Sean Mullin Takes Us Inside The World of Beer making in ‘Kings of Beer’
Kings Of Beer is a rare insight into the world of beer brewing. Director Sean Mullin didn’t know much about the rigorous standards and competition that takes place in the world of brewing. Nor did he know about the group of brewmasters who are a diverse and elite group of people who compete to brew the most famous beer in the world, Budwiser.
It’s a fascinating look and Mullin filmed with six units to capture the global characters that make up King of Beers. I caught up with Mullin to talk about brewmasters and the world of brewing the King of Beers.
What did you know about brewing beer prior to going into this?
I had gotten one of those homebrew kits when I was in the army in Germany. I thought, “I’m in Germany, let’s try to brew some beer, and it was disgusting.” I gave it up pretty quickly, so I didn’t know all that much.
I learned a tremendous amount. I think one of the big takeaways was that this idea that lagers are so much more difficult to brew than ales. So, all the trendy beers are these
IPAs and fancy hoppy beers, but in reality, those are much easier to brew because you can cover up any mistake in an IPA by adding more hops. A lager is much more delicately balanced. I was much more intrigued and thought it was such an interesting hook.
Where do you begin with this because it’s a massive industry?
When you think of these massive breweries, you don’t think about the people brewing the beer. For us, it started with a conversation with the producers. They had seen a lecture given by Pete Kraemer who is in the film. He had given this incredible lecture about the complexities of brewing beer and keeping it all the same quality around the globe. They were absolutely blown away by it, and they thought there might be a story in it, so I linked up with them and we started collaborating.
I said, “Let’s look at the competition.” There’s this internal brewmaster competition,and once we discovered this competition, it gave us this framework.
You’re right. We could go anywhere because beer is such a broad subject. Once we had that framework of a competition, then we started thinking about the competition docs. My background as a filmmaker, the narrative is about the character. I made it paramount that from the beginning, I was going to do everything I could to not make it feel commercial. I wanted it to be a real exploration of these characters, and what it takes to be the best.
I love the characters. I love Yong Hua from Wuhan.
He’s incredible. I fell over when I translated that footage.
There are so many characters, what was it about Yong that spoke to you?
I think just on the surface; he had the most compelling story. He started as just the shift manager at the brewery. He worked his way up from the floor to the very top. Also, he speaks no English and was told very early on that if he wanted to brew for this massive brewery, he’d have to learn English, and he never did. He had a few strikes against him. Just from a natural story standpoint, I was really intrigued. He was such an incredible guy too. I loved his family so much.
How do you pick the characters and narrow them down? At the opposite end, you have Natalie?
We did get lucky. We wanted to focus on the top handful. Halfway through the competition, from a resource standpoint, we had to close in on 5 or 6. We got lucky.
I met Natalie on the first day of filming and she just pops off the camera. She’s so photogenic and just so incredible. I found out her first cousin is Sterling K. Brown and it just made all the sense. Something is in the water there.
Talk about finding the narrative and editing that down, because I know that probably was not easy.
It was a ton. I’m having flashbacks. I’d be in St. Louis for each taping. I had six units around the world filming simultaneously. I’m filming at the same time. I was so happy to have the support of a great production team. They rallied behind me, and they thought it was OK for me to have six units around the world while I was in St. Louis. I really wanted to intercut the realtime nature of the competition, and that is what I thought would drive the narrative and keep the audience engaged.
The editing -we shot well over 500 hours of footage, and it’s an 80-minute film. Also having a writing background, none of this was scripted, I still structured it like a classical three-act film, as if I was writing a screenplay. In the edit, I was very clear with the editors to try to stick to the three-act structure. That actually really helped to have those constraints, and we knew what we needed to hit.
I sensed there was a lot out there.
Oh, we had an entire week in Russia that’s not in the movie. We had another event in Vegas with some incredible footage. There was great stuff. There was a North American cup and a Global cup, but it got a little confused in the edit and we had to pull that. It was kind of painful. With anything, you have to just do what’s right for the project. The feedback I’ve been getting is that there’s a concern going into the viewing. They think the corporation is involved, and people think it’s going to be a propaganda piece, but I have to commend Budwiser and my producers, they gave me so much creative freedom and autonomy, I was able to delve into the characters.
I used films like Spellbound and character-driven films. A friend of mine made Pressure Cooker and that was a big inspiration.
I have to say, mine was more curiosity. I had no idea what I was in for.
Oh, that’s good.
What surprised you the most about beer brewing or the industry?
I think microbreweries get a lot of love and coverage and recognition for being these cutting edge breweries with all these fancy beers, but if you look behind the kettle. I was surprised to find just from age, gender and various backgrounds of the diversity of these brewmasters at this massive brewery. It really inspired me. Everything I’ve done as a storyteller is trying to focus on stories that deal with the tension that exists between the perception and the reality. The perception of a person and the reality of that institution. I always feel there’s a nice palpable tension that exists there, and you can mine it for drama or comedy. I was very happy to step into this world. The access I got was unprecedented.
I know not many people have heard of Wuhan, but I have.
That’s the thing; I had heard of it and I get over there, there’s 13 million people there. I was blown away. I got to shoot in the houses, and everyone was so kind. He was such a great character, but it speaks to the globalization of the industry. It also speaks to how similar we all are, and the fears and dreams we all have.
Have your beer brewing skills improved since?
No. No. My tasting skills skyrocketed. That’s what blew me away; the key tasters could sit there and they could tell the tiniest differences. Their ability to differentiate at that level. It was amazing.
Kings Of Beer is available on iTunes apple.co/2YurGAf