It’s really easy to criticize. Perfection is an elusive concept, especially when the object of review is so subjective. Almost nothing can be said to be perfect, and so we critics will always have a job. And in the age of blogging, that means almost any person who wants to can be a critic. That’s both a good and, at times, disastrous, development. The art of criticism has a long and storied past, serves a useful function to be sure, and is itself an art form. The best critics are as much of a joy to read as their targets, sometimes more so. Dorothy Parker springs to mind as one of the best, and she’s still a delight to read, long after the the plays and books she skewered have all but disappeared into out-of-print literary oblivion. So I’m not trying to downplay the important role critics have in society. Hell, I’m one of them. But something unsettling seems to be taking place that became all too apparent with the release of Beer Wars on Thursday.
Actually, the hue and cry began well before the film premiered. And just the idea of the movie seemed to bother more than a few folks. Like most people watching the industry, I first learned of the film several years before when they were filming at GABF. It then disappeared from consciousness for a time, and I wondered about it occasionally, then finally it resurfaced again last year. I met with the director, Anat Baron, for lunch last fall when she was visiting her sister in the Bay Area. We talked about the film then, her ideas and what she hoped to accomplish with it. She knew from the Bulletin that I, too, believe that the world is not a level playing field, and especially so in the beer world.
It got so bad at one point in the weeks leading up the debut, that I was singled out for being too positive about it, and was all but called a sycophant for simply not being critical enough. It reminded me of the moralists outside of R-rated movies like Basic Instinct, railing about the godless communists and urging people not to see it. Inevitably, a reporter would ask them the simple question. “Have you seen the movie you’re objecting too so strenuously?” “Umm, no. I would never see such filth.” And such people certainly have the right to not see the movie, but I never quite get why they so strongly don’t want anyone else to see it either (particularly when they haven’t seen it), as if they believe everyone does or should hold the same morals or beliefs they do. I just don’t understand such unwillingness to remain open to a new idea being expressed, and shutting down any receptiveness to it. At some level, it seemed to me that people were having a similar reaction to Beer Wars. People reacted so strongly to the trailer, the idea of it, and even just the publicity push for the film, that I was quite baffled.
The beer community, and many bloggers in particular, have never seemed so divided to me. See here I was enough of an idealist to think we were all in this together. I’ve tended to be naive that way my whole life, and frankly I hope I never outgrow it. As cynical and curmudgeonly as I am, I’m a big sucker for hope. Pandora’s Box has always been one of my favorite Greek myths. I want to root for underdogs, for people with more passion than resources, for people who want to change the world. And I hate bullies, which is what most big companies are in practice. As persons — their legal designation — they’re psychopaths. Don’t believe me, read Joel Bakan’s wonderful book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (or watch the film, if you’re not a “reader”).
Personally, I thought the intent to expose what most Americans don’t seem to know — that large corporations have enormous advantages in the marketplace (regardless of the industry) — was worthwhile enough for me to support it. Add to that the fact that this is especially true in the beer world, in part because of the added regulatory morass that alcohol brings, plus the three-tier system itself, and it seemed a worthwhile endeavor on that basis alone. So like everybody else who hadn’t seen the film — that is to say, everyone — I could only decide to support it or not support it based on what I saw. And I liked what little there was, plus I actually talked to the director and other people in the film, all of which led me to champion it. Seemed perfectly rational to me. And while there was certainly a great deal of support for the movie, I was caught off guard by all of the negative reactions I saw, especially when much of it was based on pure ignorance (and I mean that not in the pejorative sense, but that people’s perceptions were just plain wrong, meaning they simply didn’t really know what they were talking about) or in an odd sense of projecting their own message or agenda onto the film that wasn’t evident from the trailer or other pre-release materials. This latter type of criticism was more along the lines of what they “thought” the film was about, without any real knowledge about what it really was about, not that that stopped them from criticizing it. These two kinds of criticism were not the only types, I should hasten to point out, but were of the variety that bothered me.
But now that the film is out, it only seems to have grown worse.
