Having made a documentary about poker, another about cocktails and the lively National Lampoon portrait Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, director Douglas Tirola makes the walls of his pigeonhole nice and tight with Brewmaster, a movie about beer. (Does he hope to be the Ken Burns of Dude Culture?) Moderately informative but almost as disappointing as his Hey Bartender, the doc may ride the coattails of its subject’s surging popularity, but will leave most thirsts unquenched.
(Quickly, about that “dude culture” comment: Yes, anyone involved in the craft beer scene knows it’s not just for men. But you will remain very sober if you take a drink every time Tirola finds a woman with something to say about beer.)
A look at the film’s list of interviewees makes clear that, its title aside, it isn’t focused just on the crafting of exquisite recipes but on more prosaic issues of marketing. Yes, Tirola talks to experiment-crazed Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione and to John Kimmich, maker of the cult-favorite Heady Topper ale. But he spends equal time with the men behind Samuel Adams and Brooklyn Lager — incredibly successful brands that relatively few of today’s beer geeks would happily drink. (To be fair, those two men are likable and informed, and Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver offers most of the movie’s limited historical perspective on America’s history with beer.)
As he did in Hey Bartender, Tirola picks out a couple of unknown characters to follow through the film, looking for narrative threads that might not really be needed. Given that you can find at least one colorfully obsessed beer amateur in just about any good bar, his choice of main protagonist is questionable: The film focuses on Drew Kostic, a lawyer who downgraded from a high-pressure firm to a job as a federal judge’s clerk so he would have extra hours to invest in plans for a microbrewery.
Kostic is certainly devoted, and we see him make some strange recipes that sound worth tasting. But the awe this privileged guy has for his own efforts can be hard to take, and the doc’s time might be better spent following any of the innumerable young entrepreneurs who are currently a step or three later in the business cycle: They’ve created a few great beers, gotten popular in bars and are trying to launch their own tasting rooms without crumbling under the weight of success.
Tirola also focuses on an aspiring professional’s attempt to pass tests that would give him an elite certification as a beer expert. But as intense as the effort clearly is for him personally, the film can’t elicit the amazement found in Somm or Kings of Pastry, which tracked similar efforts in the realm of wine and desserts.
With 15 credited cinematographers, one might expect scattershot visuals. That’s exactly what we get: Even within individual scenes, shots sometimes match poorly. Certainly, there are no images of the brewing process that qualify as mouth-watering.
The doc will, though, earn amused nods of agreement from time to time. At the start, a montage offers pros remembering their first encounters with beer, several of them reporting that they wanted nothing more to do with it after the first sip. Then at the midpoint, another montage offers recollections of their first encounters as adults with more exotic or well-made brews. Here, too, the flavor of a lambic or a hop-stuffed IPA might be a jolt, but the drinker’s reaction will ring true for most viewers: “I don’t know if I like that. I’m gonna have another pint and find out.”
Production companies: 4th Row Films, Grasshopper + Marks Productions
Director: Douglas Tirola
Producers: Susan Bedusa, Danielle Rosen
Executive producers: Ryan Krivoshey, Andy Marks, Charles Witkowsky
Editor: Daniel Dorst