My English is not good, but I have to tell you: your beer is like swill to us. Do I have that right? I am saying that only a swine would drink this beer.
—German Businessman, The Simpsons
While I was attending Averett College in Danville, VA, a wise man assured me that “beer is good food.” Unfortunately, given that his beer of choice was Milwaukee’s Best (and that his greatest claim to fame was drinking half a bottle of Jagermeister and running naked across a soccer field), I didn’t give his observation much credence. From my experience, beer was pretty rotten stuff, with the possible exception of an extremely cold bottle of Corona, and only with a wedge of lime shoved down its neck.
There is more to beer, though, as revealed in American Beer: A Bockumentary. “By the end of the 1970’s,” reads the white-on-black text that opens the film, “corporate consolidation left the United States with less than 50 breweries. There are nearly 1,400 in the U.S. today. Five friends leave New York City by minivan and set out to visit 38 breweries in 40 days.”
The film opens not on the first day, but rather, Day 36, as Rick Sterling sits in the back of the van, looking into an open cooler and reciting the brands of beer available. Pyramid Pale Ale IPA and Hefeweizen (Seattle, WA), Red Hook ESB (also Seattle), North Coast (from Ft. Bragg, CA), and Prankster, which, presumably, is Merry Prankster Imperial Red Ale. As this ale hails from Des Moines, IA (not a stop on their trip), lord only knows how they came to have it in their cooler. Though this story isn’t captured on film, most everything else that happened to them during their voyage is here.
The dedication that director/producer/star Paul Kermizian and his crew have to their beer is remarkable. They are, for lack of a better phrase, beer geeks. It’s not just about the getting drunk—though there’s little question that they enjoy that aspect (“This lifestyle we’re living… we can’t sustain it,” says Jon Miller, as early as the second day of the trip, “But I’m sure loving it”)—as much as it is about finding something that’s actually worth drinking. There are wine festivals all over the country, but beer festivals, though they certainly exist, always seem to get short shrift; the makers of American Beer, however, have made their own, albeit one that requires a lot of time and gas.
Thirty-five minutes into their trip, one guy’s bag goes flying off the minivan’s roof, leaving clothing and toiletries strewn across the highway. It’s obvious that these aren’t exactly professional documentarians. But they don’t let that stop them. At each destination, they sit down with the owners and brewmeisters and talk shop, getting them to open up about themselves, their professions, and their products.
One of the film’s funniest moments comes after Paul Kermizian admits to a brewer that the first beer he ever drank was Milwaukee’s Best. The response is a sarcastic, “Hey, there’s something to brag about,” which sets up a sequence of clips where the various brewers admit to their early beer drinking habits, naming brands like Lucky Lager, Old Vienna, Piels, Rheingold, Carling Black Label, and MeisterBrau (“It was the one that had the least taste and was the cheapest”).
Brit Antrim, head brewer of Anderson Valley Brewing, observes that, when it comes to making beer, “From a craft brewing [all malt] standpoint, it would be four ingredients: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. But, now, things have really changed. There are no more rules anymore, and people are doing all kinds of things.” Now, brewers include a range of ingredients, from candy sugar, squash, chicory, Mexican coffee, and licorice root to fruits (cherries to watermelons), and St. John’s Wort, which makes for “the world’s only anti-depressant depressant.”
The breweries are located in the hearts of cities, up in the mountains, or in the middle of nowhere, housed in every sort of space, from cottages to caves. The folks who run them are equally eclectic, blending obvious intelligence—one plays the cello, another quotes Baudelaire—with an aura that can only be called “Average Joe-ness.” In most cases, they’re just guys who liked beer and wanted to make their own… and so they did. Their diverse backgrounds do much to change the perspective that there’s something hoity-toity about microbreweries.
Still, the brewery owners are under no preconceptions about their target audience. “I don’t think we’re going to be successful at winning over a lot of Coors drinkers or Budweiser drinkers,” admits Jeff Mendel, cofounder of the Left Hand & Tabernash Brewing Company. “Oftentimes, people start drinking beer before they find out about us rather than the other way around, so that’s what their first exposure to beer is generally going to be.” One can only hope that this documentary—or “bockumentary,” if you will—can help spread the word before Anheuser Busch claims another victim.