Tuesday, July 21, 2009

BEER WARS retrospective

I love beer. All beer. Good and bad, though obviously with a preference for the good. Why the bad? Because it’s all part and parcel of the package. I can’t and don’t have the luxury to pick and choose what I love and enjoy about the world of beer while ignoring the rest. I have to truly enjoy, explore, taste, and savor all that beer has to offer. How does the saying go… only through folly do we learn to appreciate life’s blessings.

Something like that.

Does this mean I must accept that which is bad within the beer world with nary a whisper, whimper, or growl of protest? Of course not. But that is where hypocrisy comes into play; where beer politics, bullying, and the cold hard dollar can come to rule over a most uneven playing field. At risk: passion. Passion is under constant threat of suppression in order to perpetuate one bastardized bastion of brewing so that it alone can rule from its blood-soaked kingdom over all that it perceives as a threat.

Humans have been drinking beer for millennia and are more than capable of knowing what constitutes good beer and what constitutes bad beer. This is the good fight for good beer which I am proud to be a part of.

Recently, I was able to watch the documentary Beer Wars. Supping a divine brew, I set the DVD on spin and prepared to fully engage both sides of my brain. An hour and a half later, I was left clutching an empty glass while thoughts swirled about my head much like the foam and lace had previously swirled about before I supped every last divine drop of liquid bliss.

Overall, far less biased and blindly hateful than I was expecting; this is a good thing. The purpose of the movie would have been completely lost if it had been a mash of hate, spite, and pitiable bitterness. That would have played directly into the hands of the Big3 which Anat Baron was highlighting. A veteran of the beer industry herself, she launched Mike’s Hard Lemonade into the national success it is today before branching out on her own.

The largest point of controversy for the documentary is Rhonda. There are positives and negatives to the heavy coverage her story received which I will cover in depth later. The other two heavily featured characters were Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewing and Jim Koch of Samuel Adams. Not to be outdone, other players in the movie included Charlie Papazian of the American Homebrewers Association, Greg Koch of Stone Brewing, Dick Yuengling of Yuengling, Kim Jordon of New Belgium Brewing, and Carol Stoudt of Stoudts Brewing.

A particularly bright spot of the movie for me was the short interview with the affable Michael Jackson, a gentleman who brought honor and dignity to real beer. I unfortunately entered the world of beer too late to personally meet Michael Jackson at least once, but his passion for both beer and scotch will always be an inspiration. I can only hope to do honor and justice to his memory by also championing beer and scotch with equal grace, romance, and respect.

But I digress.

The nostalgia aspect of Beer Wars with its retro ads, commercials, and inside sales pitch guides on how to undercut your competition in the most politically incorrect ways was ironically amusing in a sad sort of way. At least there was once a time where the Big 3, InBev/AnBusch especially, didn’t try to hide their cold war sales tactics behind false pretenses.

Furthering my bemusement at the expense of the Big 3 was the blind tasting of Miller Lite, Bud Light, and Coors Light.
Spot. On.
Despite what many die-hard fanatics of their label will proclaim, in a blind tasting, you cannot and will not be able to taste the difference. After guessing wrong, one blind taster’s answer as to why he drank Coors Light – habit.
Habit, my friend, is a bitch to break. But, what exactly drives habit?
Simplicity? Laziness? Dullness? Boredom? Acquiescence? Subservience?
All of the above, actually, and I am just as guilty of it at times as everyone else. Habit is habit which means it involves not independent thought, but a dependence on not having to think. Defined specifically as "a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior/an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary”, at what point do we stop controlling habit and habit starts controlling us?

So what if the macro light lagers all taste the same? It’s what you like to drink, right? That’s what the commercials, advertisements, and marketers say, right? It tastes great really cold and goes down super fast. But then again, so does water and it’s free at most establishments along with being calorie free and much more refreshing. So, back to my original question then; just what is it that drives the Big 3 to success based on a similarly tasteless overly carbonated watered down alcoholic beverage that is but a pale shadow of its proud beery heritage?

Marketing, the almighty dollar, and mindless habit.

