Craft Beer Makes a Movie

How an indie filmmaker rallied local breweries – borrowing their beer, clothes and even their workplaces -- to capture Chicago's budding, beermaking subculture in Drinking Buddies

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Magnolia Pictures

Of the many brews that are sipped and savored in Drinking Buddies, not one is made by Anheuser-Busch – or any other nationally distributed beer. In fact, unless you’re a student of Chicago’s budding microbrewery scene, chances are you’ve never heard of most of the brands making cameo appearances in the film, which was shot in part at three-year-old Revolution Brewery in Chicago.

In what may go down in cinematic history as the Sideways of the Chicago craft beer scene, Joe Swanberg’s smart, 90-minute romantic comedy starring Olivia Wilde immerses viewers in a local brewing culture just starting to ferment. “It’s a celebration of the passion of the craft beer world,” says Swanberg. “We were there in the craft beer timeline at the moment when the industry is going through this really exciting thing, and Drinking Buddies can be a little snapshot of the Midwestern chapter of it.” (The film, which opened in limited release last weekend, will show in 12 cities starting this weekend.)

Known for his ultra-low-budget, largely improvised films known as “mumblecore,” Swanberg has paired his first use of big-name actors like Wilde with a story line that reflects one of the country’s most notable, small-business success stories: how thousands of scrappy craft beer makers have cut into Big Beer’s sales in recent years. The connection between indie films and the growing craft beer movement isn’t lost on Sawnberg, who’s a homebrewer himself. “I do suspect that the craft beer crowd is also a crowd that appreciates independent films. That cultivation of taste naturally carries over into the kinds of movies they watch,” he says.

With some $30 million in supermarket sales of craft beer over the past year, according to market research firm Information Resources, Chicagoland is now the sixth largest market nationwide for craft beer sales. While hardly a pioneer in the craft beer movement, the area now has about a dozen local breweries and brewbups that serve their own ales and lagers. “There is a strong, local community of craft guys that have really risen up” in the last three to four years, says Information Resources beverage analyst Dan Wandel.

Since Swanberg had a modest budget –- he declined TIME’s request for specifics — he and his producers basically sweet-talked their way into an enviable stash of free beer and merchandise that helped give the film its local look and feel. Unlike the makers of Skyfall, who famously accepted $45 million last year in exchange for a few scenes of Daniel Craig swigging from a Heineken bottle (neither shaken nor stirred), Swanberg received no money for the screen time he gave not just to ales from Revolution, but also those from Chicago-based Half Acre, Three Floyds in northwest Indiana, and neighboring Michigan brewers Founders and Bell’s.

Three Floyds Zombie Dust -- Drinking Buddies

Three Floyds

One of the many beers shown in the film.

“It wasn’t like a typical product placement where people were paying us to have their stuff displayed in the movie. It was all just these breweries being cool and sending us stuff to be helpful,” says the director. A high school friend, who works at Three Floyds, gave the actors a crash course in brewing and lent them a rare bottle of the brewery’s top-rated Dark Lord Russian imperial stout to use as a prop. Other swag included everything from t-shirts and hoodies worn by the actors to signs hanging inside the bar where a few scenes were shot. Co-star Jake Johnson even wore one brewer’s clothes in order to look more like one himself.

About the only beer-related item Swanberg actually paid for was the privilege of shooting inside the gleaming new brewery that Revolution built in early 2012. For a mere $4,000, Swanberg and his crew basically took over the brewery for three days. “It was a pain in the ass,” says Revolution Brewery owner Josh Deth. “It was an independent movie, but they still brought a crew of 30, 40 people and lunch trucks outside.”

Despite the hassle of having a film crew on the premises, the brewery owner okayed the shoot, he says, because “it wasn’t just some art film. They got some star power. It was something significant.” What’s more, since the filmmakers paid him -– instead of the other way around –- “it was the opposite of product placement,” he says. “I think the thing is like a commercial for Revolution.”

Well, almost. You’d have to pay close attention to catch the brief mention of the brewery – I missed it altogether until my second viewing. Nor will you get bogged down in dull discussions of beermaking. Craft beer sales now comprise 10% of the $99 billion U.S. beer market — up from 8.5% last year. Despite the industry’s rapid growth, it doesn’t make sense to create a feature film that only a hardcore beer geek can love.

“While I want the craft beer community to embrace the movie, I know that’s a smallish community, and I want the movie to reach people who don’t think about beer ever,” says Swanberg. Chances are, you’ll be thinking about it a lot more after watching a film where everyone’s always got a beer buzz going — thanks to all that free booze on set.

MORE: Draft Buddies: 10 Drinking-Buddy Movies