Obviously, I haven’t had time to read everything people have written about it, and have seen just a small sample and watched part of the twitter feed Thursday night, too. And Alan at A Good Beer Blog (whose birthday was today) was kind enough to provide a useful summary, as well. (For the record, I don’t think Alan is Mayor McMean of Meantown. Police Chief, maybe, or City Solicitor, but not mayor.)
So, like beforehand, there’s a lot of positive reactions, but a surprisingly large chorus from the nabobs of negativity. And most of those are what I’ll call quibbles. Finding fault with small bits and pieces, things here and there. Death by a thousand paper cuts. Everybody, it seems, has to find something they believe was wrong with the film. Not one account I read praised Anat Baron for the effort. Few seemed to think she was making the film with the best of intentions, and in fact everyone who even mentioned this either couldn’t figure out why she made it or believed it was for a sinister or cynical reason. Yet no one else made the movie. No one else stepped up to tell this story. Where was this level of complaint and scrutiny when A-B sponsored The American Brew, or when American Beer showed us frat boys traveling the country abusing themselves, with short interludes of brewery visits in between? Only Stan had much to say when How Stuff Works did beer a disservice last December. At least Baron tried to tell the story. Let no good deed go unpunished, I guess.
And almost nobody had much to say about the overall effect. I don’t even want to add to the chorus, it’s just all so exhausting to read, and very disheartening. Did I have my own quibbles? Yes. Was the film perfect to me? Of course not. Am I going to pile on? Not a chance. This just seems like Kung Foo Fighting on a grand scale. This was an opportunity for the craft beer segment and its fans to show the media and the world that it is supportive as a group. That craft beer can, when necessary, speak with one voice for a higher purpose. Again, what was I thinking? Of course it’s not. Instead, I feel like what it showed was a chaotic, diverse group that can’t agree on anything. I realize that now I, too, am focusing on the negative, instead of all the positive things people have said about Beer Wars. And that saddens me even more. Sigh.
I can’t really blame anyone in particular, not that I even want to. Most of the opinions are valid, some are even well thought out and incisive. Many of the criticisms I can’t really disagree with, though there are certainly a lot that I can and do think were unfair, uncharitable or based on ignorance. And some were just plain silly.
I hope it goes without saying that you’ll find no bigger supporter of Oregon beer than myself, even though I’m a Californian. I’ve been a SNOB member since the beginning, and have been coming to OBF every year for well over a decade. Many of my favorite brewers and breweries are in Portland or Oregon. Hell, I spent the first half of my honeymoon visiting Oregon breweries. So understand that I mean no disrespect to Oregon beer when I say this to the person who said they didn’t like the film because it didn’t feature an Oregon brewer, which was one of the “pioneering locales for the industry.” Shut up, you sound provincial in the worst sense of the word. There are other places in the country that make great beer, and you don’t have to get in a twist every time you’re not paid what you perceive to be the proper fealty. They also didn’t mention the San Francisco Bay Area, which was the very first pioneering locale, nor Seattle or Yakima, or countless other places, either.
And that same person, along with many others, took issue with director Baron’s former life with Mike’s Hard Lemonade, most of whom said in effect that since alcopops aren’t really craft beer then she didn’t face the same distribution issues that real beer did. This shows more ignorance as, in fact, malternatives use exactly the same distribution networks as beer and are shelved either with beer or adjacent to it. If anything, most retailers and distributors carry fewer malt-based beverages so her experience was probably more difficult than with beer.
Obviously, I don’t need to defend these criticisms, but they’re indicative of the more churlish variety, and as such I find them counter-productive and muddying the general discourse which keeps legitimate issues from being discussed. There are many more of this type, but I’ve frankly had quite enough. I was happy to see, by contrast, that the general feeling on Beer Advocate was in fact mostly positive.
