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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Beer Wars Draws Simple Picture

I'm just back from watching Beer Wars with a large contingent of the Charlotte Beer Club. As a movie, filmmaker Anat Baron's multi-year project painted a David vs. Goliath canvas that both illustrated the situation and simplified the challenge facing American craft brewers.

On a basic level, if the film is to be believed, all large brewers -- Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors -- are evil and all of their beers are insipid watery swill. Neither is true. But the movie also gave an accurate and clear picture of the challenge small brewers face in gaining distribution and shelf space at retail. The title is accurate; it is a war fought on many fronts on a daily basis. That tap handle is not just handed over to your local brewer because it is the right thing to do.

The movie uses 1978 as a milestone, noting that just 45 brewing companies existed at the time. That year, the Brewers Association and American Homebrewers Association was founded in Boulder, Colorado. It's was the year that a bill legalizing home brewing passed in the U.S. Congress. It was also the year when I sipped my first legal beer having turned 18 in Upstate New York.

While the microbrewery movement would take route along the west coast, some of the few remaining regional brewers were pumping out beer not far from where I grew up. Companies like Genesee Brewing in Rochester, F.X. Matt Brewing in Utica and Fred Koch's Brewery in Dunkirk turned out beers that offered an alternative to the national brands. For the most part they were light lagers or ales. Now there are nearly 1,500 breweries doing business in the United States. An amazing array of beer diversity exists, even if it amounts to just a small percentage of overall beer volume.

The one thing that occurred to me thinking back to the 45 brewing companies that did business in 1978 is that many of them no longer exist. Stroh, Olympia, Schlitz, Christian Schmidt, Hudephol, G. Heileman, F&M Schaefer, Rainier, Latrobe and Dubuque Star were part of the the beer scene in 1978 and they are now gone. Sure some of the brands still pop up from time to time, but the hometown breweries are shuttered. It makes you wonder what might have happened to beer in the U.S. if the craft movement had not taken off.


Erik Huntoon said...

I didn't get to see the movie myself but enjoyed your post about it. I especially appreciate the mentioning of all the breweries that no longer exist. Most of those of course are brands now owned by Pabst, but of course even Pabst does not own an actual brewery any longer.

I love craft beer and at the same time I love some of those retro brands that Pabst maintains. I would label myself as an aberration as a beer drinker. I think most of the Pabst products are on a distinct level above the standard offerings of BudMilCoors and that they definitely have their place at the table.

Sean said...

Hello Rick,

I'm from the Boston area and I also saw the movie last night.

It really reminded me of a one sided Michael Moore movie (especially since AB/MillerCoors didn't provide any positive feedback).

I hope this movie is seen by non craft beer enthusiast because there are a lot of out dated laws that discourage and hinder entrepreneurs from creating a successful business.

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David Stock said...

Haven't seen the film yet but might want to check this out soon. Thanks for the post!

Dazy said...

It's altogether a good film and great view of what most of the beer world experiences everyday! Cheers!