Your life is their livelihood so from childhood unto the grave, they desire nothing more than to keep your culled habits all to themselves. Marketing is what drives the bottom line; it certainly isn’t style, taste, and diversity. If that were the case, people would be more inclined to stop drinking the Big 3’s macro light lagers, choosing instead flavor and diversity to match our expanding palates.

During his Dogfish Head dinner, Sam Calagione struck this head-on by appealing to his patrons’ independence, intelligence, and freedom of choice. Only you and I can know for ourselves what we might like and want in a beer whether by itself or paired with dinner. No fancy multi-million dollar corporate ad can tell me what to drink, what to like, and what to buy.

I am my own person. Are you?

But what about the others? Do craft and import brewers want us to buy their beer? Of course. Do they want to try and actively sell it to us? Of course.

Clearly evidenced in Beer Wars, the main difference is that a little education, dedication, and diversity of flavor culminates in a quality beer. Quality beer goes a long way towards selling itself, and not the other way around. As Greg Koch of Stone commented, quite seriously, his hopped-up malty beer, Arrogant Bastard Ale, told him what its name was, not the other way around.

Beer has personality. It has moods. It wants to please. It wants to be loved. It wants to be cajoled, coveted, and aged whenever appropriately possible. Age is a blessing after all, not a curse as many purveyors of age-defying products would have us believe. Beer also doesn’t want to be dependent of others; it is very independently minded and considerate of its origins. Nature works her best wonders with harmonious cooperation, not cold sterile precision. Beer is love. Beer is beauty. Beer is nourishment and inspiration. Beer is life. Beer is culture, history, religion, ecology and economy. Fear not beer, but embrace her and she shall embrace you.

It wasn’t really addressed in the movie, but go to the InBev/AnBusch website and note their company motto: “Making friends is our business.” Personally and professionally speaking, making enemies is more their business than making friends ever was, is, and will be. If they weren’t such obnoxious jerks, I might be able to semi-respect what InBev/AnBusch has done, whether I agreed with it or not. But no, they take the cake when it comes to sheer evilness. Long before I was a beer geek, they suffered little respect from me, and these days, they suffer none.

That’s not to say that Miller and Coors are all that much better, but the overall prevailing ill will towards the Big 3 lands squarely on the shoulders of InBev/AnBusch. Suffice to say, they have the lawyers to prove it.

It was nice seeing the female side of the real beer movement with Kim Jordon of New Belgium and Carol Stoudt of Stoudts Brewing. I would have enjoyed a bit more time spent with both, especially with Kim in regards to their eco-friendly policies and employee goodwill. I also enjoyed the short-lived GABF footage which featured quips from Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster and beer spokesman for Brooklyn Brewing. Just as he said, far too many people have never enjoyed the visceral pleasures of real beer which is a damn crying shame. Obviously, I have GABF envy and must attend one sooner than later.

Seeing a little bit into the private family lives of all involved offered a much needed human touch to the movie. It is easier to relate on a personal level to the craft beer movement and real beer in general when you feel a human connection with the person brewing the beer. Knowing Sam is not a waffle master, or that Kim rides her red bicycle to work every day takes the brewer out of the world of television and places them in our home. Gathered around the dinner table, stories, laughter, and good food is shared over jolly pints of real beer. Lifelong friendships are made of moments like this.

My retrospective on Beer Wars would not be complete without my thoughts on Rhonda and Moonshot. She produces mixed feelings in pretty much everyone who watches Beer Wars. I’m not everyone though, so I have my own feelings on Rhonda and Moonshot’s role in Beer Wars which some may or may not agree with. I’m not here to be agreed with per say, and so…
Positive Side: A strong focus on Rhonda and Moonshot illuminates just how much personal sacrifice and work is involved to build a brand new beer concept into a successful business. A business venture is not an overnight accomplishment, a fairytale illusion that unfortunately pervades today’s business market. Success is not easy in a very vicious beer-eat-beer world out there where at any given moment your competition will try and crush you, which usually boils down to one of the Big 3 with InBev/AnBusch taking the largest piece of that oppressive corporate pie. It’s the David VS Goliath of the Beer Wars and Rhonda and Moonshot filled that role by showing the new guy on the block struggling against the old hardened headhunters.

