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Friday, April 24, 2009
Beer Wars: one week later, the conversation continues
After returning home from Florida and a busy weekend (and wrestling with some computer issues), I've finally found some time to put all of my thoughts together in semi-coherent form to share with you. Not having read most of what's been already shared across the tubes, I may turn out to be redundant with other's opinions. I started with something like 60 or so perspectives, all of which I may never get around to checking in on, along with their dozens of comments. I'm slightly fascinated, and equal parts curious-ed, by the number of people who are weighing in on the topic. Even more perplexing to me is the level of curmudgeonry that this movie appears to have teased out of people. Proclaiming curmudgeonality seems to be quite the hip thing to do these past few weeks or so. Hopefully, my insights here will provides some sort of additional, uh, insight...sans the curmudgeonliness. The closest movie theater to where I was in Florida at the time appeared to be north of downtown Tampa where Beer Wars was showing....even though there was no movie poster in the window nor mention of it on the theater's marquee. More on this later. (Though, the Total Wine that I stopped at prior to the movie had copies of an 8.5x11 flyer plastered throughout the beer aisles.) Let's take this from the top. My gut told me that I wouldn't have to worry about waiting to buy a ticket at the box office. I'm still suspicious that any theater anywhere sold out, but I'll take those at their word if they say that some did. Just before the lights dimmed, I counted approximately 50 people in the seats at this Tampa theater. Some gentleman stood up, sounded as if he was there to thank everyone for coming out, and informed the crowd that World of Beer was doing something (I don't recall if it was a free or a discounted beer) for customers who presented a ticket stub after the movie. After the lights went down, perhaps another 20 or so got into their seats. It appeared to be a very tight and friendly crowd of people that knew each other and came in groups. Needless to say, I stuck out. ...To Start a Conversation... For those of you reading that don't frequent The Brew Lounge or other beer-related websites, blogs, and the like, this following comment is not so much for you as it is the, how shall we say, harder-core beer geek. (I make this distinction because roughly half of the daily visits here are comprised of regular readers versus those who stumble across here by hop-penstance.) To the regulars of you here and about the beer webs, I'd be shocked if you went to this movie thinking that it was made for you. I'd be further shocked if the movie's producers and marketers really thought that they should be pushing this movie primarily in your/our direction. When the director, Anat Baron, announced that a driving goal of this movie was to start a conversation, I can't imagine that she was suggesting that it would be we that should start a conversation. After all, people "like us" have been having this conversation for years, haven't we? Don Russell, Bob Townsend, Bill Brand, and several others have been discussing better beer amongst us as well as with the general population through syndicated print media for years. They've bandied the big guys, shone lights on the little guys, and pondered the three tier system, for better or for worse. When we, particularly Pennsylvania residents, stand at a beer distributor for a free tasting we marvel at the number of cases of "macros" that go out the door while we sip on our better delights and are dumbfounded by the indifference of many who can't fathom a better tasting beer than their old reliable. So, this conversation wasn't really about us, was it? Well, perhaps just a little bit. At least in the sense that we all could do more to spread the conversation (i.e. be the ones to start it with the uneducated...the nonbelievers?) Sorry, I know this sounds a bit evangelistic and that's not honestly my cup of tea, but I'm not exactly suggesting that we go door-to-door. Just as with my running habit where I don't go out hoping to make runners of all friends and family, I don't believe that everyone wants to, nor needs to, drink the beer I do and know as much about the industry as I do. I just hope that I can influence them to try something different (and, in our opinions, better) than old habits will have them drink. Should these people I describe care where there beer comes from, who makes it, and whether there's a level playing field and point of entry for all? Why not? People seem to care if their clothing is made under questionable labor conditions. Some have preconceived notions about buying U.S. versus foreign-made goods. The past decade or so has seen more people appearing to be interested in the sourcing and processing of their food products. So, why not beer? (Why can't us!?...sorry, inside joke here in Philly.) Proper Marketing approach for something like this is crucial All that being said, the conversation, I would argue, has been going on for years within the tighter of the concentric circles of beer drinkers. Moving to the next ring of circles to include more in the conversation should certainly be the goal. I'm pretty sure that this one-night only event did not accomplish this objective. Judging from the audience in Tampa (and from some reports from across the country), I gather it was primarily the inner circle that showed up for the event. Afterall, for the folks that we'd like to be more educated about beer and the encompassing industry, many of them barely care enough to ask where their beer is made or who makes it or what is in it. So why do we think they'd care to show up for a one-night only event? Or buy the DVD down the road? Presumably (?) it will be available for rental or download...I'd hope. Personally, I did like the concept of an opening night premiere for "us insiders." It gave the feeling of an event that we needed to see. I was okay with the $15 ticket since it was one night and then done...I'm not sure how they'd make money if the tickets for a one-night only event were $5-$10. If the movie ran in theaters for another few weeks after the opening night festivities, I'm guessing prices could have been dropped to the $10 range and there would have been a better shot of attracting that next ring of beer drinkers to the theater. But really, how was the movie advertised? I'd seen nothing of the movie advertised save for beer insider websites and blogs where I'm guessing it's at least an 80% inner circle crowd of readers/followers. In the beer stores, bars, breweries that I've been to this year, I'd seen nothing in the way of advertisements for the movie...commercials...webpage ads..."mainstream" media. