Like any good man, Mike Sills has a good woman alongside him.
But when it came to bringing him into the fold of craft beer, Mike’s wife, Jenna, led the way.
“Give Mike a glass of whiskey – almost any whiskey,” Jenna recalled, “and he was a happy man.”
But that was before the couple made a brief weekend getaway from Boston to travel to Vermont. It was before Jenna suggested they stop at Waterbury’s The Alchemist during their trip, after a serendipitous sample from a friend of the famed Heady Topper.
All that was before they walked into Blackback Pub one night, having left their car parallel parked in what felt like the middle of a snow-covered street.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t know what you’re stumbling into,” Mike said, echoing the story of millions of unassuming drinkers who also once stood at the precipice of falling hard and fast into craft beer.
“We had never heard of anything they had listed,” Jenna said. “Not only the breweries, but the styles. We didn’t know what the heck a saison tasted like and we couldn’t pronounce it, either. The whole list may as well have been in another language.”
For Mike, however, that experience translated for him what quality, craft beer could be as he and Jenna chatted with Blackback’s staff and other drinkers who traveled from Massachusetts, New York, California – even other countries – to speak in the tongues of Vermont’s booming beer culture.
It was also when Mike figured out there was more to beer than Sam Adams or Budweiser. In fact, he began to learn there was more to beer than just the liquid itself.
“It was when I first realized there’s this big connection between people and their beer,” he said. “Everyone talked about it. It became about stories I’d hear.”
Which has led Mike and a crew of 11 colleagues to find a way to tell those stories. In March 2013, they began early production work on Brewland, a feature-length documentary that tells the “coming of age” tale about the industry and its ever-changing environment. It’ll explore questions about market saturation, the definition of “craft” and the community itself.
Like Mike’s exposure to the craft beer world, the film itself has evolved since that fateful trip to Vermont. What started as a concentrated look at Vermont as a microcosm of beer has gone macro. Along the way, the crew has compiled interviews and footage with the “who’s who” of the beer world, from historic craft brewers like Boston Beer’s Jim Koch to beer author Tom Acitelli and Kate Baker and Suzanne Schalow, owners of the ever-expanding Craft Beer Cellar chain of retail stores.
A role in the film is also taken up by the new hierarchy of craft beer, like Evil Twin’s Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, who provides a unique insight on the process of contract brewing and how that impacts the industry. They’ve also met with Shaun Hill, brewmaster and owner of Hill Farmstead, which was named “best brewery in the world” in 2013 after opening in 2010.
“It was the first interview we did and he came right out and said there’s not much thought put in to a competition between craft and larger macro brewers,” Mike said. “He’d rather sit around and drink a Bud. He won’t drink Sam Adams because he doesn’t believe they’re craft beer and he was very serious about that.”
Now, Mike and his crew want to expand those interactions and take their regional production national in order to better tell a complete story of the country’s craft beer community. They’re planning trips to Michigan, Colorado, California and new craft beer hotbeds like North Carolina, which now features the largest number of breweries and brewpubs in the South.
The Brewland staff have set up an Indie GoGo campaign to help raise funds for their passion project to help cover costs of post-production, travel, food, legal fees and more.
“If we’re able to look at breweries and issues across the country, we can draw parallels between trends and questions of the craft community,” Mike said.
The goal is to complete shooting this fall and edit Brewland to have a final cut around the end of 2014, marking nearly a year since Jenna first led Mike on their own craft beer journey that’s introduced them to a new culture, new culinary appreciations and new friends.
“Beer has become a bonding experience for us,” Jenna said. “Mike was always more of a ‘social butterfly’ than I, but now I have something I really enjoy talking about and can easily connect with people this way. A love of beer has certainly opened up many doors for us.”
Disclosure: Mike and I have known each other since college and I wanted to share this story because I find the journey of others into craft beer fascinating. I’ve donated to the Brewland Indie GoGo campaign and you can learn more about the project on the website.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac