People take beer for granted. It’s cool, it’s refreshing, it’s pretty much the official national beverage now that the NFL season has started. But most people don’t think about how the two major beer companies—Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors—squash independent brewers and limit consumer choice. Or if they do know about this beer monopoly, they don’t see it as being important. After all, it’s only beer, right?
But as Anat Baron, former executive at Mike’s Hard Lemonade, shows in her new documentary Beer Wars, it’s about much more than just beer: It’s about capitalism, competition and corporate America. Beer Wars reveals the dark side of the beer industry, while at the same time celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit of two independent brewers, Sam Calagione (founder and president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery) and Rhonda Kallman (founder and CEO of New Century Brewing Co.), who battle the beer behemoths.
Anat Baron took the time to answer some of MovieMaker’s questions about how the beer industry got to be this way, how it can be fixed and some of the difficulties she encountered in making her film.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): Big companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have a large amount of control over the beer industry. This creates problems for smaller brewers, obviously, but why should the average person care about these issues? Does the situation have implications outside of the beer industry?
Anat Baron (AB): I had a sign in the edit room that said, “Why should I care?” It reminded me that the film had to move people to care about the issues. Ultimately, I believe that consumer choice is something that affects everyone, not only beer drinkers. When you have industries where control is held by very few behemoths, it often creates barriers for the smaller players and, in turn, for consumers. Look at retail and how Wal-Mart has impacted mom-and-pop stores or how Microsoft has dominated software. In beer, you have 80 percent of control held by two global entities—Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, both created through multiple mergers and buyouts—who control 80 percent of the market. Another 15 percent is controlled by more foreign companies like Heineken and Grupo Modelo (Corona) and, finally, five percent of the market is made up of small brewers. Is consumer choice limited? Of course it is. Market domination allows the large brewers access to market, to media, etc., and ultimately limits competition.
In industries like music and film or even specialty retail, small players who are shut out of distribution have found a new outlet—the Internet—where they’re able to go directly to consumers. This is not possible in beer because of the power of the distributors who are very powerful politically and want to continue their dominance over how beer is distributed.
MM: It seems like you are perfectly suited to make a documentary like Beer Wars, as you have experience as a film producer and development executive, but you have also worked in business, as the general manager of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. How did you decide to bring the two areas together and make a film about beer?
AB: I became interested in documentaries, after I left Mike’s, basically as a hobby. I started thinking about making one when I got an invitation in the mail to the annual beer industry convention (I was still on the list) and after some research realized that no one had ever made a film about the beer industry. Since I knew I’d have unparalleled access, I decided to go for it. I wish there was a sexier story behind it, but it was a spur of the moment decision. When it was over, I realized that it took twice as long to finish and cost twice as much. And the independent film world had changed substantially since I decided to jump in.
I hope that ultimately my business skills will come in handy as I self-distribute the film.
MM: Beer Wars isn’t simply an indictment of big beer companies; instead, it celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit of small brewers. What drew you to your two subjects, Sam and Rhonda?
AB: I knew that no one would care about a film like this without an emotional connection, so from day one I went looking for subjects to be the anchors of the film. I knew that if the audience related to their journeys, they’d care about the overall message. I put on my casting hat in looking for my subjects. I wanted two divergent stories about two entrepreneurs on different journeys. I set up interviews with about 20 independent brewers, but the minute I met Sam and Rhonda, I knew I was done.
I selected Sam because he was an articulate, no bullshit guy’s guy who made these extreme beers out of his passion. And he had a story I could follow over a few years. He and his wife were expanding their brewery by taking out a $9 million loan. Since I selected Sam to be in the film, he’s become the poster child for the craft beer movement, so I chose well. He was even featured in a long piece in The New Yorker last November.
Rhonda’s story was interesting because here was someone who was at the top of her game. She co-founded the largest independent beer company in America (Boston Beer, maker of Sam Adams) and now set out to do it all over again. But this time all on her own. Her chosen beer—Moonshot, the first beer with caffeine—was intriguing. I had no idea if she’d make it. And she was truly in start-up mode, so her journey actually shows us the struggles of starting a new business in an industry dominated by giants.
I brought in the subjects’ families because I wanted to show the impact that Sam and Rhonda’s choices have on their families. The business becomes their life. The risks they take affect their kids.
MM: Why does this problem within the beer industry exist, and what can consumers do to fix it?
AB: The problem is really access to market: The three-tier system, which was set up after prohibition gave power to the states. So today there are over 37,000 beer laws in America. Not a hurdle for the big guys with their teams of lawyers, but an issue for small players who want to expand. And the addition of the middlemen—the distributors—who take the beer from the brewer and get it into retail outlets has made them a very powerful political force. So you have the dominance of two very powerful conglomerates and these powerful distributors, and the small brewer trying to get access to consumers. It’s not a level playing field. I think it’s time to re-examine the three-tier system 76 years after it was set up. After all, we have a totally different playing field: Dominance of the few and yet 1,500 small players, the Internet, the growth of farmers markets, the locavore movement and increasing consumer advocacy. I think that consumers can empower themselves by asking for the products they want. Often.
MM: Did you have any problems with getting Beer Wars made? For example, trouble with getting access to interview subjects, funding, etc.?
AB: Getting access to interview subjects was challenging at times, but ultimately I got to sit down with everyone except for August Busch IV (although he does make a cameo in the film). The problem was getting people to talk. Subjects are so much more educated about what can happen to what they say in editing that corporate executives are giving pat answers. You can tell that they’ve been coached. So it’s tough to get those candid perspectives.
The biggest challenge in getting the film finished was the editing. I went through six editors until I got to number seven, who helped me pull the structure together. I didn’t anticipate how tough it would be to make a “hybrid” film with so many stories, animation etc. Ultimately, I stopped listening to everyone and just went with my gut.
Funding wasn’t really an issue. I self-funded the movie (initially with my house money and then loans), so now I’m trying to figure out how to make my money back in this new environment.
For more information, visit http://beerwarsmovie.com.