In a documentary that tracks the craft-beer boom, artful storytelling and a sense of togetherness are at the core. Instead of pitting large-scale breweries against smaller ones, ”Brewmaster” writer/director Douglas Tirola anchored the film’s plot into something more thoughtful: a well-rounded depiction of the beer community. The movie follows two beer enthusiasts: one at the peak of his skill studying to become a Master Cicerone (the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier) and the other, a young lawyer struggling with the decision of whether or not to turn his passionate homebrewing hobby into a legitimate career.
With the anticipation of “Brewmasters” screening right around the corner at Cucalorous, I chatted with Tirola, after dusting off an old cocktail shaker, pulling out a jar of olives, and streaming his 2013 docufilm, “Hey Bartender.” Both films take a deep dive into different spirit-based industries, but it’s not about booze.
What viewers are left with are emotional, relatable journeys of struggle, triumph, and falling in love with a craft.
encore (e): You made two documentaries featuring the beverage industry. Do you want these films to stand side-by-side or have their own voices?
Douglas Tirola (DT): I’ve always loved the culture of bars and the togetherness of drinking. During “Hey Bartender,” I started paying more attention to what was happening in bars on a day-to-day basis. We were immersed in the scene and, suddenly, beer was this thing. But it wasn’t getting back to “older beers” like people did with cocktails. This was new.
Thirty years ago at a restaurant, you would just get a wine menu. Ten years later, it would be a wine and cocktail menu. Now, you get a wine, cocktail, and specialty beer menu—and you have 10 ornate taps staring you in the face practically everywhere you go.
At first, we were exploring different things in the beer world and found a lot of similarities to “Hey Bartender.” You don’t want to replicate something you’ve done in the past, but for “Brewmaster,” we put our egos aside and had to ask ourselves: What would be the best version of this movie? And that was it.
e: How do you create the balance between featuring a topic people are interested in and making a compelling movie?
DT: When you’re making a movie about, what I like to call a “passionate sub-culture” (like beer or cocktails), you have to strike a balance. Ultimately, movie people go to movies. First and foremost, you need to make a great movie. When you’re telling a story about these passionate subcultures, like beer, you’re hoping someone who loves movies will say to someone else who loves beer, “I know you love beer, and there’s a movie about beer we should go see.”
e: Similar to “Hey Bartender,” in “Brewmaster” you showcase powerful stories of people at different levels of their craft. How did you choose whose stories to tell and why in particular are they so important?
DT: We knew we wanted to follow a couple of people making it in beer, and we had to find a balance. For me the goal of the movie is to explain why there’s all this activity around beer to someone who doesn’t understand. The essence of the movie is loving beer and the beer culture.
We also wanted to give you access to places and people you might not know. Our main stories follow two younger men who are trying to pursue their dreams through beer: one, attempting to become a Master Cicerone, and the other, a homebrewer working at a law firm (tainted with college debt) at the crossroads of changing his profession. So many people can relate to that balance of: Do I pursue my passion as my career, or do I want to make money and my passion is just my hobby?
We also talk to some of the best-known personalities in the industry. We chose all of the people because, while their stories are all different, they have the same underlying theme of hard work and trying to get their beer out there. The cocktail renaissance is driven by bartenders, and they have the showiest part of the process. The driver of the beer boom is the brewer, and that’s the person you never see. Inherently, a lot of these people are not “show people.” They’re scientists in the back, but we’re coming into a moment in time where a lot of these brewers are being forced to get out in front of their beer.
There’s a saying when you cast your movie, you cast your fate. Lucky for us, our leads all happened to be great on screen.
At the center of it all is entrepreneurialism: people trying to create something with their hands and share it. So much of the satisfaction comes from sharing.
e: How were some of the more well-known brewmasters organically swept into the film’s story?
DT: The backdrop of the movie is about exploring the craft beer boom. You ask people in the beer industry who are the five most important brewmasters, and you typically get at least the same three people on everyone’s lists. We knew we had to have Jim Koch (cofounder and chairman of the Boston Beer Company, producers of Samuel Adams) and his inspiring story of success. We talked to Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head, Garrett Oliver (master brewer, historian and ambassador), and showcased Allagash as a representation of a brand that grew outside of its region.
e: Of all the beer and beer people you encountered while making the film, what was your personal journey and reflection on the beer industry?
DT: I’m an underdog person. Two of my favorite movies are “Rocky” and “Rudy.” For me, I have more of an appreciation for who is making these beers are why. I think when people criticize the “big beers,” it’s because of the anonymity. It’s like art. It’s more interesting when you know more about the artist. It wasn’t about liking one beer more than another. It was about thinking of who created the beer and who are all the other significant people (doing things like cleaning the tanks) that nobody knows about.
e: In the director’s note, you say “the art is the risk and that’s what drew you to film.” The film industry is notorious for being an incredibly hard place to succeed (just like the growing beer industry). Was it intentional to compare these risks?
DT: Sometimes in Hollywood movies in the 1940s, the director was saying one thing through another story. There’s a lot of similarities between doing an independent film (like this one) and having a smaller, independent brewery.
Brewers are directors. Beers are films. You have your local film festivals, and you have Portland, Maine Beer Week. You have Sundance, and you have the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Big beers are like Marvel Movies and small beers are like “Brewmaster.” It’s about the stories and the people behind the beer and that’s where people draw their parallels.