A Documentary Can Not Be Undone

After nonfiction films end, life goes on and change happens. But what comes next doesn't always matter for the real stories at hand.

beer jesus
Sweetwood Films

In the world of fiction films, it’s entirely possible to undo the magic of a movie. Just give it a sequel. Leave a major love interest behind between films, or kill off a protagonist to explain why the lead actor refused to return for the follow-up. Most movies have plots focused on more than just the romance element, but it’s still upsetting when, say, Daniel and Allie break up at the start of The Karate Kid II. Same with all those horror sequels that immediately kill off the Final Girl of the previous installment.

For documentaries, it’s less annoying for a story to be undone by what happens next. After all, life goes on, change happens, and generally, a lot of nonfiction works are fleeting because of the world going in different directions or new information coming out that negates what we’ve learned from a film. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory almost makes Paradise Lost 2: Revelations obsolete by excusing the second film’s core suspect in favor of another presumed murderer. But it can’t be dismissed. It’s still a compelling detour.

The Beer Jesus from America is a film that combines two interests of mine — documentary and craft beer. It also depicts a story that feels undone by events that occurred after the cameras stopped rolling. The doc follows an American craft brewery’s expansion into Europe and profiles the company’s co-founder, the titular Greg Koch. He’s one of the key figures who runs Stone Brewing Co., the ninth-largest craft brewery in the U.S., and bringing his ales to Germany is a dream we see coming true on the screen.

The Beer Jesus from America isn’t just about Stone or Koch. The doc chronicles a difficult development and construction process for the brewery that makes the film’s conclusion all the more of a relief. Eventually, Stone Brewing Berlin opens! The dream is realized, and it’s an even bigger accomplishment than the initial premise of an American craft brewer trying to break through an iconically long-established beer culture and industry. But a few years after that opening, as the doc began screening at festivals, Stone sold off the site.

Viewers now learn this fact in the film through a coda in the form of title cards just before the end credits. It’s an update that’s been provided since the initial festival showings (and the version of the film I saw). While an understandable inclusion, it’s also a kick in the gut so quickly after seeing Koch and the company’s seemingly happy ending. Plus, there’s probably a lot more to the matter than a simple statement of continued struggles that led to another brewery, the Scotland-based BrewDog, now inhabiting the space.

The film has its faults. It’d be better with less (or no) narration from director Matt Sweetwood (Beerland) guiding us through everything happening both narratively and with his making of the doc. The film would still have worked without so much hand-holding. But its omission of the fate of the brewery would not be a problem. The Beer Jesus from America is about Stone’s journey, including Koch’s efforts, and the site’s construction, not whatever happens next. As a contained story, it’s an interesting one either way.

Seeing the news of a year ago that Stone had sold the brewery was a surprise, and for a moment I did think it had undone what I’d watched. But that’d be like thinking Robert Drew’s Primary was undone by John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Or that Titicut Follies wasn’t significant because the Bridgewater State Hospital improved its treatment of patients from what’s shown. Or, even more fittingly, that Grey Gardens‘ story didn’t matter because the titular home wound up being sold four years after the documentary’s release.

What happened next is at least better understood by what’s in The Beer Jesus from America. If the documentary only showed triumphs in the building of the brewery, Stone’s departure from the site would come as even more of a shock. But all of the obstacles and uphill climb to get the place operating and opened surely took a toll on the company, enough that it’d be implausible for them to see the kind of success over even a short time that they’d have liked. The why of what happened next is implicitly answered in the doc.

Anyway, there is still a residual victory in that Stone beers are brewed and sold in Europe now — at their former brewery even. Plus, the doc shows us a cameo from BrewDog co-founder James Watt, confirming for viewers that they and Stone have been friendly allies rather than competitors. So it’s not all a sad story. If you’re interested in craft breweries and what they face normally, and more so when attempting to crack new markets, The Beer Jesus from America is worth watching for the main story that’s documented.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.