‘Brewmaster’: A love letter to brewing from Pilsner Urquell

For its 175th anniversary, Pilsner Urquell wanted to do something big. The Czech beer brand threw around dozens of ideas, but nothing seemed quite substantial enough to celebrate the birth of the world’s first Pilsner.

So it did something few other brands could pull off. It made a movie. Not just about itself. About beer.

“If there was one brand that could do this, Pilsner Urquell was the brand,” says David Schmid, who oversees the brand in the U.S. for MillerCoors. “It’s a brand that is so authentic and beloved, and most everyone you talk to has nothing but good things to say about it.”

The resulting film, “Brewmaster,” which would take two years to make, sell and get into distribution, is now showing in theaters across the country and is slated for wide release on several streaming services and cable television on-demand starting next week. It also will be available to Amazon Prime customers beginning in March.

The film is an ode to beer, a celebration of the craft that walks viewers through the history of the modern beer industry through the eyes of some of its most famous names and brands.

Director Doug Tirola, a documentary filmmaker and writer who produced and directed the film, takes viewers to breweries of all ages and sizes, ranging from Pilsner Urquell in Plzeň, Czech Republic, to startups in Brooklyn, talking to brewers, company founders and enthusiasts along the way.

Pilsner Urquell’s Vaclav Berka offers a peek into his legendary production brewery, complete with its wooden barrels stacked in brick-lined caves to age beer, while Boston Beer Company co-founder Jim Koch, Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, Allagash founder Rob Tod, Brooklyn Brewery’s Brewmaster Garrett Oliver and The Alchemist co-founders John and Jennifer Kimmich each share stories of how they helped ignite the craft beer scene in the United States.

They almost universally revere Pilsner Urquell, which pioneered the Pilsner style on its debut in 1842. Known for its golden color and clarity, Pilsner Urquell is a global icon, the original inspiration for nearly nine of ten beers consumed around the world today.

A leap of faith

The “Brewmaster” project started as a documentary celebrating Pilsner Urquell’s 175th anniversary, tracing its history from inception to its global distribution today.

But that still didn’t seem big enough, and Tirola and Schmid agreed a 90-minute essay would not connect with viewers. So Pilsner Urquell took a leap of faith of sorts; it decided to fund a film about the beer industry as a whole, a project that would celebrate beer but not remain exclusively focused on Pilsner Urquell. The kicker: It would have no creative control of the final film, a risk for any brand.

But, Schmid says, it was a risk he was eager to take.

“We had to get comfortable with the idea of releasing control, but we knew we had nothing to hide,” Schmid says. “Pilsner Urquell is a giant in the beer world and it appeals to all types of drinkers, including craft drinkers in the U.S. For those who don’t know the brand, this might provide them with a proper introduction alongside other giants in the land of beer and other important figures in the history of beer.”

A love letter to the beer industry

Interwoven with interviews of industry luminaries, “Brewmaster” tells the story of the industry through the lens of two protagonists on separate but somewhat parallel paths. It chronicles MillerCoors employee Brian Reed’s painstaking quest to achieve the title of Master Cicerone, a high distinction that fewer than 20 people worldwide have achieved; and a harried New Yorker named Drew Kostic, a trained lawyer chasing his dream of opening his own brewery.

“What we were trying to do as filmmakers is balance two things: How do you make a movie that will appeal to this huge subculture in beer full of people sitting at their desks during the day reading about beer, thinking about beer, thinking about quitting their job and getting into beer, as well as the crowd that doesn’t think about beer until they’re watching football on Sunday?” Tirola says.

The answer, he says, was about finding dynamic characters and capturing the unique culture of the beer industry that longtime observers know well but others would be excited to find.

“We’re really fortunate we found Brian and Drew, two people who I think were the tipping point stories of beer,” Tirola says.

Reed, a MillerCoors trade brewer and beer educator, was living outside Milwaukee at the time, trying to balance fatherhood and a full-time job with studying for the intensive Master Cicerone exam. It’s an exam he failed twice, both times by the narrowest of margins.

He wasn’t originally cast in a role, but Tirola fell in love with Reed’s story.

“Playing a significant role in this film — this was the furthest thing from what I expected,” Reed says.

The first version of the film wrapped with Reed falling short on his Master Cicerone exam, a heartbreaking ending. But after Reed succeeded in December 2017, Tirola updated the film.

“Watching it again for the first time since I passed (the exam) at the South by Southwest (documentary festival), with everyone clapping and everything, I was bawling my eyes out,” Reed says. “It was an amazing experience.”

For a list of upcoming "Brewmaster" screenings, go to https://www.facebook.com/brewmasterfilm/