Wednesday, November 14, 2007

American Beer (2003)

Directed and produced by Paul Kermizian, Six Hundred Films

The cast: Paul Kermizian, Jon Miller (director of photography), Jeremy Goldberg, Rob Purvis (sound recordist), and Rick Sterling (production manager)

Five friends pack up a minivan (bungee-cording a large amount of gear to the top), say good-bye to Teddy, Paul’s dog (sad!) and head out to visit 38 breweries in 40 days. And so we have a bockumentary that intertwines footage of interviews with professional craft brewers, road-trip sequences, and hilarious scenes in which the camera should have been turned off, but we’re so glad it wasn’t. While the idea of this trip is pure genius, the strategy to tether their crap to the top of the van is not. Within the first hour of the trip, the rooftop gear flies off onto the freeway, spewing toothpaste all over Jon’s clothes. Hence, their first stop is to some big box retailer to pick up a “Turtle.”

One of the earliest scenes in the movie shows Rick naming off beers in the cooler and handing them out to everyone in the van except for the driver, of course. Apparently they drove to Pluto on this trip, which is the only place we can imagine where a passenger might be able to have an open container inside a vehicle. (We find out later that we’re wrong. Can you guess where a car passenger can enjoy the contents of an open container in the US? Watch the movie to find out.) And, a note about road-tripping and drinking. The cast makes plain throughout the film that the person who has been tasked with the next spell of driving does not drink. Right from the start, the viewer is confident that this trip won’t end up in disaster.

Of course, the central topic of the movie is beer. Specifically, American craft beer. The production of craft beer requires the use of the following ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. This brings to mind the German purity law, Reinheitsgebot. But American brewers have little use for silly old rules. We are happy and free to use ingredients such as candy sugar, squash, chicory root, coffee, liquorice and as Sam Calagione mentions in a sexy stoner drawl, St. John’s Wort. We completely agree with the notion stated overtly and subtly throughout the film: American craft beers are among the best and most innovative in the world.

The brewers interviewed in this film are the professors of all that is beer. One of our personal favorites is David Hoffmann of Climax Brewing Company in Roselle Park, NJ. If you have only one reason to watch this movie, he’s it. Sporting a beer-stained, purple polo shirt emblazoned with his logo and thick Jersey accent, David excitedly tells us the story of how he went from homebrewer to professional brewer. He thanks his dad, Kurt, for weaning him on good German beers such as DAB and Dinkelacker. (We even get to see a Dad in a couple of shots. He seems a little uncomfortable, but his pride is evident.) All of David’s craft beers came from his (begin Jersey accent) homebrewin’ days; he brewed so much beer, it wasn’t even funny (end Jersey accent… honestly, it couldn’t get any better). David also shows off his ingenious bottle filling system that he engineered and built himself. As he demonstrates the filler, precious beer is lost as the bottles are moved into and out of the contraption. David and Dad dutifully position small cups to catch the overflow which becomes the “breakfast of champions.”

Another brewer we loved to meet was Ray McNeill of McNeill’s Brewery in Vermont. Ray is a cellist, and he plays a mini-concert behind footage of the cast touring his brewery and bar. This really is a fantastic part of the film. As we listen to his beautiful solo, we see that his brewery is a hilarious clusterfuck of stairs, ramps, tubes and PVC pipes. Later, at McNeill’s (the bar), drunken hilarity ensues. Ray and the boys nestle in and get slurringly hammered. They drink and talk and laugh and drink some more. Round about 3am, Ray imparts the following wisdom: “No final word… no arrests, no injuries.” We couldn’t agree more, Ray.

To our great excitement, our personal heroes were interviewed: Dan and Deb Carey of New Glarus Brewing Company. To be honest, I’m a little intimidated by Dan Carey, one of the few American brewers who can legitimately call himself a “Brewmaster,” having completed the 4-year program in Germany. Once, at the Great Taste of the Midwest, I and a beloved friend ran hand-in-hand from booth to booth as last call rang out over the crowd. Our goal was to taste as much “last call” beer as we could. We ran and gulped. Hell, we gulped as we ran. Anyway, we get to the New Glarus booth and shakily hold our tasting glasses out for a last, final sample. I make an effort to steady my gaze only to see Dan Carey slowly shaking his head “no” with a faint frown on his face. Wiping away a small tear, I digress.

