Monday, October 27, 2008

Movie Review – 99 Bottles

If you are in Milwaukee on the weekend of November 6, you can catch the premier of this movie at the Times Cinema ($9, $7 senior/matinee). The Madison premier will be the weekend of November 13 at the Orpheum Theater.

Producer David Oplinger, says that "we explore the history and culture of the craft brewing industry in Southeastern Wisconsin. Our goal is to promote the industry by presenting a fun overview of some of the fine breweries that Wisconsin has to offer. We covered 16 breweries, brewpubs and contract brewers and asked them questions that had been collected from the general public. The end result is a film that really draws the audience into world of the brewmaster, leaving them wanting for more."

I'll be honest, what are my expectations going into the film? Well, beer-related television and movies are notoriously terrible; so, anything of quality is an improvement. There is a fine line in the craft beer world in appeasing everyone involved. I've found that there are three basic types of people in the craft beer universe: Industry folk, Geeks, and Drinkers. Drinkers are people who are usually hanging out with the geeks, but often they are people who just like good beer, aren't really that interested in thinking about good beer, they basically substitute Spotted Cow or Capital Amber for Budweiser. The craft beer universe needs Drinkers because they buy beer a case at a time. Geeks, on the other hand, don't buy a case of anything. Heck, getting a Geek to commit to a six-pack can be a challenge. Geeks are always looking for the next new thing, the next best thing, the next thing that they can run out and tell all of their friends is the most obscure style, brewery, or bottle that can be found. Geeks are the ones being targeted by New Glarus' new R&D line (we'll talk about this later, but, you want to see bottles sell for hundreds of dollars? Just wait until these things are released – it will be ridiculous. Champagne yeast?! Bring it on Dan Carey!!). Some are more knowledgeable than others, but most know the basics about hops, barley, malting, yeast, water quality, and the brewing process. They may not be able to tell you what krausening a triple decocted Munich, Vienna, and Maris Otter wort means or how it is accomplished, but they know what a cascade hop is and some basic differentiating characteristics between, say, a Belgian Blonde and an American Pale Ale. Then you have the Industry folk. Not that they know everything, but they definitely live in their own, self-perpetuating, universe. The Industry are not only brewmasters and assistant brewmasters, but bartenders, tour guides, distributors, janitors at the breweries, the guy who unloads the truck of grain into the large hoppers, etc. They have a unique perspective on their "product" and talk about "SKUs" and "pallets" and "brands."

To a Geek, it can be pretty ugly to see the actual Industry machinery as Geeks often have an over-romanticized notion of what goes on behind the scenes to bring that bottle of Bell's Hopslam to your table. Of course, like the wine industry, the Beer Industry glorifies the romance, the blood, sweat and toil, of the brewer – images of large copper boiling kettles, large wooden hop paddles, oak casks, and rows of large (but not too large) stainless steel fermenters. Interestingly, Drinkers take to the Industry better than Geeks – perhaps because the Drinker holds no illusion after having decanted a 10-year old bottle of Thomas Hardy into a fine brandy snifter. For Geeks it is hard to imagine that this bulk of industrial equipment and flashing lights that direct fluid through this mechanized, completely inhuman process, could result in such a human, warm, and satisfying beverage.

So, that brings me back to the challenge of this film. It is keeping all three of these audiences "wanting more" that is such a big challenge. Each of these demographics has such different notions, understandings, and interactions with each other that finding a common middle-ground can be difficult. Breweries have failed trying to find this middle ground. Television shows have failed trying to find this middle ground. Movies have failed trying to find this middle ground.

This movie gets some things right, it gets some things wrong, but ultimately it meets its purpose of offering a fun overview and leaving the audience wanting more. Particularly wanting more beer. It gets right the balance of presenting difficult and complex topics – the brewing process, three-tier distribution, SB 227 – to both Drinkers and Geeks. However, by using Industry folks to present this material, it sometimes gets bogged down in the Industry universe. For example, while discussing the brewing process one of the brewers is discussing the boil, and he mentions that his brewery uses "gas-fired kettles." We, Drinkers and Geeks, know what all of those words mean – we know what gas-fired means, we know what a kettle is. But, what isn't exactly clear is the brewer's implication that this is relatively uncommon; there is no background for understanding why others don't use gas. When the brewer immediately starts talking about caramelization from long gas-fired kettle boils, these are the types of discussions that even knowledgeable Geeks have a hard time following – but, for brewers, these are "Brewing 201" and so they talk about them like everyone knows what they are talking about.

