What Killed Brew Masters?

Brew Masters on Discovery Channel

Brew Masters

“The Dogfish Show,” as most people I know called it, had a very brief run on The Discovery Channel, as the network chose not to renew the show after its first season. The conspiracy theorists are out in full force, with accusations that Big Beer (those are scare-tactic capital letters) killed the show. Of course, there have been retractions and/or clarifications of that accusation, and even some denials by Big Beer.

So what if they didn’t kill the show? Maybe it was canceled because, quite frankly, it wasn’t a very good show. And if I, as a beer lover (at least enough to write a blog about the stuff, right?) didn’t think the show was very good, what does the average American think about it? Perhaps advertisers simply pulled their ads because they weren’t reaching a wide audience.

Was the show unsalvageable? No. But if it’s going to develop into a worthwhile piece of television, it needs to take fewer than 6 episodes to “find itself.” I saved all the broadcast episodes on DVR, and in the name of clearing space, watched them one final time. That inspired this post, obviously, and also made me think about what could have made Brew Masters a much better show:

  • Everything felt like the “first episode.” A little exposition for new viewers is fine, but every episode felt like I was watching a pilot. That may be because the first two episodes seemingly aired out of order (“Punkin and Portamarillo” was certainly intended to be the pilot, but it aired after “Bitches Brew”), but the problem didn’t get much better as the first season went on. Breaking chronology throughout the season–we saw the treehouse in the first several episodes, then it suddenly arrives, brand-new, at the facility–only added to this effect.
  • Too much focus on artificially-created (or just uninteresting) drama. If a batch of beer has improperly fermented, that’s interesting, and is making the plot revolve around beer. If a machine breaks and drops a component into a mystery bottle, or (ugh) a factory worker spills glue, it is crap. YOU ARE NOT MAKING COMPELLING TV if you’re focusing on such facile and shallow storylines. You ordered the wrong bottles. Great. What in the world made you think I’d watch an hour of TV revolving around that plot point? That’s Factory Drama X, and takes the show away from beer – its raison d’etre.
  • Didn’t let Sam be Sam. A big part of the reason Dogfish Head is so well-known (aside from the beer, of course) is the cult of personality that Sam Calagione has. He’s a personable guy, and just watching him in, for example, Beer Wars, you wanted to befriend the guy. Let him show his personality in the show. Having him narrate was a gross miscalculation, because it took him from “guy the show is about” (good), to “guy who makes the show” (bad, removes his personality). Using testimonial-style narration with the employees – and even Sam – would have been a much better choice. On the same note, have one of his brewing experts – Brian and/or Floris, for example – talk about the science and process behind the beer, not Sam himself.
  • This one might directly contradict the previous point, but I don’t care, because it’s super-important: Don’t rap. The Pain Relievaz sequences were painfully awkward.
  • Personal drama is alright. However, it has to revolve around interesting points. “Sam is kinda neglecting his family on vacation” is not interesting. Sure, it warrants a mention, but not an entire sequence. Same with “OMG THE SCHEDULE IS SOOOOO CRUNCHED!!!” Mention it, and move on. You aren’t creating a true sense of urgency with that; if you couldn’t finish the beer within your timeline, you wouldn’t have an episode about it.
  • This problem would be solved be resolving some of the above, but… too many storylines at once. Jumping around with no cohesion to the episode was a consistent problem. Of course, if we don’t have OMG SPILLED TEH GLUEZ plots, this problem disappears.
  • Lastly (and this kind of ties these points together), the storylines need to be not only about the beer (see above), but also interesting. Sam’s trip to Peru to study Chicha was a very interesting story. His trip to Egypt was also alright. The inspirations for these beers should be 50% of the content of the show, not 5%.

At the beginning of each episode, Sam Calagione said, “Every great beer starts with a great idea.” That should be the purpose of the show – and at times it was.  Too frequently, however, it was about day-to-day drama that was unrelated or barely related to the beer. If I want to watch “American Workplace Reality Drama,” I can do that in a myriad of places. If I want to watch “well-made show about the production of craft beer,” well… that show hasn’t been done yet.

TV Show Review: Brew Masters

Brew Masters on Discovery Channel

Brew Masters

Now that the Discovery Channel‘s “Brew Masters” has a few episodes under its belt, we have a pretty good picture of what it will be. Sam Calagione, founder and owner of Dogfish Head, talks about the inspiration for his beers, the methods behind creating them, and delves into the history of brewing traditions around the world.

There have been four episodes so far. Two of them seemed like pilot episodes—the actual pilot, about Bitches Brew, and the Punkin Chunkin episode—almost to the point of feeling like an incomplete product, but the others have been quite good. My speculation is that the Punkin Chunkin episode was supposed to be the pilot, but they chose to run it for Thanksgiving, and wanted a more interesting episode for the pilot.

The general premise of the show is following the creation of a special Dogfish Beer, including everything from the inspiration, to Sam’s travels to a foreign land to research authentic brewing methods, all the way to the actual workings of the factory. The two pilot-esque episodes have spent a little too much time focusing on the “OMG things are going wrong in our factory!” aspect, dumbing the show down to a standard workplace docu-drama, rather than focusing on the parts that are actually, you know, interesting.

However, the Chicha episode was a step in the right direction, and if the show wants to succeed, it needs to focus on what makes it different than everything else. The inspirations and history of each beer, and Sam’s travels to research them, should be by far the focus. If the producers want to focus on the “characters” who work at the brewery, that’s fine, but “Oh noes, our machine broke” and “crap I spilled glue” and “uh oh, quality control error” warrant barely more than a passing mention. Forced drama = bad, information = good. The workplace stuff just isn’t interesting, and if the show fails, that will be its downfall. Even in the most recent episod,e the drama was brewing-related and informative rather than drama for drama’s sake.

Also on the information end of things, the discussions of the brewing process are interesting, but they’re over-referenced (as I mentioned above, I think part of this might be due to airing two “pilot” episodes so far), and there either needs to be one small segment per episode where the whole process is discussed. We shouldn’t see the hokey CG graphics breaking down the process each time it’s discussed.

Alas, it doesn’t seem as though the show is drawing good ratings, as it’s already been shuffled around the Discovery Channel’s lineup, starting on Sunday nights, then appearing on Monday for one week, and currently moved to Thursday. I think the show is just starting to hit a stride, so canceling it anytime soon would be doing it an injustice.