By Vince Keenan
BREWMASTER (U.S.A., 2018). Douglas Tirola directed 2013’s HEY BARTENDER, a documentary about the classic cocktail renaissance. He tackles a similar subject with his latest film, on the burgeoning craft beer scene.
He credits his fascination with bars to his start in the movie business. While working as a location manager on films like A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992), “my job was to go to small towns in North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, and figure out if we could shoot there,” he explained in an interview. “You show up sort of like Robert Preston in THE MUSIC MAN. You’re not going to sit in your hotel room. You go out to gather information and meet people.” That meant visiting the local pub. “You still go to the town hall, see someone from the mayor’s office. But bars are where you’d find out who the people are you’re going to need favors from, how the local politics work. That where my love of this culture began. You walk into a room where you don’t know anybody and see how quickly you can strike up a bond.”
Bars are also the locus of activity once location shooting begins: “All the grips and electrics and prop guys would be there, and often some of the producers or an actor or two would show up as well. And the movie business is all about relationships. I still have a real fondness for those times from the early days of my career.”
Tirola is conscious of the parallels between his profession and those he’s profiled. “This subject is really a metaphor for working in film. It’s about trying to find something you love to do, finding a way to make a living at something where most people say, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’”
Asked about the difference between the cocktail and beer worlds he’s explored, Tirola responds in Hollywood terms. “Bartenders and brewers are different sorts of characters. If you think of it as a scripted movie, you’d cast different sorts of actors. The cocktail renaissance was driven by bartenders. They’re charismatic, camera-friendly people who are used to putting on a show behind that bar. Brewers often have a different type of personality. They’re scientists, they’re chefs. That’s the big difference for me, the energy is front and center versus the back of the house.” The beer boom is changing that, though: “Brewers are finding out they have to get in front of the public whether they want to or not.”
Partly because of that shift in energy, BREWMASTER is warmer and more cohesive than HEY BARTENDER. The newer film also benefits from a structure that follows two engaging protagonists. Not that Tirola initially planned it that way. “When we began, we just knew something exciting was happening in beer. We didn’t start with a character.”
While filming a segment on Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic, Tirola and his crew encountered Brian Reed, a Midwestern family man who had fallen just short of passing the daunting Master Cicerone exam and was poised to retake it. “He and his friend were basically on a European beer road trip,” Tirola said. “They happened to be there and we said, ‘Can we interview you?’ At the time, I hadn’t heard of the exam. I knew there was something like a sommelier for beer and we were going to stay away from that because of the wine movie (SOMM, 2012) about taking the test.”
But Reed’s ease on camera combined with the opportunities his studies provided to educate the audience on the intricacies of craft beer proved irresistible.
Tirola’s producer Danielle Rosen steered him toward Drew Kostic, who exchanged a position at a New York white shoe law firm for a federal clerkship so he could d
edicate more hours to his budding beer business. The joy the attorney exhibits when scrubbing brewery tanks as part of a coveted intern position makes it impossible not to root for him. Tirola intercuts their stories with comments from various brewers and beer savants. “We were lucky enough to get to know some of these people and hear what I like to call their origin stories, because they’re all superheroes,” Tirola said, laughing. “Everybody has an origin story. They’re not just for Marvel movies.”
The film itself, in Tirola’s eyes, has heroic properties. “No one would probably look at BREWMASTER as a political film,” he said, “but we’re documenting a culture of people creating things, where people at the top of the ladder down through the middle to the bottom are all working together. It’s a very positive story.” It’s also one Tirola feels is not commonly seen in non-fiction film. “In most documentaries, work is a negative. Work is the villain. But for me, work provides some of the best experiences life has to offer. There’s so much positive that comes out of work but you rarely see it portrayed in films, especially documentaries.” This particular story resonates, he said, because “beer is the byproduct of their passion. Anytime you look at the world differently and meet other people who have a similar worldview, it’s exciting and people cherish that. That’s why you find such warmth in that community, where people are sharing things and rooting for each other.”
Beer aficionados will likely grouse about some of the filmmaking choices, clamoring for a feature-length documentary on saisons or a deep dive on sours. Tirola is ready for their reaction. “When you make a movie about a specific community, you have to keep them in mind as you put it together but you can’t make it just for that audience.” He compared the anticipated second-guessing to his own thirst for documentaries on punk and new wave music. “I watch them all. They’re all good to me, and they also all blow it. ‘Where are the Buzzcocks in this thing? Why aren’t they talking about how Vince Clarke was in Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Erasure?’ But they still get the essence of it. That’s all you can do, try to get the essence of whatever the community is.” Expanding the music metaphor, he said of HEY BARTENDER and BREWMASTER, “I’ve come to think of these movies as if they’re concert films. You can watch a great concert film years after the event and get a feel for that moment in time. I’d like to think these movies will be evergreen in that same manner. People will be able to put on this movie and say, ‘This captures what that exciting moment was like, when the mainstream started to recognize beer as something more than what you sneak out of your parents’ fridge in high school.’”
As BREWMASTER finishes its festival tour in advance of a fall release, Tirola hoped theaters would seize the unique opportunity his film presents. “Nowadays so many of them serve beer,” he said.
Vince Keenan started his career as a theater usher and never looked back. As a finalist on the IFC game show Ultimate Film Fanatic celebrity judge Henry Rollins called him “presidential.” He is the associate editor of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. His book DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE, collecting essays featured in Slate and usatoday.com, is a Kindle bestseller. His has written often for EatDrinkFilms and writes about cocktails and popular culture at blog.vincekeenan.com. An ex-pat New York Mets fan, he lives in Seattle with his wife Rosemarie Keenan where the two of them are actually the mystery writer Renee Patrick. Follow him on Twitter at @vpkeenan.
Douglas Tirola started his career as a production assistant on WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989). Through his production company 4th Row Films, Tirola has overseen numerous documentaries and has made films on subjects ranging from poker (ALL IN. THE POKER MOVIE, 2009) to the cocktail-culture resurgence (HEY BARTENDER, 2013). His DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD (2015) was reviewed in EDF by National Lampoon contributors cartoonist M.K. Brown and satirist Paul Krassner.