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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Meet Anat Baron....Beer Wars: Brewed in America

The following interview was published in the winter 2009/10 issue of TAPS: Canada's Beer Magazine (pg.18) and is being republished with permission.    

*If you read through the entire interview and you know the answer to the trivia question I placed at the end, shoot me an email ( for a chance to win a copy of the movie on DVD on behalf of TAPS.  I'll announced the winner here this time next week, on the TAPS Twitter account, and on the TAPS Facebook site.  Good luck*

Back in April, hundreds of passionate American craft beer drinkers flocked to cinemas throughout the United States to watch Anat Baron’s first independent film, Beer Wars: Brewed in America.  The passionate and opinionated producer had once held the helm of General Manager for mike’s hard lemonade, and it was during this time that she became aware of the dominance the multi-national brewing companies had in the US marketplace, as well as in the political arena.   Inspired by the true stories of small craft breweries and their fight for survival, Baron left the beer industry, grabbed a camera, and set off to tell Americans the real story behind the ‘David vs. Goliath’ battle. 

Baron, a Canadian living in Los Angeles, follows Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione and Moonshot owner Rhonda Kallman, highlighting their highs and lows as they compete for a piece of the pie against brands like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors Light.  The film also includes interviews with executives from Anheuser-Busch In/Bev, MillerCoors, along with many respected craft brewing pioneers and innovators, and also showcases America’s three-tiered distribution system. 

Where did you get the idea to make a documentary about the American beer industry?
Here’s the back-story. In 2001, an old friend asked me to consult for his new company – mike’s hard lemonade – that had just been launched nationally in the US. I ended up running the company for 3 years.  [For clarification, mike’s is sold as a beer in the US, it’s malt based.] After I left mike’s, I started thinking about making an independent film. I had prior experience making movies for television but wanted to try my hand at making a film without a committee. When I received an invitation to the annual beer industry convention (I was still on the list) and after some research, I 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.

What did you want to achieve with the documentary?
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. Another 15 percent is controlled by more foreign companies including Heineken and Grupo Modelo (Corona). And, finally, 5 percent of the market is made up of independent 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.

How difficult was it getting the brewers to speak freely during filming?
I think that Michael Moore has made people leery of being on camera. I was surprised that even some of the small brewers (non corporate types) would say one thing off camera and yet be afraid to be controversial once they were on. Subjects (that’s what we call the real people in documentaries since we don’t use actors) are so much more educated about what can happen to what they say in the editing process. The corporate executives I interviewed gave pat answers. You can tell that they’d been coached. So it’s tough to get those candid perspectives. That’s why you shoot long interviews and get your subjects to drink a few beers…

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 sell directly to consumers. This is not possible in beer because of the influence of the distributors who are very powerful politically and want to continue their dominance over how beer is distributed.

Beer Wars focused on Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione (who TAPS interviewed in the Spring 2008 issue) and Moonshot owner Rhonda Kallman.  How did you choose these two brewery owners out of the thousands that exist?
I knew that no one would care about a film like this without an emotional connection to characters, 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 picked Sam because he is 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. When we met, 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 in November 2008.  

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 also brought in the subjects’ families because I wanted to show the impact that Sam and Rhonda’s choices have on their families. The business became their life. The risks they took affected their kids.

What was the biggest eye-opener you experienced throughout filming?
Since I’d come from the beer industry, I knew about the obstacles but I was unaware of the power of the beer lobby in Washington, DC. Attending their annual legislative conference was shocking. The access they had to politicians, the monies they spent, I kept asking why? It became clear that they wanted to keep things just the way they are.

Help us understand America’s three-tiered distribution system and how it affects small breweries.
Most people know that the US was “dry” during prohibition from 1920-1933. The three-tier system was created after prohibition and gave power to the states to regulate alcohol. As a result, there are over 37,000 beer laws in America today. Not a hurdle for the big guys with their teams of lawyers, but an issue for small players who want to expand outside their state.

The idea of three tiers came from pre-prohibition times when there were “tied houses.” These taverns would be owned by the brewer and therefore only served their brand of beer. So the idea was that adding middlemen — known as distributors — who would take the beer from the brewer and get it into retail outlets (stores and bars), would create a more competitive marketplace.

But as a result, all these years later, having a distributor in every congressional district has made them (the middle tier) a very powerful political force. So now you have the dominance of two very powerful global brewing 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.

What has to change in the US beer industry to create a more balanced playing field?
Allow self-distribution for very small brewers (California and Colorado where it’s legal are huge craft beer states because the laws allow them to go directly to retail). Change outdated franchise laws (these laws govern the relationship between the brewer and the distributor and vary by state) that favor distributors, not small brewers. Allow Internet sales of beer. Since distributors spend millions every year lobbying for the status quo, the only way for these laws to change is for consumers to get engaged and become politically active in large numbers.

How successful were the one night screenings that were held throughout the country (US)?
We had a special one-night event called Beer Wars Live beamed via satellite to 440 theatres across America on April 16, 2009. It was not as successful as I’d hoped as far as turnout. I’m currently in litigation with National CineMedia and the 3 largest theatre chains in the US who were my “partners” for the event. I’m fighting my own David and Goliath battle. The good news is that screenings continue to take place across the country.

Will there be a follow up documentary years down the road?
I think it would be great to revisit not only the state of the beer industry and capitalism, but the 2 main characters – Sam and Rhonda and see what has changed for them.  Let’s just say that I’m not thinking that far ahead since I’m still focused on getting this movie to more people.

Each Canadian province seems to have different rules and regulations when it comes to selling beer.  Any interest in making a Canadian Beer Wars?
I’m Canadian and having lived in 3 different provinces (Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario) I’m well aware of the differences. There’s more government intervention in Canada on one level through their ownership of the retail segment (although there are some states where alcohol must be sold through state owned liquor stores) but you also have the dominance of foreign brewers.  I think it could be an interesting take but… I made Beer Wars using personal funds and loans. And I learned that in future, I should always go with someone else’s money! So if you know someone who wants to fund the Canadian version, I’m in.

Where can Canadians purchase a copy of Beer Wars?
The DVD is available on my website It includes the film and a panel discussion with the key players from the film that we shot the night of the live event.

Do you ever expect a job offer from Anheuser-Busch In/Bev (joking) ?
Now that’s funny.  The answer is… no. I don’t think they’re paying much attention to me. They’re busy with the takeover and world domination. 

**Trivia Question**
How many interviews did Anat set up with independent brewers before choosing Sam Calagione and Rhonda Kallman to follow around?

Email answer to - (winner will be chosen randomly and announced next week)

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