In the end, it’s not any one or any two or any three specific criticisms that has me down in the doldrums. It’s the white noise of it all. As many have pointed out, this is a topic in beer circles that has been talked about for many, many years and has been a problem for small brewers since the beginning of time. And since many have been successful, they say, doesn’t that mean that it’s not really a problem anyway? This strikes me as myopic thinking by people too close to the problem to recognize that while they know this story all too well, it’s not well-known by many or even most of the 95% of the beer-drinking public that is outside the inner circle of craft beer fans. Obviously, I have nothing personally invested in the success of Beer Wars. But I do believe our country would be a better place if the superiority of craft beer was taken for granted, as it is in many other nations. If the breadth of diversity that beer can be was as obvious to a majority of Americans as it is to you and me, if the media took beer as seriously as they do wine and spirits, if most people knew enough to ignore or at least look skeptically at advertising and marketing that panders to them and paints beer with a broad, commodified brush that emphasizes style over substance — oh, what a better world it would be. Yes, that makes me a wide-eyed idealist and is somewhat unrealistic, but without dreams, what’s the goddamn point? And for a few years now we’ve felt tantalizingly and frustratingly close to a Malcolm Gladwell-style tipping point that could indeed push craft beer into mainstream consciousness.
So that was my admittedly somewhat unrealistic hope, that the meme of the story would indeed spark a dialogue that would spread beyond our sudsy shores and reach people outside the insulated beer bubble we inhabit. Instead, the conversation seems to be about what was wrong with Beer Wars, not what it got right. The big breweries must be pleased as punch with that outcome. Instead of talking about people supporting local and regional businesses, which might help local economies and also keep the money spent within the area, we’re complaining about why Beer Wars didn’t include all 1483 breweries. Instead of talking about why artisanal or craft-made beer — like bread, cheese, and everything else — is demonstrably better and more flavorful and unique if made with better ingredients, in small batches and with an eye toward being an integral part of a meal (not just an afterthought), we’re complaining about whether there was too much PR for the movie or if $15 was too much to pay to see a movie. Instead of talking about the three-tier system and how it’s warped our perceptions of beer, kept us believing alcohol is evil and has done little to protect consumers, we’re smugly dismissing Beer Wars because we know it all already. Instead of talking about how corporations operate and the methods they employ to maximize profits for shareholders and why what’s good for GM is not necessarily good for America, we’re complaining that the biggest small breweries seem plenty big, too, and therefore don’t deserve our support either. Sigh.
But that’s the nature of criticism, people decide what’s important to them, and act — or write — accordingly. As Wikipedia collectively defines it, “Criticism is the activity of judgment or informed interpretation and, in many cases, can be synonymous with ‘analysis.'” [my emphasis.] So while I think a lot of the interpretations offered can not be considered “informed,” many others are. But just saying so makes me critical of them, repeating a cycle likely to go on ad infinitum. And I had so hoped this would be a different conversation. C’est la vie. Damn. Sigh.
Michael Kiesling says
I believe that if you work hard and get 85% right, compromising on the 15%, or just figuring it’s not worth the additional effort, you’re doing great.
On the other hand, if you don’t do any of the work, but pick nits at the 15% that you don’t like in someone else’s work, telling all within earshot how you would have done it better, the correct response is “then why didn’t you do it?”
Keep up the great work.
As one of the people who left disappointed, I just wish the movie was more about the struggles of craft beer industry instead of profiles of Sam and Rhonda.
michael Reinhardt says
I was hoping for a more united front on this film, too. I think that people who really understand what the issue is with “unfair market advantage” don’t care that they didn’t feature an Oregon brewer, for instance. Hobby horses, pet places, and soap box breweries are ok in the world of beer. I’m a big fan of numerous breweries and places that didn’t “make the cut.” I don’t care that they weren’t in the film. Do you know why? Some of the people who drink Bud may have seen the film and they can start drinking better beer. I thought is was a film about encouraging better beer…not this craft beer is better than that craft beer. Can’t we agree that craft beer is better than big business beer? Can’t we allow people to discover their favorite brewery on their own, like we did? We do we feel that we have to lobby for our favorites and talk about all the flaws in the film. Would people have certain beers and companies that they like have the same sort of strangle hold that Inbev has on the market? Let’s hear what went right for once.
