David takes on Goliath in 'Beer Wars'
Image by Flickr / Don LaVange
New documentary Beer Wars exposes the corporate greed that's invading our beer steins and the small craft brewers who are fighting back
Beer. The great leveller-elixir of almost every civilization on the planet. From the bitter millet brews of the small villages of Uganda to the boxed, bottled and reduced lagers gleaming under the fluorescents at your local shop, beer is big, beloved and indelibly embedded in human culture.
And it makes a lot of people a lot of money.
Such is the subject of former Vancouverite and UBC grad Anat Baron's new documentary, Beer Wars, a film that goes behind the scenes to expose the lesser-known machinations of the colossal-sized beer industry in America. The film is being screen this Sunday, January 31 at District 319 in Vancouver.
Baron, a former "beer industry" insider (I use beer industry in quotes because her work was largely for Mike's Hard Lemonade, which apparently is now called "beer" and is owned by Vancouver-based parent company Mark Anthony Group Inc.) clearly has a bias: her affinity is for the small microbrewer-Davids fighting for their lives to find market share in a billion-dollar market dominated by the Bud-bloated Goliaths, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.
It's no new story really: big, bad corporate interests dominate a market through economies of scale and political muscle to edge out small-time mom and pop competition, in the process obliterating quality, flavour and social institutions. Think McDonalds, Walmart, Starbucks and Macs.
But what is so fascinating here is how painstakingly it is done. The elaborate manoeuvring by the two giants of the industry, who collectively own nearly 80 percent of the market, to squash small breweries who seem perfectly content to stay small—not wanting to sacrifice product quality nor quality of life through expansion—is both mystifying and galling. Especially as Baron introduces us to the ahh-shucks home-brewers-cum-brewery-owners who simply want to make a life around the liquid gold they so love.
Struggling for survival, craft brewers strive to allow customers to choose "what they like to drink," as Dogfish Head Craft Brewery founder Sam Calagione puts it, in direct contrast to the necessarily elaborate advertising schemes of the Big Two, whose multitude of products have little to distinguish themselves save the marketing campaigns that tell their drinkers what kind of people they are.
"Almost all our beer knowledge comes from Budweiser, Miller and Coors," says Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer (a.k.a. Sam Adams). "It's as if all we learned about food came from McDonalds."
But the craft brewers are creating a problem for the big guys: they're producing tastier beers, effectively training our palattes to thirst for more than the piss-thin light lagers that have become standard fare, e.g., Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Light and so on. And as a result, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors are snatching up smaller specialty beer companies left and right, discarding their factories and moving operations over to the mothership while retaining the brand recognition that keeps loyal customers reaching for their once-favourite brew.
"It's a challenge to the beer drinker [to maintain] access to the beers they like," says Koch, the self-identified lunatic Willy Wonka of beer.
And it's not just the American market that's been affected—almost every brand, Canadian or import, found at the local pub or cold beer and wine store is likely owned by the two giants, including Molson (not-so) Canadian, Kokanee, Becks, Stella Artois, Bass, Hoegaarden, Kirin Ichiban, Lowenbrau, Killians, Fosters (which, doh, I recently discovered, they don't even carry in Australia!), Boddingtons, Tiger, Redhook, Grolsch, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel and Peroni.
And lest you think you're keeping it real with that Granville Island Hefeweisen, the brewery was sold in October 2009 to Creemore Springs Brewing in Ontario. Creemore is owned by Molson and Molson is owned by MillerCoors—making that local name a not-so-local choice anymore.
But it's not all bad news. While overall beer sales were down in the first half of 2009, craft breweries saw a 9 percent increase, and as of July 31, there were more of them in the U.S. than at anytime in the last 100 years. Meanwhile, the Wall Street journal reports, sales continue to slip for Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.
'Beer Wars' screening Sunday at District 319
Watch Beer Wars this Sunday, January 31, 2010, at District 319, the new screening room and lounge located at 319 Main St. Tickets are $30 (or $25 for CAMRA members—that's the Campaign for Real Ale) and include all beer. [Buy tickets]
Greg Koch of San Diego’s Stone Brewing will be in attendance, and entertainment will be provided by local muscians, Sun Wizard. Central City, Driftwood, Granville Island, Howe Sound, R&B, Red Truck, Steamworks, Swans, and Yaletown brewing will be serving BC craft beer.