Exclusive: What the Beer Industry Doesn’t Want Consumers to Know

After catching a screening of her new documentary Beer Wars at the Bell House on Monday night we caught up with DIY filmmaker Anat Baron (and former General Manger of Mike’s Hard Lemonade) for an IM chat about some of our favorite beers. We planned on only discussing the film — which which follows the owners of Dogfish Head and Sam Adams as they go toe-to-toe with that largest and most powerful brewery in the United States — but in the process, she schooled us in the history of brewing legislation and broke our hearts with the news that one of our favorite Trappist beers now has more in common with Bud Light than Chimay.

Flavorpill: Hi, Anat. How are you today?

Anat Baron: Good thanks. How was last night?

FP: Great, I enjoyed the film a lot.

AB: Heard it sold out.

FP: I believe that. We were standing in the back

AB: Wow. That’s commitment.

FP: Do you see the film as fitting into a larger theme about a corporate takeover in this country?

AB: It’s being compared to Food Inc. which is in wide release now. But yes, I think it fits into the theme of consolidation. It’s happening in beer as in other industries. The big are getting bigger. Small are marginalized. I made the film because I believe in consumer choice which is being limited by the large beer companies and distributors. Sure, there are more small breweries’ beers available (especially in markets like New York) but it’s still TINY.

FP: New York is a great market with Brooklyn, Six Point, and Captain Lawrence.

AB: New York is very unique. It embraced imports first. Then crafts. But the rest of America isn’t as lucky. Because the three tier system is state based, laws are different everywhere so it’s case by case. It’s good in theory but needs to be updated for 21st century. Success in beer business is all about ubiquity. Consumers need to find you wherever they buy beer. So big guys with their distributor partners have an easy way of being everywhere. They get placed there. And they also use marketing dollars to get into stadiums, etc.

The filmmaker, Anat Baron
The filmmaker, Anat Baron

FP: Was there a good reason to require that a producer sell to a distributor and not directly to stores and bars?

AB: For small guys, you need to get distributor attention and to ensure they get your brand out there. So if you’re a hot brand like Dogfish, you’re okay. Today. But if you’re a start-up it is tough to get “share of mind” when distributors have so many brands, and the big guys keep coming up with new ones. Well that came after Prohibition. Before Prohibition there were “tied houses” where the brewery owned the tavern so they only sold their own beers. The idea was to separate the tiers and that the middleman would be the buffer. So today, if there was no three tier system, in theory A-B InBev could buy up all the bars and only serve A-B InBev beers. The system is supposed to help the small brewer, but in 1933 no one imagined we’d have two giants and 1,500 little guys.

FP: Do you think there needs to be legislation now to level the playing field for all the little guys?

AB: Absolutely. There need to be changes made. Allow self-distribution for very small brewers (California and Colorado where it’s legal are HUGE craft beer states). Change franchise laws which favor distributors, not small brewers. Allow internet sales. But distributors spend millions lobbying for status quo.

FP: Was it difficult to get interviews with the big giants?

AB: I had access as a former industry insider. It took six months to get Miller and Coors to agree to interviews. Anheiser-Busch was tough. They are all about control and August Busch IV (CEO of Anheuser-Busch), came close but never granted me the interview. I must say that the Miller and Coors shoots were smooth. They were lovely. St. Louis HQ for A-B was totally staged. That is — they staged everything.

FP: The guy you did interview there seemed very pleased with what he was doing.

AB: The VP of brewing was fully rehearsed. They even made him up before the interview. And they had a team behind the scenes, transcribers, etc.

At Miller
At Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

FP: Did they really buy out Leffe?

AB: I think the beginning of the end came when A-B bought the distribution rights to InBev’s brands for the US. And now that InBev owns A-B, they are all company owned. Stella, Leffe, etc. All these “small imports” are now owned by the world’s largest brewer. And BTW, Stella is the Bud of Belgium.

FP: Isn’t Leffe one of the few Trappist monk-produced beers?

AB: Previous owners closed that brewery. Leffe brands is brewed at the Stella Artois brewery in Leuven.

FP: That’s a bit shocking. I guess they’re not in a hurry to advertise that?

AB: That’s InBev strategy. Buy brands. Close brewery. Consolidate brewing. We’ll see if they keep the twelve Bud plants in the US open. Kind of like when A-B bought Rolling Rock. Big beer is about myth creation.

FP: How did Sam from Dogfish emerge as your leading man in the film?

AB: When I went to the GABF (Great American Beer Festival) I had interviews set up with 10 craft brewers. About 10 minutes into my interview with Sam, I knew he was my man. He was a no bullshit everyman. I needed someone who would be himself. And also I needed someone with a story. He was expanding his brewery. Took out a loan. There was drama inherent in it.

FP: Absolutely, he seems like a great guy. I read in the New Yorker about some of his crazy experiments to find new beers. Did you sit in on the creation of any new beers?

AB: Yes, the chocolate beer. He works with scientists and loves to do the weird and unexpected. Total Renaissance man. He loves history and the challenge.

FP: Chocolate beer sounds tasty. Can we find it in New York?

AB: Not yet. You should get out to their brewpub in Rehoboth Beach some day. That’s where they really experiment.

FP: Final question: As you ask in your film, when is big, big enough?

AB: Touche… Well, that’s up to each person to answer. It depends on whether you care about where your dollar goes. I happen to care, so when I can, I like to support local businesses as opposed to faceless behemoths. I don’t think that consolidation is good for consumers. Sure Wal-Mart sells cheap products but at what larger cost? Toys from China, end of small grocery, hardware stores… but it’s all determined by financial markets who LOVE BIG.

View the Beer Wars trailer below; follow Anat on Twitter; buy the DVD.