Andy Crouch says
I think what you’re witnessing is a collective disappointment with the film and its failure to both live up to its potential and capture the greatness/excitement of the craft beer industry industry. At least this is my read on the non-industry take on things. I think many of the industry critics, myself partially included, saw the film as missing the mark on important issues it took aim upon, including distribution, lobbying and politics, etc. I think this was also the rare occasion that craft beer enthusiasts didn’t put up the united front, that is after the film. We saw wide-spread excitement and support before the film’s release. Afterwards, these same folks were left with a sense of disappointment and the nagging questions I was counseling about in my limited writings on the topic.
And in reviewing my articles a few minutes ago, I believe there were simply raising these questions, with context given, instead of criticizing what was not yet known. After the fact, I concede my comments were biting and critical as the film resulted in a lost opportunity. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the film, either on or off line, as compared to your pre-showing expectations.
Safe travels to Boston…
Jay, the higher road always has the better view. Great piece!
Hey there Jay,
I have not seen the movie yet, however I found your article to be a little too apologist. From what I have read, it sounds like a lot of time is spent on the push to bringing a caffeinated beer to market, and the film itself is made by someone whose only craft beer credentials come from a stint with Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
I think it’s understandable why people who care passionately about craft beer would be bothered by this.
Hey there Rick, LOL. In a sense you’re proving my point. You haven’t seen the film, yet you have no problem forming a negative opinion about both it and my intentions based upon hearsay and other people’s reactions to it.
And who exactly are these so-called “people who care passionately about craft beer?” What exactly do you think I am, an enemy of craft beer? At least I bothered to see the film. Talk about missing the point. Hilarious.
Here are my plusses and minuses after seeing the film …
Anat’s overall effort
Personal stories of Sam and Rhonda (fascinating)
Old clips from TV ads
Taste tests between Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light fans
Overall film editing
Too much about Anat at the start (plz check ego at door)
Describing her experience in the “beer industry”
DC politics details (it got boring)
Lacked 5-10 minutes of basic craft brewing history (Fritz Maytag anyone? Bert Grant anyone? New Albion anyone?)
Annoyingly childish cartoons
Problems with live parts of broadcast
I’ll think of more later. I’m glad I went, though. I’d give it a B+. Wish it could be shown at gunpoint to the non-craft-drinking masses.
“Unfair market advantage” is a bit more complicated than A-B is evil as in craft brew darling, Goose Island (for example), is in bed with them. That would have been an interesting movie… to see how different breweries manage to make their way in the world. Life is about choices…
This is what I thought the movie was going to be about. Not about some woman selling a gimmick beer.
oh… and as a bit of disclosure… we complained about the technical difficulties and received almost all our money back. The movie cost us $4.
I think Andy’s comment above captures it. “A collective disappointment”. This movie was heavily promoted toward existing craft beer drinkers, not aimed at changing Bud drinkers to craft beer drinkers. There were bad things and not so bad things about the movie and I don’t think there is anything wrong with expressing disappointment. Comments on both sides exemplify the passion that craft beer drinkers have for their brew.
Nathan Smith says
The movie was actively promoted to the craft beer aficionado and craft beer blog community. In some sense there’s simply a reaction against an expectation of support and proselytizing on behalf of it and the craft beer industry.
I was in heaven last Thursday… I am a home brewer, Craft beer drinker, and avid fan of documentaries in general… I liked the movie… was the it best documentary I have ever seen… No… I think that it did what is was supposed to do… it was to show the battle between the Sam’s of the craft beer world… and then Auggie’s of the Macro Beer world… It was about the business of Beer and not the making of it and it did that…
My only criticism of the movie is that I wish that Anat would have given more credit to Charlie Papazian and his role in what the Craft Beer industry is now…I do think that lacked some in the film.
