Geuze on film

Eoghan Walsh grabs a jumbo bucket of popcorn and settles in for some great beer films


Sheffield is an unlikely place to inspire a globetrotting beer documentary. Its most famous screen appearance was probably two decades ago when its crumbling steel industry served as a backdrop to The Full Monty. But Sheffield is also home to the annual Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and it was during the festival that Belgian film producer Maarten Schmidt sought refuge at the Rutland Arms pub with his director friend Fritz Moser.

For a traditional English pub – carpet floors, handpumps and wooden fixtures – the two men were impressed by the diverse range of beers on offer and by the skill and passion of the barmen. Happy to have escaped the festival, their talk inevitably turned back to work when Moser turned to Schmidt and said: “If people are so passionate about beer, maybe we could make a film about beer!” Two years later, that film – Beer! – is about to be released, and it turns out that they weren’t the only ones to cotton on to a gap in the market. 

In August 2019 Netflix ordered a comedy series called Brews Brothers, about two brothers running a brewery. The world’s largest brewery, AB InBev were involved with an Amazon Prime documentary following one of their subsidiary brewers attempting to pass their Master Cicerone exam. And in Schmidt’s own backyard, another camera crew has been traversing the Belgian countryside to capture the magic of the country’s lambic traditions for an upcoming feature-length documentary. Beer is suddenly big on the silver screen.

"I watched a lot of films"

Having had their light bulb moment in Sheffield, Schmidt and Moser didn’t dive straight into filming. First, some research was in order. “I watched a lot of films,” says Schmidt. “I could divide them into two categories. Either they were about start-ups, young brewers or amateur brewers. Or a second category sponsored or paid for by the big beer brands.” Schmidt was convinced they could do better, but he needed a hook. He found it while sharing a beer with a local Belgian beer sommelier: Beer! would be about the fight for independent beer in Europe and the USA in 2019. “[Our idea was,] if we can get some nice traditional stories from Europe, and interesting stories from the US…we could be able to tell something that hasn’t been told in those other films,” Schmidt says.

They needed a protagonist, someone to guide them through this world, someone at the beginning of their brewing story. “We needed someone with a challenge ahead. Someone who hasn’t accomplished everything already,” says Schmidt. And they found him at Bierol, a brewery from Moser’s home region, the Austrian Tyrol.

Moser came across Bierol while back in Vienna and was, Schmidt says, flabbergasted. Someone was making US-style, flavour-forward beers in Austria? And not only that, but up in the mountains? Moser had to go to Bierol’s brewery in the town of Schwoich and meet the brewer behind these beers. Christoph Bichler was brought on-board, and Beer! follows Bichler in his work at the brewery and as he travels from Austria to Italy, and on to Fort Collins in the USA to meet with legendary brewer Peter Bouckaert. 

Brewing as art

Bouckaert – formerly of Belgian brewery Rodenbach, Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing, and now at his own project Purpose Brewing and Cellars – is the wise old head to youthful Bichler. He’s one of several secondary characters whose own stories weave in and out of the film’s narrative – Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewing, Rudi Ghekiere of Rodenbach, Paul Jones from Manchester’s Cloudwater, and Frank Boon of the eponymous lambic brewery – and given their perspectives on the changes in brewing on both sides of the Atlantic has undergone in the last thirty years. “Peter was the perfect connection between Europe and the US,” says Schmidt, who described him as a true artist. 

What has resulted is a snapshot of beer in 2019, how and why the industry looks like it does today. From that first Sheffield conversation to a final cut took them roughly two years – shorter than the four years it normally takes Schmidt to produce a documentary. He’s a beer lover, so it was an easy film to research, and what’s more, his interviewees found it perfectly logical that a Belgian would be putting together a film about beer. While Schmidt was jet setting around the world, charming the great and good of the international craft beer scene, back in Belgium, the crew of Bottle Conditioned were busy peeling back the layers of mystique that surrounds the country’s lambic breweries. The crew behind it had their beer epiphany not in a south Yorkshire boozer but in the living room of one of Belgium’s most famous brewing families.

