVD as a sample.


The Wine Commonsewer (TWC) said...

Good piece.

I am pretty sure I could tell the diff between Coors and Bud in a blind tasting.

I thought I heard that Iron City isn't brewed in the 'Burgh any longer. Wait. I think I may have blogged that. :-)

Ghastly beer my friend.

Benito said...


If you do a successful blind tasting with the three, let me know. Though your highly educated wine nose and palate will set you apart from the typical bar herd.

I've never had Iron City, as far as I know. Memories of Pittsburgh are fond but cloudy. When it comes to western PA I'll stick to Yuengling. Fortunately they carry this in Memphis now so I don't have to rely on friends smuggling cases.


The Wine Commonsewer (TWC) said...

I think the main reason I'll be able to tell the diff is that I really don't care for Bud. It has a consistent 'green' taste to me. Green as in 'not ready yet'.

Coors isn't a great beer, but on a hot day after chores or on the water it goes down pretty well.

Miller is somewhere in between. I haven't had any in a long time but I recall thinking that MGD was a big improvement over the old Miller High Life (Champagne of Bottled Beers).

With Bud and Coors I am talking about regular, not lite.

Actually, Coors was the original light beer (before there was such a thing as lite beer). Their one time slogan was America's Fine Light Beer.

Iron City seems tainted by the high iron content in Pittsburgh water. It has the same back taste as well water that is full of iron. Other than that, I guess it's really kind of bland.

The Wine Commonsewer (TWC) said...

And no, I don't drink much beer. And, yes, I prefer a good craft beer and I'm happy there's lots to pick from.