The goal of the documentary Brewmaster, director Douglas Tirola says, “is to tell the story of the craft beer boom.” It encompasses more than craft beer, though: it also follows Drew Kostick, a New York lawyer trying to start his own brewery, and Brian Reed, a trade brewer for Tenth and Blake who’s studying to become a Master Cicerone. Tenth and Blake is the craft and import division of MillerCoors, and while it includes several craft beer brands—including Pilsner Urquell, which provided funding for the documentary—the company isn’t exactly a microbrewery. (Whether craft brands owned by megabreweries still qualify as “craft” is a topic for another day, though the Brewers Association says no.)
So while the documentary includes interviews with craft beer luminaries like Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head), Garrett Oliver (Brooklyn Brewing), and Jim Koch (Boston Beer Company), it’s really a story of the beer world, not just the craft beer one. It’s coming to the Music Box on Tuesday, November 20, for a one-night screening that includes a Q&A with Tirola and Reed, along with local brewer and author Randy Mosher and Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Cicerone Certification Program, who both appear in the film. I talked to Tirola and Daniels (separately) about the film and the Cicerone Certification Program, which, like Daniels, is based in Chicago.
The idea behind the documentary, Tirola says, to explore how and why brewing became as popular as it is today. “If you used to look at the guy in the cubicle next to you, they were inevitably looking at sports, now it’s like, ‘Are you actually reading about beer in the middle of the day?’ People love it with the passion one equates with their favorite sports team or comic books or other hobbies that people obsess over,” he says.
The Master Cicerone exam, for example, is no walk in the park. There are four levels of cicerone certification, starting with Certified Beer Server—of which there are more than a hundred thousand. (For anyone unclear on what a cicerone is, Daniels explains it this way: “Cicerone is to beer what sommelier is to wine.”) For Master Cicerone, the highest level, the exam is two ten-hour days of essay exams, oral exams, and tasting. There are only 18 in the world.
It used to be that only about ten percent of those who took the exam passed it, Daniels says—but because the number of people they could examine each year was limited, only about half the people who wanted to take the exam were able to. In 2015 the Cicerone Certification Program added a new level: Advanced Cicerone, which is higher than Cicerone but lower than Master Cicerone. “So now we’re getting candidates for the master exam who are better qualified,” Daniels says. The pass rate is now up to almost 20 percent.
“I think the film is about people just trying to find a way to make a career out of working around their passion,” Tirola says. “Whether it’s being a brewmaster, helping bottle the beer, working in marketing. . . . People love baseball, doesn’t mean everyone’s going to be on the starting lineup, but they just want to be around it. There’s connections people have with beer that I didn’t understand until we went out and talked to hundreds of people in beer communities around the country and the world. People are really passionate about beer. It’s pretty amazing.”
As for how he found the passionate people featured in his film, Tirola says that Kostick is a friend of the brother of a producer at his company, and he met Reed while visiting the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic. He struck up a conversation with Reed and Jason Pratt, senior manager of innovations at Tenth and Blake, and learned not only what a Master Cicerone was, but also that Pratt had passed his Master Cicerone exam and Reed had failed but was planning to try again. It was a coincidence that they happened to be visiting, Tirola says, and when they first met he didn’t think that either would be part of the movie. When I asked about Pilsner Urquell’s funding of the film, he emphasized that the brewery didn’t ask him to feature Reed.
“I had creative control over the film,” he says. “I was approached to do this because I had done the film Hey, Bartender and some other things. I think initially I was not hired because I said I wanted to do it one way, but they eventually came back and did hire me. I said, this is the story I’d want to tell.”
Tirola says he’s baffled by negative reactions to Pilsner Urquell’s funding of the documentary and Reed’s employment at MillerCoors. “This is a business that gave a filmmaker money to make a movie that celebrates what could be considered competitors,” he says. “The film tells the success story of Boston Lager, Dogfish Head, Brooklyn Brewery, and Allagash. Is it common for a company to celebrate competitors?”
He says his goal was to tell the story of two hardworking people who’ve chosen to dedicate their lives to beer, but “the hatred for big beer is so much that it eclipses a story that celebrates both [big and small] breweries. It seems almost like a drop of ink in water, it infects the entire conversation.”
Brewmaster screening, Tue 11/20, 7 PM, Music Box, 3722 N. Southport, 773-871-6604, musicboxtheatre.org, $20, $40 VIP (VIP reception begins at 6).