Film Review: ‘Brewmance’ Is a Crisp, Bubbly Take on Microbreweries

by Alexander C. Kafka

“My first experience home-brewing was before it was legal,” says Jim Koch, cofounder and chairman of Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams. “I did it with my dad. He brought home some yeast … then he brought home some hops, and we made a beer. And I thought it was so cool when the yeast brought the beer to life, and it started to bubble and you got that foam on the top of it, and it had that wonderful bready, ester-y smell, and I was in love.”

Koch kicks off producer and director Christo Brock’s crisp, fizzy new documentary, Brewmance, as one of the elders in the high church of American independent brewing. They provide historical context for the current, competitive scene of some 7,000 craft breweries. The grandfather of the group is Fritz Maytag, who, in the mid-1960s, turned a closing San Francisco brewery into today’s Anchor Brewing, an exotic  alternative to the bland corporate six-packs. Also chiming in are Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, and Charlie Papazian, the pied piper of the group, who founded the Great American Beer Festival, an annual three-day 60,000-attendee extravaganza.   

The festival started four decades ago with 20 breweries and 40 beers, Papazian explains. Two of the 2,300 microbreweries represented at a recent festival are startups in Brock’s hometown of Long Beach, Calif., and the bulk of his film explores the inspiration behind the grueling births of those businesses.

One is Ten Mile Brewery, a family affair led by father and son Dan and Jesse Sundstrom. The other, Liberation Brewing, was cooked up by Dan Regan, a former ska-band trombonist, and his brewer friend Eric McLaughlin, along with a third partner on the business side.

Brock’s previous work includes Touch the Wall, a film about Olympic-level swimming. Here cameras held by Brock and Damian Apunte embrace a different aquatic element. The film features mouth-watering closeups of finished beers, but also the pipe-connected chrome behemoths that produce them, with all their sputtering valves and mysterious meters. 

To a mellow bluegrass and acoustic score by Mark Orton and fun floaty animations by Pablo Gonzalez, the doc explains brewing’s four basic ingredients — water, barley, yeast, and hops. But of course, as with the 88 notes of a piano or a handful of paints on an artist’s palette, the challenges and possibilities are infinite and the pour an expression of the brewer’s personality. Scaling up from garage brewing to a business, we see up close, is a precarious endeavor.

At Ten Mile, there’s a tense, trash-talking camaraderie between father and son Sundstrom, ardent Christians who describe coming to blows during Jesse’s adolescence. Now, having bonded over brew, they literally build their business together — shunning contractors and operating heavy machinery themselves. They fish and picnic together on the gorgeous creek for which their business is named. 

Liberation, in contrast, has a counter-culture vibe. “We wanted something that was like a punch in the face,” says Regan, the front-man extrovert and jokester of the trio, about the brewery’s name and its red dropped-bomb logo. McLaughlin is the quieter, more self-effacing artisan, who clashes with their business partner, Michael, during a low point before the brewery’s soft opening. 

“I’m telling you right now,” Michael says to Dan, “if he walks out that door, I am never coming back. … We don’t have time for f___ing kid gloves.”

“I’ll be honest. You’re probably the most obnoxious person I know,” Eric tells Michael. “It works. We need someone like you. I need someone like you.”

As they bicker, shake their heads over hassles with a landlord, and parry brand-infringement accusations from a Long Beach rival, their future looks far from certain. But like the ingredients of a memorable brew, the results of such personality tensions can be strangely successful.

The insiders explain that the warmth and mutual encouragement of microbreweries’ early years has cooled. It’s an industry now, with elbows thrown and big fish eating little ones. 

Then again, it was always a struggle, even for the companies that now seem so indomitable. 

“When I started making Sam Adams,” remembers Koch, “there were five beer wholesalers in Boston. They all turned me down.” He describes, back in the day, selling bottles out of his station wagon and making 20 phone calls for every sale. 

You can’t help lifting a glass to these quirky, hard-working Long Beach dreamers. “It’s amazing that we’ve grown so fast,” says Dan Sundstrom, as his family prepares to open a second location.

And with a clinking of the mugs, the church-going Sundstrom reminds us, can come unexpected exchanges of perspective.

“A couple weeks ago,” he says, “we had this guy come in and he had this long verse written down the back of his shirt, and the first line was ‘I am a child of Satan.’ I would normally not have any interaction with a guy like that. I’m interested in talking with that guy, seeing where that’s all coming from. … Because of what we’ve created, I can do that.”

Still, beyond the conspicuous whiteness of the microbrewery culture, there’s an annoying jingoistic motif to the documentary.  

“Craft beer is reflective of the American can-do-ism, the American maker spirit,” says one expert. 

“It’s very American,” says Maytag, “this mixture of freedom with entrepreneurial endeavor. Unless you get this American thing in your blood, you don’t realize how American that is. We’re free.”

The millions of struggling Americans who can’t get a foot on the economic ladder, and the thousands of microbrewers in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere should have a good laugh at such patronizing sentiments.