filming the beer jesus

Q&A with director Matt Sweetwood

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What made you decide to start filming The Beer Jesus from America?

During the 2012 theatrical tour of my documentary Beerland (BR/Global Screen), which was just about German beer culture, I was surprised to discover questions from the audience and local brewers curious about the American craft beer revolution which had been booming in the states. I missed this whole development, because I've been living in Germany for over 20 years as an ex-pat American filmmaker. I didn't wasn't aware of the craft movement just now hitting Europe, so I couldn't answer their questions and became extremely curious. Why was this type of American style brewing so controversial? What started the interest in the subculture, turning away from big industrial beer and creating something original? Would it even be allowed due to the 500-year-old purity laws that only allow for ingredients in beer? When I finally met Greg Koch here in Berlin, he seemed to answer all of these questions, and open new ones.  Right away I knew there was a story here, because of the unknown social phenomenon that is happening among us. His dream dream of "craft beer for Europe", fascinated me and all of us were unaware of how it would actually turn out in the end.

Who is the film for?

This film is really for anyone who ever had a big dream or idea that seemed unrealistic, and yet had to do it because it is part of their driving force in life. Of course you can see there is a big craft beer market out there and a growing community that would love to see Greg Koch of Stone Brewing in this hard light. He actually has quite a growing fan base in the US, and yet many people don't really know his story or know about his unswerving passion for craft beer and bringing it to the people by showing beer drinkers an alternative to the cheap industrial stuff - a.k.a. what's coming from the big corporations. I believe there will be a bigger audience for this film beyond beer fans. The film is funny in parts; it's frustrating and educational. I think you'll walk out asking yourself "Why didn't I know about this?" I believe it's a story of being authentic and trying to overcome obstacles that are put in your way, no matter how unexpected. People need to be reminded that fighting for your vision is worth it. So whether or not you like Greg or the beer, is it as important as the bigger message?

Who is the Beer Jesus?

Oddly enough, this is one of the biggest misconceptions about the character of Greg Koch. He doesn't actually consider himself a Beer Jesus, or a beer savior! The title was honestly quite frustrating for him, as it was created by a tabloid newspaper here in Berlin. Of course, as a part of his performance art, he will occasionally stand up during an event and make some comical and entertaining outbursts against big beer and yell that the revolution of craft must go on! You will learn in the film how that all came to be and what kind of reactions that gets, whether it be vocal or inner-frustration with the industrialized and commoditized version of beer in general. Beer is just one of those things representing a part of humanity that he can get passionate about, and it's interesting to watch him go off the handle at times! In the beginning he was uncomfortable with the title "Beer Jesus", but then agreed with me in that it does represent something unique. The fact that no one is really speaking out against us, now in a time of big brewery buyouts from corporations like Anheuser-Busch, and Inbev. On the other hand, the title of Beer Jesus is just a misunderstanding, making Greg Koch into the rockstar of beer, which doesn't go over very well with hipsters and people who have an idea that craft beer is an insulator stylus group - or a fashionable subculture even. The Beer Jesus even breaks up that, and annoying reminder is that Beer should be made by the people for the people.

How did you deal with all of the conflicts?

When I started this film with no budget and a bucket full of questions, I thought I would be busy enough dealing with my own investigation of why Greg's vision for craft beer in Europe was or wasn't going to work. Little did I know, that over the course of two years there would be delays, financial problems, not to mention my protagonist constantly flying back-and-forth between the US and Germany. At one point, or at several points actually, the whole process and documentary became extremely frustrating. For example, I would show up to film some giant boulders about to be moved into their organic California style beer garden on a day where the workers decide to stop in the middle of the job because it's 4 o'clock, and that means I'll have to come back tomorrow or maybe even the next day depending on whether or not the brewery will to pay for their overtime. I would often be standing with my camera waiting for workers to show up or decisions to be made that should have been decided upon weeks ago. Yet suddenly all the materials for parts of the brewery were not delivered, costing Greg thousands of euros a day until they arrived. All of these stressful situations might make for a good scenes in the movie, but in reality it really sucks for everyone and puts me in an awkward situation, as well. Obviously, many of the workers did not want to be filmed and my romantic idea of people excited to work on the brewery, started to fade with each visit. It was a labor of love, but made with a lot of blood sweat and tears. At one point there were so many problems, I didn't know what to film next, so just kept the cameras rolling, curious like everyone else if there would ever even be a grand opening date - or if this will turn out to be the biggest flop in craft beer history.

What made you decide to narrate the film from your perspective?

Finding the right narrative voice for this film was important to tell a story above and beyond what is actually happening in front of the camera. Even though I love documentarians like Werner Herzog and Ross Mcelwee, I didn't want my auto or film voice to sound too academic or overly personal. The focus is on Greg, and filling in the gaps with my motivation and showing how our relationship was developing seemed to be the best way to tell the story. I think audiences understand and will accept my diary approach, rather than pretending to be an expert on the culture and over-analyzing everything in the political landscape when it comes to beer. I prefer to be with you as the anthropologist with a camera and curious to find out what's going to happen tomorrow. It allows the film to open up, giving room for the audience to share my exploration into something neither they nor I have witnessed before. But I know some people really hate narration; especially the film critics. It's all about show and don't tell, but don't worry I do plenty of that in the film too!

This is your second film about beer, what's the fascination there?

Here's one of the oldest tricks in the world, it has a lot to do with advancement of society whether you believe it or not. Use communication. Beer allows us to imagine the world differently. Beer makes us feel good. Well, that is if you don't drink too much! This list could go on, and when I started making my film Beerland, it was an attempt to understand my new homeland of Germany through the beer glass, getting to know the Germans at eye level. In German there's a saying: "In Bier liegt die Wahrheit", which means, in beer lies the truth! The fact of the matter is that I was inspired by how little was documented about these beer traditions from the point of the drinkers, which include rituals and stories that I could spend my whole life making films about. I also think beer has gotten a bad rap, and somehow those beer drinker types are looked down upon as second-class citizens, do you know what I mean? A lot of people don't realize that the beer consumption in Germany has actually taken a dramatic drop, despite being renowned for its status of Beer land, with Oktoberfest and hundreds of breweries. People are gravitating toward energy drinks, coffee and plastic bottled water. Is this really the better choice? Beer is also interesting because it is the catalyst which gets people talking in a more natural way, making it boundary dissolving and unleashing creativity that would otherwise go unnoticed; both on the brewing side, and on the drinking side!