I just think that people were looking at it as a beer movie… It is not about beer only… it is about How Auggie Busch…. InBev… Miller… Coors… have tried to rape and pillage over the industry… How they don’t care about Sam or his employees…or even his drinkers… they care about the $$$ in the drinkers wallets. For those people who watched I.O.U.S.A. it would be like watching the movie and coming out and hating America… that is not what it is about… these kind of documentaries are about informing and educating… To be honest… my first thought was… wow this movie isn’t for me… I love DFH… I love my local Brew Pubs… This is about my college buddies who still come over to my house with a 12-pack of MGD… they are the ones who this movie is for….
But… now… I am just one of those people you talk about Jay… just typing to type!! :~)
Well, for what it’s worth, I thought it showed a great counterpoint of stories between Sam, happily pursuing his passion, and Rhonda driving herself, and possibly her family into oblivion trying to make the big score. The whole idea of the Goliaths versus a lot of Davids holds a lot of universal appeal. Personally, I think a narrative domentary on the craft brewing industry would be less interesting.
But of course, I’m not a professional movie critic. I couldn’t find any professional movie critic reviews from brief Yahoo and Google searches. I wonder how the movie was viewed as a documentary by those personally invested when it comes to beer. Anyone aware of any?
I enjoyed the film a lot, and thought it told a good story.
As Nathan mentions above, I think the promotional activity leading up to the premier led to expectations that were not delivered. If this film had been released with little publicity, or had been shown on cable TV, the response would have been completely different, and probably much more positive.
Anat Baron says
I will be posting my thoughts on the criticism and missed opportunities in the next few days.
In the meantime in response to Derrick, here are some movie reviews to date:
Los Angeles Times:
Time Out New York:
Amy S says
As an outsider to the beer industry and someone who learned a lot from Beer Wars, I am so puzzled by all this criticism on the beer blogs. I just did a Twitter search and was perplexed to see what was going on despite all the favorable comments from ordinary people like me (outside this industry – go look – there is more positive about people saying they are more aware of their beer choices and going to write their politician) It says a lot about human beings also eating their young. I never realized there are so many movie critics in the craft beer industry – I am shocked that people are giving their opinions as film critics and not focusing on the issues.
I guess the issues raised in the film are not as important? status quo is simply fine for all the craft beer experts? Would CNN run a piece if these issues are just fluff? As a consumer, I felt educated and inspired by the movie. Sam and Rhonda’s stories meant something to me about survival of little guys in America. I am inspired that there are over 1,400 craft brewers today – but can history repeat itself and the number be reduced because we are too busy criticizing and not spending as much time making change happen?
I work for a start up in the new media space and I know these struggles. This movie is more than just about craft beers. I I am sure I will be criticized for my comments because I am an outsider. But I am an American and a consumer and feel this movie was just as much for me as you. Thanks Jay for your very thoughtful piece. I wish people would get their heads out of the film critic role and focus on the issues at hand that impact ALL of us.
As a result of Beer Wars, I am going to try craft beers instead of just drinking wine. Does that matter to anyone?
Jay, I agree with you from what I’ve read that there seems to be a unnecessary amount of negative comments towards the film as compared to people giving Anat credit for attempting to tell the story. At the same time reviews are meant to analyze the whole film, good and bad. As I wrote the other day, http://www.socalbrewinery.com/beer-wars-recap, I give Anat great credit for making this movie which has helped to point out the issues small brewers regularly experience. It helped generate a lot of conversation about the craft beer industry which is great. At the same time it wasn’t perfect and I think to fairly review the entire film you have to point out the bad along with the good. It doesn’t have to be 100% good or 100% bad.
As I wrote I think it is worth seeing, good job for trying, but less focus on some points, more focus in other areas, and a call to action at the end could have really helped make this movie a crowd favorite.
Thanks for your thoughts on the topic though, Jay. ~ Chell
Well it certainly matters to me, and I suspect it will ultimately matter to everyone else in the craft beer segment of the industry. That’s exactly the kind of results I had hoped for. Thanks for your thoughts, and I hope you enjoy the new experience of exploring craft beer. Let me know if want any recommendations. Best, J
Chipper Dave says
I think many craft beer drinkers are very protective of how our industry is being portrayed. When I see a vision of our industry that doesn’t seem to quite match up with what I’ve seen then I tend to get a bit concerned and a tad critical. Mostly I’m just disappointed I had to pay $15 to see an average film with awkward ‘live’ segments. Just as everyone has a different opinion on an individual craft beer, so are the viewpoints of a movie. At least this event has sparked a lot of healthy conversation. That at least can only help in the long run.
