Those who know me well, know I’m a beverage snob. I start my day with loose-leaf tea and celebrate workday’s end with a microbrew. Tea leaf clippings in a bag make me cringe from their astringency. And I’d sooner imbibe dishwater than tap the Rockies.
So the new documentary Brewmance is definitely in my wheelhouse. Its director, Christo Brock, deftly intermingles three separate narratives into a simple-to-follow format. We learn the history of American craft brewing, we walk beside homebrewers striving to turn their avocation into a career, and we get a brief lesson on the science of beer.
Just as Gen Alpha will never know a time when good Thai and Indian cuisine wasn’t available in every small city, when Chinese-American menu options like chow mein were as “exotic” as it came, it’s easy to forget that craft beer is a relatively new phenomenon. The beerscape today is infinitely wider, compared to the paltry selection of watery lagers available to Brett Kavanaugh as a child.
Brewmance delivers this recent history, often from the brewers who created it. Fritz Maytag discusses his lonely pursuit, bottling Anchor Steam in San Francisco, 1967. Another brewmaster speaks of twenty bar and restaurant doors closing to his product, for each one that opened. Charlie Papazian, “the godfather of homebrewing” and founder of the Great American Beer Festival, relates how a true American “beer scene” only emerged in the late 80s. Now, we have an estimated 7000 microbreweries in the US.
Alongside this narrative, we meet a trio of lifelong friends and a father-son duo, all from Los Angeles. In the trio comprising Liberation Brewing Company, Eric is the recipe man, Michael is the number cruncher, and Danny is the former ska trombonist turned charismatic face of their business.
In tandem with their chronology – from dream to empty building shell to opening day – we track Dan and his dad Jesse, as they start Ten Mile Brewing. Jesse speaks of the brewery as a Christian ministry, a chance to interact with a more diverse crowd than his church job allowed. As the pair discuss the “once was lost but now am found” nature of their bond, I thought we were going to get a standard evangelical testimony. Happily, the ingredient that converted them from butting heads to a collegial partnership wasn’t Jesus but a mutual love of beer-making.
It’s odd that Jesse describes craft beer in Manichean terms, of wanting to bring light to a dark industry. Brewmance’s camera tells an opposite story, of a home brewers association where everyone shares recipes and encourages mutual excellence. Jesse and Dan actually seem more insular within their tight-knit extended family, while Eric, Michael, and Danny co-host a rambunctious Friendsgiving and chat about socialist ideals.
Nonetheless, all five are likeable chaps. As Brock’s documentary closely follows their thrills and setbacks, backed by a sunny soundtrack, you’re rooting for their success. (Knowing how brutal the pandemic has been on small businesses, I had to look online to see if their endeavors survived the past year; I’ll let you find this out for yourself.)
Lastly, Brewmance offers a brisk chemistry lesson on the four ingredients comprising all beer. Of course there’s water, its mineral content tilting brewers towards, say, a pilsner or a stout. We visit a barley farm to learn of the grain’s conversion to malt, lending beer its sweetness.
An onscreen commenter wittily describes the aroma from hops as if “cats ate your weed and pissed on your Christmas tree.” A field trip to Yakima, Washington introduces us to Simcoe hops, one of many variants giving American-made India Pale Ales their intensely complex flavor and bitterness. Lastly, there’s yeast, the marvelous single-celled organism transforming malt sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, while adding its own flavor to the final concoction. (If you don’t believe me on that final point, try a wild ale fermented by Brettanomyces rather than the usual Saccharomyces cerevisiae.)
Christo Brock began his film career as an editor, later becoming a director. Both skillsets are apparent as he interweaves his story threads. He jauntily splices together the talking heads, allowing the more active sequences of his aspiring brewmasters to predominate. The vibrant final product is sure to please all connoisseurs of liquid art.
(Brewmance is now available for home viewing through multiple streaming services.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )