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Barley and me

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / April 3, 2009

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Three Boston beer celebrities will star in the upcoming "Beer Wars," a curious, not uninteresting one-night boozefest heading for local cinemas. Here is the deal: Filmmaker Anat Baron will screen her 90-minute movie on independent and craft brewers on April 16, one showing only. The concept is "appointment cinema," like the successful, in-theater broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

In the trailer, you can catch glimpses of Sam Adams's now-venerable founder, Jim Koch, and also of his former assistant Rhonda Kallman, who has launched two indie brews of her own, MoonShot and Edison Light. For your $15 admission fee, you will also see a live panel discussion about the beer industry, broadcast after the movie, and moderated by humanoid basset hound Ben Stein. Participants will include Kallman and Todd Alström, one of the two Boston brothers who started the popular Beer Advocate website.

What about the movie? Baron is review-proofing it, not scheduling screenings for critics, and not sending out DVDs to interested parties like me. Her people let me see about 10 minutes of "BW," and it wasn't very impressive.

What I saw was Michael Moore 101: Little craft breweries like Dogfish Head and MoonShot = Good. Anheuser-Busch, a.k.a. "the soulless machine," the "monopoly," the "corporate behemoth with their insatiable appetite for growth" = Bad. Baron takes a page right from the "Roger and Me" playbook, making much of Anheuser CEO August Busch's refusal to grant her an interview. They did allow her on the premises, however, to hang out with the Clydesdales. "They were my best interview," she joked.

I asked Baron why she insists on calling Anheuser a "monopoly," when there are plenty of other beer companies out there. "I went to business school, I know what 'monopoly' means," Baron shot back. Well, I went to eighth grade, where I learned that monopoly means "one seller." I'm sure Anheuser would like to be a monopoly, but alas, Coors, Miller, Sam Adams, and Dogfish all stand in the way.

In the movie, Dogfish founder Sam Calagione decries publicly owned companies whose goal is "maximizing shareholder value." Maybe he should hang out with Jim Koch, who runs a publicly owned company, and ask him why he's in business. For the betterment of mankind, perhaps? "Sam" wages its own amusing deception campaign, calling itself a "small, independent craft brewer" when, with $400 million in revenues and three breweries under its belt, it is the largest American beer company in the United States. (Busch, Miller, and Coors are all foreign-owned.)

Ooops. I guess my invitation to the Sam Adams 25th anniversary blowout just blew off the porch.

Baron bridled when I compared her movie to the delightful "Mondovino," an equally heavy-handed treatment of the wine industry. ("My film is half as long," she said, correctly.) "Mondovino" director Jonathan Nossiter jawboned the oeno-imperialists Michael and Robert Mondavi to appear on camera, and he filmed them in a dank half-light that cast them in the literal and figurative shadow he intended.

In her movie, Baron gets in some licks of her own. There is some amusing footage of her searching for the "Green Valley Brewing Company," a label dreamed up by Anheuser-Busch to promote its two organic beer brands, Wild Hop and Stone Mill, which is brewed in Merrimack, N.H. Anheuser shuttered "Green Valley" (and Wild Hop) last year, perhaps in anticipation of Baron's mockery.

The reviews are in! Here is Todd Alström's B- review of Stone Mill on the Beer Advocate website: "While the beer is certainly nothing to rave about, it's pedestrian enough (both in flavor and marketing) to cross the street and appeal to both the gotta-get-my-hands-on-anything-organic beer drinker and the masses." The website gave Sam Adams's mainstay Boston Lager a B+.

I offered Anheuser a chance to offer its own review of "Beer Wars," and it declined to comment. I'm giving it a C+, but admittedly I tasted only a sip.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress isbeam@globe.com.