Amy S says
Thanks, J … I’d love some recommendations as I am a newbie to this world and have to say that I love my wine. (Feel free to email me too)
I wish the beer blogs would focus on that instead of so much hate. I have a very negative impression of craft beer bloggers right now, especially having read 2 additional angry posts just now. Anything you can recommend to change the impression?
I am personally offended by the attacks on Rhonda and people recommending to chop her out of the movie. Where does that self righteousness come from? Would you tell an author to cut a character out of his book? And, I am sorry all the noise about $15 – give me a break. This is absolutely baffling. I feel like I’ve entered a new world that I don’t care for at all. It’s creepy and feels a bit “cultish” to say the least – wasn’t the film was more for people like me than people who are in the industry? Now, I feel like it’s an insider community. Are people not happy to know that someone like me wants to try to craft beer? Wasn’t the message (that I loved), vote with your wallet? I am so glad I discovered your blog and found some reasonable people.
Ok, I am going back to the mainstream where people seem to be a bit less critical and don’t use blogging as a weapon but a way to facilitate dialogue.
Eric G says
Thanks for this post. I’d like to recommend one of my favorite beer writer’s philosophy on writing outside one’s area of expertise “I don’t like to write about food, because I’m not a food writer (a philosphy I’d like to recommend to any number of perfectly good wine writers who insist on writing about beer).” I’d like to recommend this philosophy to beer writers who insist upon writing about film.
As a quasi-outsider, I’ve shared many of Amy S’ frustrations with the community of Beer-Bloggers these last few weeks.
Nice write up. I am in agreement with you on the criticism is focused in the wrong area. Imagine if we could harness the energy against Anat and Beer Wars and turn that towards Congress or towards the Inbev/A-B or the MillerCoors? Then we might be getting somewhere!
Beer Bits 2 has a good write-up too:
Here is my own:
I want to do more to get the ball rolling in a positive directions for the craft beer industry. I’d like to see us bloggers start blogging about the real problem here. Maybe we start by blogging about this more often. Maybe get our local accounts of whats going on in the local super markets around our own towns. Maybe talk with local brewers and see what their biggest challenges are.
I attended the Beer-U, History of Stone Brewing and I remember that one of their biggest challenges was distribution. I even made note of it, because one day a group of friends and I would like to start a brewery and a brewpub.
Lets start now!
“I’d like to recommend this philosophy to beer writers who insist upon writing about film.”
This is just getting silly. Beer and film (like all theatrical arts) are participatory. There is no film or beer without the audience. I did not see the movie as it was not available in my country but, like everyone else, I have every right and skill to describe by reactions to thing in pop culture. This movie was plainly aimed at a general audience given the 440 theater release and is about a pop culture subject matter. Moving this into an exclusive question about artistic merits that only a precious few can really grasp is, frankly, insulting.
Personally,I’ve been a bit confused about the whole thing.
I went from excited to skeptic to excited again ant then
That is, until I decided that it isn’t about the movie.
It is about the issues. I don’t think I always understand
my role as a blogger. I mean sometimes I wish I was like
the “real press”, meaning getting paid to do it I guess.
Other times I’m happy to just be one guy with his opinion.
To me, all this commotion, whether it be positive or
negative, is a measure of success for a documentary. It
gets us thinking. When we bloggers think, we start typing
soon after. My question is, “What now?” What issues
are worth doing something about and what will we do?
Brian Yaeger says
All this makes me more disappointed and quizzically somewhat relieved I couldn’t make the screening. But how ’bout that Hollister White Star XPA?
Andy Crouch says
I’m with Alan re Eric G’s ridiculous “philosophy”…And “who insist on writing about film,” really? Wow…