Hooked on Cantillon

Director Jerry Franck and cinematographer Mario Contini were filming for Bottle Conditioned when they arranged to visit Jean-Pierre Van Roy and his wife at their home in Brussels. Van Roy almost single-handedly saved lambic brewery Brasserie Cantillon – and Brussels’ lambic heritage – from extinction when he transformed the brewery into a living museum in the mid-1970s, before his son Jean took over in 2003. Franck’s first experience of gueuze was a bottle of 2011 Cantillon drunk in his hometown of Los Angeles. It had him hooked on these idiosyncratic beers, and now, there he was sitting in the living room of the man who had a significant role to play in making it, eating apricot jam over breakfast.

Van Roy almost single-handedly saved Brussels' lambic heritage

This was when the penny dropped about what kind of film they were – or should be – making. “When we got a chance to sit with them,” says Contini, “it made me realise that this is such a strong story, there is hundreds of years of tradition. It was kind of beautiful to see that they were still so passionate about it.” The Van Roy story, of flirting with annihilation only to survive and go on to then-unimaginable success, was for Franck emblematic of the 20th century journey of lambic brewers. “Everybody took a different path…Lindemans went one way, Cantillon another. Out of everyone we had access to, I think Jean’s parents are the living proof of that,” Franck says.

"Belgian beer is so vast"

Franck chose Jean Van Roy’s as one of the four main characters of their documentary, alongside Pierre Tilquin of Tilquin, Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen, and Raf Soef of the blendery known provisionally as Bokke. Each of these represent an aspect of lambic’s past, present and future, and the final film will follow them through the four seasons of running a lambic brewery. It’s not the film they thought they were going to make when Franck, Contini and their producer Courtney Marsh visited Belgium in May 2018 on a holiday-cum-scouting trip. “We knew we wanted to make a doc about Belgian beer,” says Franck. “Then you realise Belgian beer is so vast, and how could you make a documentary about that.” 

Then you realise Belgian beer is so vast, and how could you make a documentary about that

Instead he looked for a niche within Belgian beer, and settled on lambic. “I thought, this is something that could really connect to people beyond beer… to people who might be interested in wine, sustainable farming, etc.,” Franck says. “Lambic is the only style that can open up that [audience].” Franck’s research brought him back to Belgium in September 2018 for a first proper trip, and him and Contini returned in January 2019 for their first stint of filming. They made what they expect to be their final trip to Belgium – saving any glaring plot holes that emerge during editing – in late-September 2019 to catch Cantillon’s annual Zwanze celebrations. 

"Wine tells a better story"

In planning their respective documentaries, both crews found that filmmakers neglected beer – particularly in comparison to their coverage of wine. There was no equivalent of the successful Somm series of wine documentaries, or even something comparable to Alexander Payne’s Oscar-winning film Sideways. Schmidt has his theories why. “The storytelling is much better in the wine business,” he says, adding that craft beer doesn’t have the historical or heritage caché of multi-generation winemakers. Schmidt inevitably took his queues from the wine world. “I ended up watching a lot of wine documentaries,” he says, “and I thought if we can show people that beer as a beverage is a different experience than you might think it is, then we have succeeded.”

Viewers will be able to find out soon if he and Moser have succeeded; Beer! is set for launch in Brussels in late-November, with a two-day mini-festival screening alongside panel discussions with Brussels brewers. Schmidt will then take it to Bouckaert’s Fort Collins in Colorado, and ideally on to a wider release. Lambic obsessives eagerly anticipating Bottle Conditioned have to wait a little longer. Once filming is completed in late-2019, they will enter editing mode, piecing together the hundreds of hours of footage they have into a coherent narrative. 

Their plan is to finish editing in the summer of 2020, and launch it at a film festival towards the end of that year or early in 2021. A decent-sized festival should help them find a distributor that can act as, Franck hopes, “a launching pad to a wider audience. I don’t want to make movies for a small crowd. I want to get as many people to see it as possible. The last movie took eight years to make, but hopefully not this one!”

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