BEERZ IN THE ‘HOOD'

From the lightest summer ales to the heaviest Imperial
stouts, craft beer lovers are never averse to trying
examples of the entire range. While each individual
probably has some style of which he is not particularly
fond, ( my own being gueze…..nasty stuff indeed), one
type that virtually all beer geeks eschew is “malt
liquor”, especially popular in America ’s inner cities.

The style to which I refer is not to be confused with
great imported and craft brews of above average
alcohol content, which, due to the idiocy of some state
legislatures, require them to be labeled as malt liquor.
Rather, the brews referred to are those cheaply
brewed to a high alcohol content with no other
purpose in mind than to impart the most economical
and quickest drunk for persons on the lower end of
the socio-economic scale.

It wasn’t always that way, however. The beverage, as
we know it today, was actually first brewed by Michigan’
s Grand Valley Brewing Company in the late 1930’s
and was named Clix Malt Liquor in honor of it’s brewer,
Clarence “Click” Koerber, who was looking for a way to
cut costs because of malt shortages during the
depression. He and other brewers had been
experimenting with such brewing adjuncts as sorghum
and even potatoes to make beer more palatable to
consumers who had been complaining that the post
prohibition beers had less kick than previously.


Thus was born malt liquor, originally aimed at middle
class drinkers and, because of the higher alcoholic
levels, was marketed in smaller eight ounce cans with
such suburbanite names as “Country Club”. And so it
remained: a tiny segment of the market, for about
twenty five years before the National Brewing
Company of Baltimore introduced “Colt .45” with
special emphasis on the potency and a kicking horse
on the label. This strategy was copied by other
brewers and soon a menagerie of brands appeared:
“Big Cat”, ‘Red Bull”, “Elephant”, “Pit Bull’, “Mustang”,
“King Cobra”, etc., all designed to get the consumer to
think big and dangerously. To the best of my
knowledge, no malt liquors were ever named “Puppy”
or “Bunny Rabbit”.


At about the same time as the animals were being
unleashed, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s
introduced a whole new market for brewers of malt
liquor: African-Americans, who, though only twelve to
fourteen percent of the population consume almost
thirty five percent of the beverage today. In testimony
to this, the Maier Brewery of Los Angeles offered the
“Soul” brand shortly after the Watts riots. Both the
brand and the brewery succumbed to public outcry,
but even so, advertisers have unabashedly resorted to
targeting black neighborhoods for malt liquor sales
with such strategies as murals which resemble graffiti
painted on the walls of Philadelphia buildings, and
which urge thirsty citizens in the City of Brotherly Love
to buy what has been referred to as “liquid crack”.



Malt liquor is the beverage of choice of the homeless
and the unemployed, and the price points of these
products bear this out. I discovered several brands
that offer a “forty” (40 oz. bottle) for $1.25 and a
24oz. can for $.99. When one wonders why anyone
wouldn’t spring for the extra quarter to obtain better
than half again as much liquid crack, one only has to
realize that $.99 might be the entire bankroll available
to spend.

Sex is not only subtly hinted at in malt liquor
advertising, in addition it’s promoted as loudly as ‘The
Stars and Stripes Forever” at the Fourth of July
fireworks. “Playmate” malt liquor and Billy Dee Williams
testifying to “the power of Colt.45” had sexual
connotations. But two other brands left nothing to the
imagination. “Midnight Dragon Special Reserve”
advertising depicted a girl sipping Dragon through a
straw while proclaiming “I could suck this all night”, and
rapper Ice Cube, borrowing a thought from Ogden
Nash (“Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker”), actually
sold St. Ides on radio spots by rapping out the
following romantic lyric: “Get your girl in the mood
quicker, and get your jimmy thicker….with St. Ides Malt
Liquor. Maybe “liquid crack” is not an appropriate
name. Perhaps “liquid Viagra” would be more suitable.


Malt liquor has it’s own unique method of dispensing.
Craft brew enthusiasts wouldn’t think of drinking a
hefeweizen from a ceramic stein, Berlinerweiss from a
shaker glass, or cask conditioned ale from a frosted
mug. Lovers of malt liquor needn’t fret over any of
this, because their beverage of choice is usually
consumed directly from it’s original container, still
wrapped in a brown paper bag, seconds after
removing it from the convenience store cooler. And
while main stream beer has it’s consumption traditions
such as clicking glasses while singing “Ein Prosit, and
drinking from the German “boot” glass without
spillage, malt liquor has it’s own tradition of “tipping”,
in which a small amount of brew is poured on the
pavement before drinking while saying ,”Pour one for
the homies” to commemorate a dead friend or relative.


Even one of the most “outside the nine dots” craft
brewers, Dogfishead, creators of one of my favorites,
“Raison D’Etre” mahogany ale, offered something
called “Liquor de Malt”, apparently not aimed at the
Boyz in the ‘hood, because of it’s $7.50/bottle price
tag.

Many experts in the marketing field believe that malt
liquor, which now only accounts for about a two per
cent share of the beer market, does not have a rosy
future, because, compared to fortified wines such as
Ripple, Richard’s Wild Irish Rose and Night Train
Express, it’s an extremely expensive way to get drunk.
But before malt liquor becomes a thing of the past,
maybe my beer club, the Draught Board 15, should  
dedicate a meeting to “Beerz  From the “Hood”. It
could only enhance our appreciation of craft beer.


Cheers
,

       

Dan
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