Dan and Deb Carey talk a bit about their cherry beer, Wisconsin Belgian Red. Ever wonder why this beautiful bottle with the long, drippy wax seal is so damned expensive? Deb points out that the “fruit bill” for this beer is $60,000. That’s what it costs them to cram 1.4 lbs of cherries into each bottle. Really, people, go to the store right now and buy this beer. It is some of the best, most unique beer to be found in a 750 ml bottle. Go ahead. We’ll wait.

During the interview, Deb waxes philosophical about a better culinary future. She asserts that people are buying better coffee, better food, better cheese, etc. Dan points out that people enjoy beer that is geographically local and has some personality. Damn. Right.

Another Midwestern brewer interviewed is Larry Bell, of Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. He started his brewery with $200 and a truckload of serendipity. After his interview, Larry cajoles the cast into going out for “one mug of beer” and a pickled egg. After footage of much partying, smoking, and wearing funny hats we see the fruits of Larry’s clever scheme: Jeremy passed out cold on the rim of a hotel toilet. Take it from us, the only time there is such a thing as “one mug of beer” is when you have somewhere to be after said mug. Even then, there’s always the chance of sneaking in another mug.

Other highlights from interviews include:

Fritz Maytag, of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco admits that “… the idea of actually owning a brewery, of actually making beer… was just absolutely magic.” We hear you, Fritz.

Ever wondered where Bernie Brewer, who used to reside in the outfield at County Stadium in Milwaukee, WI went? Well, when a new stadium was built and sponsored by Miller, it went all PC and removed Bernie, his mug, his slide, and his balloons. If you figure that one out, please explain it to us. Anyway, Lakefront Brewery has Bernie the Brewer’s complete chalet including the slide! Watching some of the guys coast down that slide brought back many childhood ballpark memories.

Mike Hale of Hale’s Ales in Seattle WA came up with the best promotional tool ever. He bought and refitted a double-decker bus with a bar and taps. He then sold his beer by inviting potential clients (beer retailers) out to his pub on wheels. We only wish we’d thought of it first.

Attention palate masochists: brewer John C. Maier of Rogue in Newport, OR reveals that his favorite is Mocha Porter. He developed this beer himself and it is “his baby.” Drink this beer now.

The cast wisely asked the brewers they visited about hangover remedies. One brewer answered, “moderation,” but we’ll just dismiss that suggestion as obvious and really, come on. When you’re in this business you learn out of necessity how to avoid hangovers, but the cold, hard fact is that hangovers happen. Anyway, other more useful answers included: drinking water; drinking all-malt beer; simply continue drinking; Frank’s kraut juice; Tylenol; greasy cheeseburgers; hair of the dog that bit ya; and as David Hoffmann gleefully offered, “drink more beer!” One brewer suggests smoking a joint as a hangover remedy. You can watch the movie yourself to find out who that is.

The cast shares with us some of the… funky side effects… of visiting 38 breweries and sampling so many of their offerings. Jeremy gains 10 pounds in the first 12 days of the trip. Later in the trip, and very late one night, he makes a phone call to a steak house in search of a 72 oz steak. Specifically, one that if you eat it all, you get it free. We never find out if they were able to enjoy that drunken meatfest. Speaking of things that are smelly, Paul reveals in impressive fashion what happens to the GI system after a night of beer-drinking. And we all know that drinking loosens lips… and tempers. One night, a shouting match erupts in the hotel room which continues until the sound guy loses his marbles and screams for everyone to shut up. After a short, tense silence, Rick quietly points out, “You’re freaking out Rob, man.”

By the end of the trip, everyone knew a whole lot more about beer. Jeremy went on to become the brewer at Cape Ann Brewing Co. in Gloucester, MA. Paul and Jon opened Barcade in Brooklyn.

If you like road-tripping, documentaries, craft beer, or any combination of the three, you will definitely enjoy American Beer. The editing of this film brilliantly offers a sense of travel and chronology while informing the viewer about craft brewing in sensible bites. Oh, and the music is fantastic! Bob Gilligan holds the music credit for the film; we salute him. Pedal-steel guitars are very, very cool.

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