Thursday, December 2, 2010

Television Review: Brewmasters

"FINALLY! A TV review. Something I actually care about instead of reading about this guy drinking beer."

Kind of a rude start there. Anyways, I saw the Dogfish Head infomercial Brewmasters on the Discovery channel the other night. It's a show that follows the founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, Sam Calagione, reality TV style. It's sort of in the vein of American Chopper in that it centers around the production aspect more than the personal-life aspect of the people. I'll preface the rest of this by saying that I do not think that Dogfish Head's beers are very good for the most part. I think they're mostly obnoxious exercises in beer-marketing that just happen to be sold as beer (as opposed to key chains or T-shirts). I also find Sam Calagione, in the same spirit, to be a bit obnoxious and much too self-congratulatory.

All that being said, Brewmasters was better than I expected. Mostly enjoyable. Except for the annoying parts. The main character continues to come off as pretty proud of himself, but it's at least worthwhile to see the process of making beer. I'm probably just about the only person in America who's most interested in the parts-in-passing about brewery operations and production scheduling, but for me, that was what made the show. They don't get as technical as I might like, but they do show more of the actual brewing process than I expected, including many of the specific malts and ingredients that they use, which is nice as well. Brewmasters does struggle with the issue that any show like this has which is that the technical aspects are boring to those who don't care about them, and too rudimentary for those who do. Unlike most of these types of shows, though, they actually can't into the actual making of beer. It would be virtually impossible to follow the beginning-to-end story of a beer. In a show like American Choppers the specific project serves as the basis of a story arc. In other similar shows in may be the basis for the story of a single episode. Without that crucial aspect, I think this show will be much less engaging to people who don't know something about making beer. 

The show tends to focus, like Dogfish Head, on the seemingly unique quality of their beers. As mentioned, there is some information about the process, but it focuses mostly on making test batches of beer and goofing off a la American Chopper. Personally, all the goof-off crap just makes me think what an annoying place it must be to work where the owner of a company that's struggling with growth is not only completely removed from the day to day, but wastes time while allegedly even an hour of lost time in the bottling plant can have ramifications for months afterwards. The uniqueness of their beers is questionable too, as most of them are "unique" because some sort of food ingredient is used. This is ultimately just a gimmicky way to make beer, and even worse, when it's done in the way Dogfish Head does it, people get the impression that craft beer is just freak-show beer instead of being good beer  (another way in which I think they are doing a disservice to craft beer).

This brings me to the last point, which is about the way the company is portrayed. They make efforts to appear like a google-esque, fun, encouraging place to work, but they casually mention that they're also constantly expanding and running shifts 24 hours a day (to the point that they can't lose even an hour of production time in the bottling plant). This is completely contrary to the spirit of craft beer, as far as I'm concerned. As a company, their focus seems to be on expanding as quickly as possible, without allowing things to happen naturally. You can only assume that the cost of this expansion necessitates that they run the system on full throttle all the time and sell as much beer as humanly possible. None of this makes me think that the craft of brewing or the quality of the product could possibly be a primary focus. As of now, they do make some good beers, but based on what I've seen, that fact seems more coincidental than intentional. Some people I had talked to about this show seem to be taking the position that the show is a good thing as long as it exposes a new audience to craft beer, but I don't really think that will happen any more than Family Ties* turned young men into young republicans. Brewmasters is mildly interesting to me, but because I'm already interested in beer. To anyone else, I think it's just another ego-driven PR project by Dogfish Head. They'll continue to do what they do to craft beer whether it's good or bad. Hopefully everyone else [without the DFH marketing machine behind them] will have that chance as well.

*This is not to imply that Sam Calagione holds a candle to Alex P. Keaten. He IS NO APK!!!1