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right places or paying close enough attention. It wasn't until at a Total Wine store in Tampa one hour before the movie that I finally spotted a plastering of ads. I guess that I put perception and professionalism into the marketing category as well, so I'll cover that here too. The impression that the live portion prior to and after the movie gave was one of an unprepared session. It shocked me that a director who has been a seasoned consultant, an executive, among other things needed to rely so heavily, almost exclusively on cue cards...even simply for whom to thank. For a team that has been chained to this movie for over three years, it surprised me how shoddy the production of the live portion of the night came across. Recently, I filmed a demo video related to beer, complete with a production crew. While I didn't have a script, I certainly didn't have cue cards and I went through a mental checklist over and over and over again in the days leading up to the filming the things and order in which I wanted to discuss. My goal was to make it sound like some preparation had gone into giving a professional delivery. I think that came across in my delivery; it certainly did not in the movie's live segments. I was particularly surprised given that I'd later read that there was some sort of mid-afternoon "rehearsal." I can only imagine how that went. Another example of this was Ben Stein's role. His disjointedness and sometimes downright confusion made him appear that he had just stepped off the plane and was handed a sheet that maybe was or maybe was not consistent with the final production notes. Paired with the not-so-smooth transition to pre-recorded video, my point in all of this is to say that part of the marketing is delivering a smooth and professional look and feel to the final product. The movie did just fine, the live portion really did not. Who exactly was under that bus? Beer Wars. That's quite a sensational title. Grabs your attention, right? Is there a war going on? I suppose in some ways there are...battle for tap handles, shelf space, marketing and distribution dollars. Afterall, it is at the end of the day, business, and business in every sense of the capitalist word with a capital C. But, I'm wondering if part of the live discussion afterwards was meant to be sensational as well. I mean, seriously, was it necessary to show Todd Alstrom's comments? In my opinion, only if they were trying to start an on-stage "war". If there's context to the comments that I'm not privvy to which has skewed my opinion unfairly here, I'll apologize ahead of time. Were they trying to throw Todd under the bus? Could be. Was Todd throwing Rhonda under the bus? Yeah, it certainly came across that way. Maybe they have some back story that I'm not familiar with. No matter, Alstom's comments came across as unprofessional and classless. Anyone in the public eye with a camera in their face should know better. How many times do we have to see interviews go so far off course to embarrass themselves? Could he have said, should he have said, something like: "Moonshot? Eh. Not really my cup of tea. Personally I don't think it will work, but we'll wait and see how the market accepts it." In a group of friends at the bar, fine. Say what you want, joke about it, be profane...I'm fine with that. Come to think of it, I've been involved in same such conversations since the movie. But, on camera...please. That would have been easy...truthful. Done. Fritz Maytag had a crazy idea. So did Jack McAuliffe, Charlie Papazian, Jim Koch, and Sam Calagione. Come to think of it, was Beer Advocate initially a hair-brained idea? Or more recently their print magazine? Thing is, some ideas work and some don't. That's the beauty of how our system works. Anyone can have an idea and have a fair shot and making it fly. If investors and consumers want to put their money behind a product, they will and the business model for the product may succeed. If not, it will wither. The fact that capital has been so difficult to come by for Kallman might just be a sign that this is not really a viable idea. But, still, it's her idea to see through until the end. The polite and appropriate tact for Alstrom to take was to have let it be so. To Twitter or Not To Twitter I feel like this one's a no-brainer, but hey it's my brain. What in the world are you doing with you phone out of your pocket in a movie theater? Not gonna spend any more time on this one. What have we learned? Quite possibly, most beer geeks who saw the movie (perhaps 98% of those who saw the movie?) did not learn much of anything new about the beer industry. From the light chattering that I heard during the movie, Floridians are as familiar with the Dogfish story as Northeasterners. I'm guessing that more was learned about Kallman's New Century initiatives than anything else. But, once again, this movie was not...or should not have been...for us. So let's take a look at the movie. As an outsider, what would have I learned about the beer industry? ~~ There are small guys (some of whom are still trying, some of whom have "made it"), big guys, and much way bigger guys...here are a few examples ~~ There are politics (in one significant way, that big companies have more power to leverage and use to their advantage) common to almost any industry...here's an example ~~ It can be a struggle for a small guy with a different idea...here's an example ~~ Some little guys eventually make it...here's an example ~~ The beer industry has a 3-tier system, which although very quickly defined, at least gave me an idea that it can be useful, but also prohibitive because of the politics discussed in the movie ~~ There are some extremely passionate people who have made the business of better beer their life-consuming passion...a few examples sat on stage and demonstrated this Is there anything wrong with these messages? I don't believe so. In less than 2 hours, what more do we want? They couldn't cover even 1% of the 1500 breweries, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, etc. Did you want recipes or a look at how beer is made? Probably not as germane to the objective of the movie. Only focus on the high profile beer geek type of brewers/breweries? Don't think that would do a good job of covering the diverse picture that makes up the brewing industry. Were there any outright lies or deception in the theme or sub-stories in the movie? Don't believe so. Do you want to pick at every nit and nat and argue the accuracy from your or my point-of-view? I suppose that's part of the ongoing conversation? But, really, for the newcomer to the topic, I don't believe that the finer points are as important at this point in the discussion with them. (For example, don't we typically start a "newbie" out with: There are two types of beer, Lager and Ale?...and get into the exceptions later down the road?) There we go, my review is now part of the ongoing conversation. Like I said, I'm not sure that I've added anything that hasn't already been said. It was a fine movie, but poorly marketed, in my opinion. For an introductory primer on the subject of the beer industry, I have no problem recommending this movie to a newcomer on the topic. p.s. Afterward I drove to Mr. Dunderbak's where they ironically had Dogfish Head Chicory Stout on tap. It's been quite a while since I've had this on tap, so it was an easy choice and a great bridge from the movie. You may see more from me about my visit to Mr. Dunderbak's when I get around to it.