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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Discovery Channel's "Brew Masters" Series Is Problematic

On Sunday, November 21, the Discovery Channel is premiering a new series ostensibly about craft brewing called "Brew Masters." Not being a TV guy, I had sort of let this information float at the fringe of my consciousness, that purgatory where I leave facts that probably won't affect me. (Justin Bieber is parked there, too.) But when my mother sent me an email about it, I figured I'd better have a look.


It has that familiar look of a show based around a strong personality who guides you through an unexamimed world. And in fact, it's produced by the company that makes Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations." Our tour guide? Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione. I have long held reservations about having Sam stand in as the de facto spokesman for craft brewing, but mostly have been happy to see the industry get the attention. Personalities are good for that kind of thing.

But Sam has some bad habits, and they are on such glaring display here that I wonder if it will actually be a net negative. Sam's line is that craft brewing is an antidote to macro brewing, a beleaguered underdog that doesn't play by the rules. But this is also the marketing pitch for Dogfish. Discovery posted a clip that highlights this tension. After creating the us versus them argument for craft brewing ("we're up against horrific odds to make ourselves succesful"), Sam goes on to pitch Dogfish as a king among princes. "Usually a brewery will do eight or ten awesome craft beers; I think we're going to do something like 31 different beers this year."

You can watch clips of the show here; the only embeddable clip is the promo:

This highlights a conflict of interest I find really uncomfortable. Sam is not a neutral observer. Sam's a businessman who wants to sell as much of his beer as he can. That's fine, but when he's presented as the objective source of information, he has this enormously valuable platform to pitch his beer.

The first episode is about the making of Bitches Brew, Dogfish's tribute to the Miles Davis record. Apparently the camera follows Sam to Ethiopia where he tracks down Tej--a spiced mead--and back to the brewery where they assemble the beer. Along the way, the jazz people refer to him as the "Miles Davis of beer," and he offers an aw-shucks response. More danger: the beer is thrown together in five weeks so that it can debut at Savor, a beer-and-food event in DC. The camera follows Calagione as he throws the keg in the back of his ancient Dodge pick-up and delivers it to the fest, where admirers praise it in hushed tones.

All of this serves to promote the brand of Dogfish Head, but is it good for craft brewing? Most production breweries spend months developing new beers. They don't put beta versions into the market untried and untested. Judging by the first episode, anyway, Discovery has assembled a long promotional video about Dogfish Head, and I worry that they and their viewers will take this to be an objective view of craft brewing. This isn't some dispassionate story about craft brewing, it's the story of Dogfish Head as told by its owner. Will this be obvious to viewers? If not, that's a problem.


  1. I have already decided that I won't be tuning in for this, just as I have no need to watch Beer Wars.

    More and more I fear "craft brewing" is taking beer away from being the everyman drink and becoming just another trendy lifestyle gimmick for the middle classes.

  2. I was intrigued by the idea, until I realized that it wasn't going to be about craft brewing so much as just dogfish. My guess is that other microbreweries will not be getting a lot of airtime. And the fact that he's marketing himself as some kind of beer maverick who travels around the world looking for unique flavors & combos make it sound like an alcoholic snapple commercial.

    I'd love to see a series that looks at a lot of different breweries with an unbiased host. (Ooooh - it could be you!)

  3. I have to agree with you... reading the little promotional blurb about the show, it seems to be a thinly disguised commercial for DFH. I hope we're wrong.

  4. All the PR for the series has always made it pretty clear this is about Sam and DFH. That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Never totally understood all the hatred for Sam and DFH though. But, I'm also looking on the positive side that this could be a continuing serious and focusing on one brewery per season.

  5. "...I think we're going to do something like 31 different beers this year..."

    Does he say how many of these are disappointments, overpriced or both?

    A while back I said two words at Jay B's place and I say them again: Cake Boss.

  6. No one ought to be caught off guard or surprised by the DFH-centric focus of this show, nor Sam's using it as a platform to charm audiences with his enthusiastic and committed brand of self-promotion. (Why he should be blamed, as a business owner and, I believe, sincere and passionate brewing "maverick," for seizing the opportunity is totally beyond me.)

    But then, I've never felt any animosity toward DFH or its owner, so I'll tune in and most likely enjoy the show for what it is.

    I also love Shawn's idea about changing the cast every season.

  7. WHY is anyone surprised that this is a program about Sam? OF COURSE it's a program about him! Sam is a master of marketing; he could teach Adolphus Busch some lessons. Everything he does is geared toward promoting Dogfish.

    But again, that's not surprising, nor is there anything wrong with it. The guy runs a business. Ya know, he wants to make MONEY. That's why he writes his books. It's why he did "Beer Wars." It's why he's got the partnership thing with Batali. It's why he gets up in the morning!

    I doubt Sam ever said or indicated that he was doing this for "craft beer." He's not. He's doing it so he can feed his kids. More power to him. I wish I had even a quarter of his promotional moxie.