Another place that the movie gets bogged down in the Industry universe is the discussion on yeast management. Yes, it is important. But Drinkers don't care, and Geeks either don't understand it, have a misunderstanding of it, or have such strong biases about it, that the handling of it here really doesn't seem to add much to the discussion. At the end of this section, I was left confused about whether having yeast strains propagated for hundreds of years is a good thing or a bad thing and I wasn't really given any compelling arguments for either side (good: see Chimay and the Belgian and German breweries; bad: see Anheuser-Busch and inexperienced craft brewers).

It would have been interesting to see a little more confrontation to Eliot Butler about SB 224, the Brewpub Law. The movie does a great job of showing why brewers in the state are not happy about SB 224, but it leaves The Great Dane, the progenitors of this bill, largely unscathed. It is during this section that Dean Coffey, brewmaster at Ale Asylum, cements his status as star of this movie. He does a great job of bringing relatively complex topics, such as SB 224, down to language that everyone here can easily understand: "If this bill had passed before we started, we would have failed." Period. Then he explains why this is true. "It's fine for us. But as the old guys die off there will be no new breweries starting up." Period. Easy to understand.

But Dean Coffey's explanation of the Reinheisgebot is the centerpiece of this film: "The guys that put that law down into the works had a moment of vision, of divinity, an epiphany, because they didn't know what they were doing. They just thought they were making some neat tax code. But what they did was, they forced brewers to follow this tight and narrow path of only using four ingredients. I like to compare it to haiku. As I recall, it's a three line poem and it's, uhhh, five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, something like that. It's difficult, it's hard to write a poem in the form of haiku, but if you do it, if you follow those tight rules, something really beautiful comes out the other end. And I have come to believe that if you follow the tight rules of those four ingredients of the Reinheitsgebot that something beautiful comes out the other end." In that one statement, Dean Coffey and 99 Bottles defines the art, the craft, of craft brewing into a simple, easily understood example that demonstrates not only the difficulty but the passion that these folks have for their craft.

Is this movie fun? Heck yeah. The discussion on naming beers is hilarious. Stonefly's brewmaster, Jacob, is hilarious about his Mustache Ride and Star Wars themed naming schemes. Deb Carey's discussion about being in England, and seeing the sheep, and coming home and seeing Wisconsin from the tourist perspective "What's with all the spotted cows?" is classic. The ending titles "Can I have free beer" is fun – Aran Madden's answer of "if you have the ask, the answer is probably no" is spot on.

I think the movie ultimately succeeds because it hits all of the important discussions around craft beer. The dichotomy of having to please both Drinkers and Geeks. The problems of the three-tier distribution network. The "romance" of the brewing industry which The Grumpy Troll's owner sums up perfectly: "I think one thing that [everyone] needs to do is come to a place like The Grumpy Troll, meet the brewmaster here and watch what he really does on a day-to-day basis. Because Mark [Duchow] doesn't spend very much of his time actually stirring the mash, as it were. He spends the majority of his time cleaning and sanitizing equipment. And it's very time consuming and it's a lot of hard work." Being a brewmaster, working in the Industry, as the brewmaster at Water Street in Milwaukee points out, is quintessential American blue-collarism – craft brewing is really the last great American blue-collar job: "It's little bit of plumbing, a little bit of electrical, it's hauling grain sacks, you may be driving a truck, it's a little bit of all of these things and it's hard to teach somebody." And the final quintessentially American product is really one of the last great shining examples of the American work ethic – great tasting beer.

99 Bottles succeeds because when I finished watching it I wanted a fine Wisconsin craft beer to raise as a toast, "Cheers!", to all of the people that bring this fine product to my refrigerator and my local bar!

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