A Story without Heroes: The Cautionary Tale of Malt Liquor
A Humble Birth, A Proper Upbringing
Malt liquor was a child of necessity. Despite the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Depression was making things tough for brewers. Drinkers complained that beer lacked its old “kick.” And then World War II brought rationing. Not enough metal for bottle caps or cans, not enough malt to make beer. Some brewers even used sorghum and potatoes to fill out the mash.
Prompted by these events, two Midwestern brewers had an idea. Some time around 1937, at the Grand Valley Brewing Co. in Ionia, MI, Clarence “Click” Koerber first brewed Clix Malt Liquor, using more sugar to raise the alcohol content of his lager. In 1942 at Gluek Brewing in Minneapolis, Alvin Gluek had the same goal but a different approach. He found a way to induce a second fermentation and thus produce more alcohol in the finished product. He named his malt liquor Sparkling Stite by Gluek, courting drinkers with champagne aspirations.
Another Midwestern brewery, Goetz Brewing, created a competing version and called it Country Club Malt Liquor, going after the growing post-war middle class, people with a new set of clubs and a little extra money. The “New Party Brew” was advertised in magazines with neatly dressed, smiling white people, enjoying themselves in a festive but polite manner, drinking out of frosty little glasses filled from 8-ounce cans.
In Minnesota, the diminutive Peoples Brewing served up Olde English 600, A Malt Liquor, with a jaunty little Englishman wearing a plumed hat atop a white wig. In this manner, malt liquor, all dressed up and on its best behavior, tried to make its way in the marketplace for 25 years but with little success. Then something happened to change the brew’s history, the first of its watershed moments.
Malt Liquor Goes Wild
In 1963 at National Brewing in Baltimore, a man named Dawson Farber was leading the marketing effort. Other “national” breweries–Anheuser-Busch and Joseph Schlitz–were moving into his city with big advertising budgets. Farber anticipated that his National Bohemian lager was not going to fare well. He had to find a niche.
At the time, the only malt liquor with anything close to a national presence was Country Club. Farber had a different vision, one that focused less on middle class aspirations and more on the kick in the can. He came up with the name, Colt 45, and told a designer he wanted a label emblazoned with a kicking horse and a horseshoe.
This was a master stroke but also a violation of federal law. The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Part 7 “Prohibited Practices,” Section 7.29 (g), states that a malt beverage’s label “shall not contain any statements, designs, or devices, whether in the form of numerals, letters, characters, figures, or otherwise, which are likely to be considered as statements of alcoholic content.”
The future hung in the balance, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) approved Colt 45, kicking horse, horseshoe and all.
As the new brew with the kick of a colt enjoyed national success, the well-mannered brands of the previous decades were trampled by herds of animals. The BATF gave the green light to mustangs and stallions, red lions, red bulls and pit bulls, big bears and big cats, jaguars and panthers, hawks and eagles, scorpions and cobras–a wild kingdom in the cooler.
Malt Liquor Makes New Friends
At the same time, another change was in the wind. For 25 years, brewers had directed malt liquor advertising to white, middle-class consumers. But the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s alerted many American businesses to a group that had been invisible to them: Black Americans. Prompted partly by social conscience and partly by threatened boycotts, marketers awoke to the wisdom of appealing to Black audiences–hiring Black-owned advertising agencies; placing advertising in media that Black people read, watched and heard; and featuring Black people in the advertisements.
Among the businessmen given a nudge were brewers. They asked, “Which of our products are Black people buying already?” The word came back up the sales chain that people of color drank proportionally more malt liquor than their white counterparts. Nobody knew why; they just did.
While Black Americans comprise 12 to 14 percent of the population, they consume 30 to 33 percent of the malt liquor brewed in the United States The statistic is important for two reasons. First, it shows why brewers of malt liquor advertise more heavily to Blacks: As a group, they buy more malt liquor. The second important fact is that if a third of all malt liquor is consumed by Black Americans, two-thirds is consumed by people who are not black. Hold that thought.
In New Jersey, Trenton’s Champale was one of the first malt liquor brewers to pay attention to the Black community. Long a champion of the “champagne on a beer budget” approach, Champale ran a 1966 print ad showing a handsome Black couple in evening dress with the caption, “Ready, Set, Glow!”
Colt 45 did some tentative reaching out in 1974 with print ads featuring comedian and actor Redd Foxx. He had a highly rated TV show in “Sanford and Son,” he was Black, and white people liked him.
Malt Liquor Discovers Sex
In 1986, malt liquor met actor Billy Dee Williams. Billy Dee was Black and he was sexy. When he first said, “The Power of Colt 45–It works every time,” malt liquor’s world changed forever.
On Billy Dee’s coattails, basketball’s towering Wilt Chamberlain (who estimated the number of his amorous conquests at more than 10,000) appeared in advertisements for Haffenreffer Private Stock Malt Liquor, holding a swooning beauty while the headlines read, “High performance pleasure” and “Nobody does it bigger.”