  8. FFS! It isn't "hatred" to say you are disappointed with the missed opportunity to have an exploration of craft beer rather than explore Sam and his business opportunities.

    Not is it "hatred" to be bored skull-less by the idea of getting a branded beer leaning on a reference to a real (but dead) jazz great (never asked to agreed) thrown into a old guy's jeans ad pickup to take to a bunch of food and beer exclusivites and jet setting former brewers specializing now in having dinners together.

    Just because that brief idea bores someone to tears does not make it "hatred" - it's just called boring.

  9. OMG! Justin Bieber!

    I do like a few DFH beers, but I find the ink and attention that Sam Calagione gets way out of proportion.

    No one blames Calagione for taking the spotlight that is cast on him. But the media could do a better job of spreading the love instead of going to him again and again. It's lazy.

    A lot of good brewers are experimenting, pushing change and producing good beers with far less credit.

    Can you please write more about Justin Bieber?

  10. Discovery's bread and butter is docutainment. They have a very lucrative formula: obscure (to the mainstream) job + insane personalities = gobs of cash. DFH and Sam fit like a glove.

    Sure, it may feel like a big commercial to most of us, but is running a 30 minute (or 1 hour?) commercial for craft beer such a bad thing? People respond to marketing. If someone watches the show and buys a DFH brew, is it not still someone being exposed to craft beer?

    Is Brew Masters the show I would make? No. Is it a show I will watch? Probably not. Will it hurt craft brewing? Doubtful. I think the thing that will be most hurt by this show is the pride of beer geeks as we watch staged drama interjected into an industry we identify with.


  11. Well, hey, Sammy Boy does stir the emotions, doesn't he?

    And there's more to come! Discovery is currently filming another beer documentary (just how many such programs does the world need???) that will also feature Sam. (Doing his Ninkasi thing.) A one-hour single program about beer through history (again) w/the theme of "How Beer Changed the World!!!"

    When they filmed me, I did my best to demolish the view that beer is responsible for every. single. amazing. thing. ever.

  12. Interesting posts here. I kind of follow the view of any PR is good PR. Sam's a energetic gregarious guy and does fit into the documentary host shoes well.

    Is he going to promo his beer? Sure he is! Wouldn't any other brewer? I'm not a big fan of shameless promotion, but it's better than masquerading your promo efforts as warm and fuzzy community hand holding.

    Sam's a business man with passion for his brewery and his beer, period. It's about passion for beer and the business of making money. Don't let anybody tell you a brewer or brewery is doing it just for the love of beer. 'Love of beer' doesn't pay the bills. ;-}

    Will the show be good for DFH? Sure! Will it turn others onto their local craft beer? I think that's the hope.

    31 beers a year is ambitious. Are they all great? No, but far more ambitious than others.

    velky's statement kind of scares me. "Craft brewing is taking beer from the everyman drink." Craft beer isn't the everyman drink. BUDMILLOORS is the everyman drink and they're making boat loads of it. No chance of taking a Bud out of anyone's hand. Craft brewing is for those who are looking for step above the average. Some USE it as a lifestyle gimmick, but many take it very serious. If it's about cost? Some have Champagne taste with a Bud budget. Don't live beyond your means, we live in tough times.

    Trendy lifestyle gimmick? Uh, like PABST? A lifestyle gimmick for a generation. I say, let that generation drink their crap. If they mature, the Craft beer will be waiting. ;-}

  13. I think mostly people have fallen down where I would: Sam was given the opportunity to promote his brewery in an especially effective, long-format medium to a broad audience. He's no fool for taking it. On this score I fault Discovery way more than Sam.

    But I do have a little discomfort. Maybe it's being out here in Oregon, where breweries are packed in tight. Most are also consummate brand-promoters and serve as the faces of their breweries. But honestly, none has the hubris to lay claim to being all that the way Sam does. In that regard, I find it just a little unseemly. But hey, different strokes. I've never met Sam, but I suspect I'd like him if I did.

    "When they filmed me, I did my best to demolish the view that beer is responsible for every. single. amazing. thing. ever."

    True. Like Justin Bieber, for example.

  14. Kevin gets it right when he points out this is an entertainment program. We can all wax romantic about Michael Jackson's "Beer Hunter" series (which Discovery won't even bother to reissue on DVD) but he wanted to make more and had every reason to believe there was an audience for it circa 2000. But it wouldn't sell.

    (As an aside, I'm sure that Sam would have had a sizable roll in at least one episode.)

    Dr. Wort, I'm with Velky Al. Look, I have no problem with some beers costing more . . . for a good reason, like the ingredients (time being one).

    But across the Atlantic there are plenty of beers of higher quality than those that sell for many times more here. Affordable beer is a right in Franconia.

  15. Well, to me it seems like craft beer is still mostly capturing market from macros and making new markets rather than stealing market away from each other. So I would think that all craft beer gets a bump if this series is a hit. If Joe six-pack routinely 'grabs some buds' seeing this might make him a bit more adventurous - maybe.

  16. "But it wouldn't sell."

