Over the years I’ve heard many, many jokes about Budweiser beer. Some of them aren’t exactly appropriate for general audiences—my favorite involving, shall we say, canoe-based copulation—but one of the most to-the-point goes as such:
Q: “Did you hear Budweiser is collaborating with NASA on the Mars colony?”
A: “I can see the headlines now: ‘Colonists discover water on Mars!’”
These jokes all evoke the stereotype that American beers, particularly Anheuser-Busch’s globally-consumed pale lager Budweiser, are under-flavored, weak, and watery. And there might indeed be some truth to that. A seismic shift in American brewing took place in the early twentieth century when Prohibition combined with anti-German sentiments born of the world wars moved the public’s taste away from the stronger, ultra-hoppy Pilsners beloved by Western European immigrants towards gentler drinks that used cheap corn and rice to supplement the brewing process. But the emergence of the micro-brewery movement in the late 70s has reignited the American public’s standards for all things bitter and sudsy, and while the rest of the world—and their jokes—have yet to recognize this new beer culture, new generations of brewers have taken up the call to elevate American beer-making to new heights.
We see this in Sean Mullin’s new documentary Kings of Beer which follow a handful of brewmasters from all over the world competing in the company’s annual contest to find the best American lager. Each month over the course of a year all the breweries send samples of their product to “Room 220” in the Anheuser-Busch headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri where a panel of judges give out a numerical score for each lager. Whoever gets the highest score at the end of the year wins the prestigious Global Brewmaster Cup and, of course, bragging rights. The latter might actually be more important to these competitors, as each examined by Mullin seems defined by control-freak fanaticism, from a PTSD-scarred army vet to a black chemist-turned-brewer. They all put up veneers of playful competitiveness, but each eventually tips their hand as obsessive perfectionists. Consider one scene where a brewer in Wuhan, China is interviewed while eating dinner with his family. In the middle of the conversation his adult daughter matter-of-factly interjects that she wishes he’d spend less time at the office and more time at home with his family. Cut to steely, awkward silence.
Said brewmasters are, of course, strictly under the employ of Anheuser-Busch, so the contest isn’t so much a global competition for the best American-style beer as it is an internal company contest to see which of their employees makes the best product. The film is, essentially, an eighty-three minute commercial for Budweiser. Perhaps embarrassed by making a cinematic shrine to product placement. Mullin frantically pads the film with interesting factoids about the brewing industry and it’s history: an elderly Englishman (in McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City of all places!) gives a two-minute crash course on the brewing process where elsewhere writer Tom Standage of A History of the World in 6 Glasses micro-summarizes his book by explaining how human development is tied to the cultivation of alcohol. These interjections are odd, but they’re certainly more welcome than a handful of bizarre round-table discussions between beer critics and, um, comedian/actress Aisha Taylor and Broken Lizard director Jay Chandrasekhar.
Still, as a fluffy bit of docutainment Kings of Beer is decent enough. It’s light, happy, fun, and inoffensive. Much like an actual Budweiser.