Of course, one cannot discuss sex and malt liquor without a bow to Don Vultaggio and John Ferolito. These two young men from Brooklyn came up the hard way. After high school, they scraped together $200 and bought a VW bus to deliver beer to stores in neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. By 1982, the pair had 25 trucks and a decade of experience delivering refreshment in less than pastoral settings.
One day they asked why they were delivering other people’s beer when they could contract to brew their own and profit as both wholesalers and brewers. In 1986, they formed the Hornell Brewing Co. and introduced Midnight Dragon Special Reserve Malt Liquor. What they lacked in marketing power, they made up for in audacity. Their first poster featured a woman sipping Midnight Dragon through a straw. The caption read, “I could suck this all night.”
You didn’t need a gypsy to read those tea leaves. When women’s groups protested, Ferolito told the Wall Street Journal, “Real men like sex and sex sells beer.” Propelled by its notoriety, Midnight Dragon sold like hotcakes with malt syrup. As a cultured touch, its cans and bottles were emblazoned with an elegant crest and Latin inscription, “Epulis Accumbere Divum” (from Vergil’s Aeneid, “To recline at the feast of the gods”). For those eager to recline, Vultaggio and Ferolito delivered the new brew by the truckload.
Malt Liquor Finds Its Voice
And then came Hip Hop, via an unlikely entrepreneur named Minott Wessinger. In 1987, he started the McKenzie River Corp.; created a new malt liquor, St. Ides; and had G. Heileman brew it under contract. The leading malt liquor brand at the time was Olde English, which was kind of Olde School. Wessinger sought to appeal to drinkers tired of their father’s malt liquor.
Early on, he heard Hip Hop artists singing about malt liquor in their songs, singing about Olde English, “OE,” now several owners away from its birthplace in Duluth, and about his own St. Ides, “the S. T. Crooked I.” Inspired, Wessinger commissioned Hip Hop stars to create radio spots exclusively for St. Ides, from the sidewalk up.
Recorded and played in the early 1990s, the songs are the stuff of legend. King Tee, DJ Pooh, E-Swift and Snoop Doggy Dogg increased St. Ides sales by 25 percent, and incidentally made it the malt liquor of choice among white college students. But black and white malt liquor drinkers were not the only listeners. Community leaders and public health advocates were outraged by the lyrics. O’Shea Jackson, rapping as Ice Cube, urged listeners to “Get your girl in the mood quicker, get your jimmy thicker, with St. Ides malt liquor.” What a promise!
Malt Liquor Goes Crazy
Not to be outdone, Don Vultaggio and John Ferolito found a way to offend a whole new minority. Inspired by the film, “Dances with Wolves,” they launched Crazy Horse Malt Liquor in March of 1992. Under the name of Hornell Brewing Co., they sold more than 1 million cases in the first year.
Native Americans in general and the descendants of Chief Crazy Horse in particular were not flattered. This homage to the Old West coming from Long Island triggered bad press, a boycott, state and federal legislative initiatives to ban the brew, and a lawsuit that dragged on for years.
Native Americans spoke out about the long history of their battle with alcohol and their reverence for Crazy Horse himself. In thoughtful letters, their leaders appealed to Vultaggio’s and Ferolito’s better nature. But if the pair had one between them, no one could find it.
“They’re so callous about it; they don’t see it,” said Phyllis Tousey Frederick, national coordinator of the Crazy Horse Defense Project. “They say, ëIt’s your opinion that you’re offended.’”
On the other hand, Lawrence I. Fox, an attorney for Hornell Brewing Co., said of Crazy Horse’s descendants, “They talk about the principle, but what they really want is the bucks.”
Fox was not just engaging in rhetoric. The family of Crazy Horse, in addition to demanding that Crazy Horse Malt Liquor be withdrawn from the market, also sought damages “related to what Hornell has made from using Crazy Horse’s name on their product.” After 11 years, they met with success. In 2004, according to Chief Harvey White Woman, a descendent of Crazy Horse and an executor of the estate, the family settled for a promise by Hornell Brewing to stop using the Crazy Horse name and $150,000 in cash.
Is It Malt Liquor, or Robbery?
In 2000, the creators of St. Ides adroitly moved away from the flak surrounding malt liquor by selling the brand and introducing another, Steel Reserve, that was not labeled as a malt liquor but rather as a “high gravity lager.”
Steel Reserve’s logo was based on a medieval symbol for steel, which looked like the number 211. Conspiracy theorists quickly turned the number into something more useful. LeeRoy Jordan Jr. was one of many who noted that 211 was the California penal code for robbery, and he added that the alphanumeric gang code translation of 211, based on the 2nd and 11th letters of the alphabet, was “Blood Killer.” And there you have it: another malt liquor promoting gangsterism and violence.
