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.