In a bitterly divided land, the great uniter is staring us squarely in the face: craft beer. From faithful Christians to revolutionary socialists, from beardy progressives in Brooklyn out to Orange County libertarians, everyone loves to monkey around with beer, and consuming the product makes us matey and cheerful. You want less rancor? Bring on more suds.
A disorganized but cheerful and spirited documentary, Brewmance, takes us through how the magical beverage is made out of only four ingredients (barley, hops, water, yeast), how the craft brew industry got going in the Seventies (all praise and thanks to Fritz Maytag, who built up San Francisco–based Anchor Steam), and what it takes to launch a commercial craft brewery. All this is seen through the eyes of two new startups in Long Beach, Calif.: Liberation Brewing Company and Ten Mile Brewing Company.
Liberation Brewing Company is run by Dan Regan, a trombone player who quit his band, Reel Big Fish, when it was time to get married and settle down to a boring job as a university administrator. Regan, the kind of guy who says things like “We got pregnant” and whose friends call him a socialist, developed a lot of expertise in craft beers while touring with his band, whose members made a habit of spending the afternoons on the road sampling the wares at whatever breweries were closest. He comes up with a stylish logo for Liberation Brewing (a tongue-in-cheek Cold War image of a falling bomb), and we watch as he takes over an old 98 Cents store, renovates the space, and finally, gloriously, opens to the public.
Regan sees a fond link between what he does and the American Revolution, which he describes as a sort of barroom fantasy dreamed up by “a bunch of dudes sitting around in wigs yelling about how stupid England was.” At the end of the film, he looks around the tasting room he’s opened and says he hopes that in their honor, “Maybe the Revolution is being planned over there, maybe there’s a heist being planned over there.”
Not far away, a devout Christian named Dan Sundstrom and his son Jesse explain how the two fought endlessly, often with fists, when the younger man was in high school, but that Dan’s home-brewing hobby gave the pair a project they could work on together. Ten Mile Brewing Company is more like the business manifestation of how members of a loving family support one another than a fount of social upheaval.
Both companies’ brewers then head off to the Great American Beer Festival where . . . neither of them wins any of the 306 awards bestowed in 102 categories. The doc spends several wayward minutes taking us through the ceremony anyway, one of several erratic choices made by writer-director Christo Brock, who has more enthusiasm for his subjects than storytelling skill.
Nevertheless, the movie offers plenty of tidbits for aficionados and breezy interviews with some of the titans of the industry, including Boston Beer Company founder Jim Koch, maker of Samuel Adams and now the fourth-largest brewer in the United States. When Koch got started, he recalls, he was rejected by all wholesalers and had to peddle his wares from bar to bar. As recently as the Seventies, we learn, there were fewer than 50 brewers in the entire U.S. — and all of them made the same style of beer, watery lagers for the kind of people who eat bologna on Wonder Bread. Beers that had actual flavors were so unheard-of that Maytag, the Anchor Steam guy, and his epigones found themselves on a mission to not only build their businesses but reform the American palate. Koch drily notes that the new craft brews “introduced a previously unknown consideration, which was quality.” Now there are some 7,000 craft breweries in the U.S.
The meandering structure of the film — one minute we’re looking at beer in historical terms, the next we’re on recipes, the next we’re on the culture of brewing in Long Beach — creates a loose, undisciplined feel that suggests the filmmakers were enjoying a pint or two while they were in the editing room. Moreover, when an unexpected moment of real drama does arise, with one of Brewmance’s featured brewers starting a trademark dispute with another, the director doesn’t even bother to ask one of the parties about it, much less create tension about the potential legal battle. Even the least experienced reality-television director would have done a better job of playing up that conflict.
Still, there’s a lot of pleasing vitality to this great American story about how clever brewers took an ancient idea and unlocked an unheard-of range of innovations with a combination of capitalist energy and rumbustious creativity. An industry analyst interviewed in the film sums it up like this: “Most Americans are endowed with the sense of infinite possibility.” We may not have invented beer, but as with most things, we do it better than anyone else.