For brewers of malt liquor, one of the costs of doing business is public outrage. For your reading pleasure, here is a sampling of the bouquets strewn in malt liquor’s path:
“This ‘Attack of the Killer 40’ is part of an overall scheme to control segments of the American population that might have reason to undermine the current power status.” –The Conscious Rasta
“The liquor industry has long targeted the Black community with its diabolical marketing schemes from the Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull bustin’ through my TV after every video in the ‘90s to the infamous St. Ides commercials that had every wanna-be playa (and aspiring rap star) runnin’ to the corner store to see if the stuff really did make you a Mack Daddy.” –The Rev. Paul Scott, Messianic Afrikan Nation, Durham, NC
“We have to focus on the notion that we can and must control the sale and consumption of this liquid crack.” –State Rep. John Myers, D-Philadelphia
It is easy to blame malt liquor. It is a tangible sign, a mute defendant left behind at the scene of the crime. Empty containers, unconscious drinkers, dried spew, public urination and defecation, the aftermath of alcohol-fueled violence, fatal accidents–none of these deliver on the promises of the malt liquor label, the upbeat radio spots. One can well imagine the frustration and rage of those who live with the consequences and seek a better life, a better place to live.
Few would suggest that posters of lightly clad women and glowering lords of Hip Hop are ideal fare for children who have gone into a convenience store for a Popsicle, and brewers should not be high-fiving over the level to which their marketing has sunk.
But before we cast malt liquor as a racist and calculated attempt to harm minorities, we should recall that two-thirds of the malt liquor brewed in the United States is consumed by people other than Black Americans. Nor are problems with alcohol strictly an urban phenomenon. Didra Brown Taylor’s “Knowledge, Attitudes, and Malt Liquor Beer Drinking Behavior among African-American Men in South Central Los Angeles” presents a review of the literature to date and her own original research. Among her salient findings:
“Contrary to popular beliefs, rural students had equal or higher rates of usage of the two licit substances, alcohol and tobacco, than did urban students. Binge drinking for both male and female rural students exceeded that of their urban peers.” (p. 36)
“Studies of adolescents consistently find that Black youth initiate drinking at a later age than their White counterparts and have a lower prevalence of alcohol use.” (p. 18)
“In Los Angeles, fortified wines were the drink of choice for 46 percent of problem drinkers, compared to 18 percent who preferred malt liquor.” (p. 2)
“Of those who drank malt liquor, 56 percent reported drinking other kinds of alcohol at the same time.” (p. 103)
“Advertising and pop culture were reported to have little influence on whether they drank malt liquor beer while alcohol use by family and others in the community most influenced their decision to drink.” (p. xviii)
“Nearly 44 percent of the respondents had their first drink of malt liquor beer with a relative with nearly one quarter having their first malt liquor beer drink with their mother or father.” (p. 98)
If malt liquor is not the main beverage of choice among alcohol abusers, but simply one among many, and if family influences are the most powerful in determining the path one takes, then focusing the blame on malt liquor and malt liquor brewers may be a less than productive tactic for those who see the consumption of malt liquor as a threat to health, progress and the quality of life in their community.
Why Should You Care?
In order to solve the “malt liquor problem,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called for legislation that will restrict the alcoholic content of all malt beverages to 5 percent by volume. Should such legislation ever pass, beer styles such as barley wines, winter warmers, strong lagers, old ales, bock beers, imperial stouts and many India pale ales would be banned and unavailable. This would affect every brewpub, every microbrewery, most importers, and millions of beer drinkers in the United States who would no longer be able to find the beers they enjoy. And that is why you, as a beer drinker, should be paying attention to the debate over malt liquor.
A Glass in Parting
The future is not bright for malt liquor. In 2002, beer market analyst and former business school professor Robert Weinberg noted, “Any economist knows the cheapest way to put alcohol in your system is fortified wine. Beer is a very expensive way to put alcohol in your system.” Weinberg also noted that malt liquor consumption in the United States was in decline. In 1997, it accounted for 4.3 percent of malt beverage sales; in 2001, just 2.6 percent.
Brewers, however, seem either unwilling or incapable of letting go of the profits that come from malt liquor, in spite of declining sales and consistently negative press.
In the end, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, and you don’t do it without paying a price. Malt liquor is an artificial beer style, a style that requires human engineering to override limits placed by nature. It is unnatural for a fermented malt beverage to have this much alcohol, and the consequences should not be wholly surprising. In place of flavor, sociability and a cultural experience, you have a quick ride to intoxication that seems to bring out the worst in everyone, even in the people who object to it. Greed, despair and destruction on one side–lies, bombast and posturing on the other.
It’s a story without heroes.
Kihm Winship is a beer enthusiast who takes pleasure in learning and writing about brewing history, especially fascinating stories that have eluded scholars until now. For a more detailed and in depth study of malt liquor history, he invites you to visit www.faithfulreaders.com.