    It will sell with the right voice and the right story. Good beer just hasn't triggered it's Jancis Robinson or Hugh_Johnson yet.

    And I just don't buy into the "it must be the best thing because it's what we have" approach. Frankly, you are all being a bit.. err... Canadian about this.

    I am with Jeff and others on the fact that Sam had to do what he would do. Another missed opportunity isn't his fault.

  17. Dr. Wort,

    Historically, beer was for everyone - whether you were a street porter that gave a beer style the name, Thomas Jefferson brewing your own at Monticello or a Trappist monk brewing to support your monastery. Beer was not about class because it transcends class.

  18. Out of place, and off-topic, but certainly germane to previous discussions: both Michigan and Washington have banned caffeinated alcoholic drinks like Four Loko:

  19. It's possible that I agree with everything that has been said thus far.

  20. I can't help but be reminded of all the people picketing movies about Jesus Christ despite having never seen them.

    I'm going to reserve judgment on the series until after I watch it.

    Any positive attention for craft brewing is good for all craft brewers.

    Velky Al said: "more and more I fear 'craft brewing' is taking beer away from the everyman drink and becoming another trendy lifestyle gimmick for the middle classes."

    Craft Brewing (no need for quotes unless you're talking about Leinenkugel (Miller) or Blue Moon (Molson-Coors)) doesn't take anything away from any consumers, it only gives more choices. Everyman (and everywoman) can appreciate beer with flavor, and does. The beer factories had taken that away.

  21. Opinions are great ... but they are just that - opinions. This is just another reality show on TV ... there are seemingly hundreds. If you don't want to watch - don't. If it's successful, then good for Sam & Dogfish Head and anyone else who loves good beer. It's a TV show ... relax ... don't worry about it ...
    DogFish Head can't take over the world ... they have limited capacity ... this show should simply bring attention to craft brews and ultimately inspire people to try thier own local craft breweries - and as Sam will say ... there is so much good beer out there - just give it a try ...

  22. My sole argument: Show about beer (regardless of ego's involved) better than show NOT about beer.

    All arguments about intent, purpose and style of the show, would any of you really rather watch another true crime drama, pseudo paranormal expose or overly thin hottie try to convince you they actually eat anything they just cooked with two pounds of butter?

  23. @ Alan

    "Not is it "hatred" to be bored skull-less by the idea of getting a branded beer leaning on a reference to a real (but dead) jazz great (never asked to agreed)"

    Yup. No Portland brewery would ever do such a thing. Nope.

  24. @ Alan

    "Not is it "hatred" to be bored skull-less by the idea of getting a branded beer leaning on a reference to a real (but dead) jazz great (never asked to agreed)"

    Been done locally a couple of times. And once with a punk legend, no less, who may have balked at being depicted on a $10 bottle of lager. Didn't see any criticism then..

  25. How is what Sam is doing any different than what Gene Simmons, Orange County Choppers or even Billy the Exterminator are doing with their shows? They have an opportunity to talk about their passion. He doesn't know about other brewery's beers, he knows about his, so that's what the show is about. Leave it to beer geeks to make this something negative. Crack a beer and take it for what it is...a show about beer. Some people are never happy.

  26. I honestly feel this is problematic as is any reality show based on a buisness. A. I was all for him doing the movie beer wars because it is a documentry that serves educational purposes. This show is just a ongoing advertisement for dogfish which leads me to belive he's trying to turn his brewery into the anheuser busch of craft brewing. (Which he stated he was against due to the dirty tricks they do to be top sellers in the market) I feel with sam the love for beer is gone and has tranformed into greed, trying to fulfill his need to be the best. B. Check this out everytime a reality show based on a buisness comes out everyone and their mother feel that they can do just as good or better (ex: O.C.C.) which maKes for stiffer competition. Granted you might not be as good it affects the ones who can bdo it just as good or better because it makes it that much harder for you to get a loan from a bank due to their fear you won't be able to be successful and return their money in such a highly competetive market. So sam your show has just fu***d the livelihood of thousands of brewers with dreams out there and now cannot receive a loan even with a solid buisness plan thanks and I look foward to making you prime competition and I'll do it without dirty advertising tricks only on my love for beer and originality of my brews.

  27. I really enjoyed Brew Masters and think it will be a raging success. While I see Jeff's points, this show will provide amazing exposure for the craft beer industry and help to grow the market in a big way. Is it a slick marketing engine? Of course! Is it highly entertaining? You bet! Do I want to try Bitches Brew? As soon as I can find a bottle... Cheers!

  28. ooh wah. i think that someone that has actually made his living making beer deserves to be proud of and passionate for his business in particular. he said he was up against incredible odds to make it as a craft brewer because he was, it's not easy.

    too, it's probably my favorite on an *extremely* short list of reality tv shows because there is no fake internal conflict made up to make the show more dramatic. everyone gets along and has a good time and i learn something everytime i tune in.

    i think you need to give credit where credit is due, the man and his team makes some excellent beer and they have every right to be proud of their successes, and humbled by their failures something i've seen alot of from them.