Negative Side: Rhonda and Moonshot were featured too heavily, throwing off the otherwise balanced story while lessoning the impact of her personal story. Less Rhonda and Moonshot and more on Carol, Kim, Greg, Jim, or Sam would have balanced the movie’s focus on personal stories.

I wish Rhonda the greatest success with her brand and her business, but I also disagree with a few articles of interest that popped up in her many interviews and monologues. Over one hundred accounts in a very compact and competitive market area is great. Keep them. Build them. When you have a brand established in its core market, then expansion is the next natural step. I also think that her success with Samuel Adams, a huge national brand, has skewed her immediate expectations for Moonshot. (Remember, business ventures don’t succeed overnight). It is my conclusion that she is trying to build too big too fast without having a solid grounding to build from. I also wonder if Rhonda will ever be satisfied with the success of her brand, or if she is seeking that illusory position which was never open to her at Samuel Adams.

Just my two cents.

I applaud what the Alstrom Brothers have done for the online community and real-world community of beer lovers, but during the interview session, they were less than respectful in their comments regarding Moonshot and Rhonda’s objective. I’m not a big advocate of products that blur the line of what could be called beer, but beer with caffeine…how is that any different than the hundreds of coffee stouts and porters that are brewed on a very regular basis by domestic and import craft breweries? Are they two different products? Absolutely. Is one less of a beer than the other? Possibly. Does that make one better than the other? Hard to say, especially when both are meeting a demand. This is a nation of free enterprise, after all, love it or hate it. I’d be curious as to what their real issue is with Moonshot and Rhonda, but that was never addressed or discussed intelligently. Instead, I bore witness to a sad temper tantrum by a grown man who wasn’t happy with somebody’s product that didn’t meet his standards of what he thinks constitutes beer.

Moonshot isn’t my flavor, but I would at least enjoy, even demand, a chance to have a sit-down intelligent discussion with Rhonda about the who, what, when, why, and how of Moonshot.

So what does Beer Wars mean to me?

Being entrenched in the world as both a consumer and retailer, Beer Was presented further affirmation that the Big 3, InBev/AnBusch especially, are in the beer business for money. Their consumer is nothing more than a tool for them to use to make more money and money only. If beer stopped making them money, the Big 3 would just as easily find something else to spend massive amounts of marketing money on to get us to buy it. Monkey see, monkey do. My other affirmation was showing rather clearly that the floundering 3 Tier System is majorly in need of a scrap and rebuild. A system originally meant to fairly manage the big, the little, and the in-between has become yet another corporate conglomerate whose current self-interest is to protect their own self-interests. This very rarely favors the equally worthy specialty craft and import brewers. Last but certainly not least, outdated laws regarding distribution, shipping, and packaging of beer never work in the favor of the specialty brewer and their consumer.

Beer politics aside, at the heart of Beer Wars is the growing interest in real artisanal beers rich with flavor, diversity, and innovation. More and more consumers are growing tired of the same old product and are demanding flavor, diversity, and innovation. Just as in our clothes, our cars, our food, our jobs, and more, we are an ever growing community who wants the better choice for our life. We want the truth, and we’re tired of being fed the same marketing schlock which serves only to cull the already listless masses into buying their tired product. Real beer inspires real choice. Real choice inspires real beer diversity. Real beer diversity inspires real beer freedom.

We are close, but the closer we get to real beer choice, the more the Big 3 feel threatened. Real beer and real choice means that you, the consumer, may choose not to drink their beer anymore. Will the Big 3 go out of business? Hardly, but the reality that I should have a choice to drink real beer, a beer other than theirs, is a choice they don’t want me to have. If freedom of choice isn’t American, than I don’t know what is anymore. Just as in world wars past and long-standing struggles of power, those in power will always cling most desperately to their position and always at the expense of everyone else.

Beer Wars is a must see for anyone and everyone. You don’t have to be a beer geek to enjoy the movie and get at least a little self-reflection out of it.

(an original written work by Kristyn Lier. plagiarism is not tolerated)

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