I have been writing this column for more than three years now—and I know that because I have a nearly useless habit of numbering each column as I write it. OK, it was an entirely useless habit—until this month.
This is my 40th column. (My editor has a slightly different count, but I stand by my math.) While I usually refrain from celebrating numbered things, the number 40 pertains to beer in a very real way: This is the notorious number of ounces in large bottles of malt liquor, something that has somehow become a cultural icon—a “meme,” before the term was created in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, almost as an afterthought at the end of his influential book The Selfish Gene (though it meant something different in his original definition).
What is malt liquor? If you’ve tried it, you know it resembles beers brewed by the large breweries around the world that make pale lagers. Well, malt liquor is simply beer made with a much-larger amount of adjuncts such as corn, rice or dextrose, plus the addition of certain enzymes in order to create a strong, inexpensive-to-produce alcoholic beverage. Its creation in the late 1930s was in response to post-Prohibition drinkers with a tight budget who craved beer with more oomph.
Years later, in the ’60s, the 40-ounce bottle seems to have made its debut. Beer was often sold in quarts (32 ounces) and even half-gallon (64 ounces) sizes for the purpose of serving at parties—but as weird as 40 ounces sounds as a package, it’s simply a 25 percent increase from the quart. It was meant to allow the purchaser to save money while serving “friends” at a soirée (presumably “friends” the purchaser disliked). It was often sold based on its resemblance to champagne. This was in reaction to the lower beer consumption in the U.S. at the time, and malt liquor was meant to compete with wine and cocktails.
That marketing ultimately failed—and it was eventually discovered that inner-city minorities were often the actual consumers. This shifted the marketing and set malt liquor down the cultural path by which we know it today. Fast forward to the ’80s, where we find actor Billy Dee Williams, fresh off of his role in The Empire Strikes Back as the smoothest space pirate in the galaxy, becoming the face of Colt 45’s product with the dubious tagline, “It works every time.” As he chimed in the original 1984 commercial: “Rule No. 1: Never run out of Colt 45. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No 1.”
This marketing stroke worked—but it eventually led to ad men getting carried away, and by the 1990s, we saw rapper Ice Cube doing a commercial for St. Ides malt liquor and saying these words: “Get your girl in the mood quicker, make your jimmy thicker, with St. Ides malt liquor.”
The “40” had found a home in hip-hop culture. While its original intended audience had been people serving party-goers, it became something you sipped straight out of the bottle, almost as a rite of passage. And it resembled many cultural rites of passage throughout history in that it was a painful undertaking.
This is normally the point at which I would talk about the notes of the product—the package, the aroma, the taste. You will have to forgive me for not doing so here. I remember a friend and I each surreptitiously drinking a 40 of Olde English 800 Malt Liquor when I was 16 or 17. I also remember vomiting in the side yard a couple of hours later. I have had a few 12-ounce bottles of Mickey’s “Big Mouth” since then and found it to be similarly regrettable.
I last drank a 40 more than 15 years ago, at a strange motel in Van Nuys one night. (I was staying there due to a malfunctioning sewer pipe in front of my rental … I’d rather not talk about it.) Steel Reserve had come along with slicker packaging and an 8 percent alcohol-by-volume malt liquor—and the liquor store next to the hotel was clearly not new to the malt-liquor game. I had never seen a 40-ounce bottle of the stuff before (nor have I since), but the neighboring rooms were emanating smells of illicit drugs, and I was a relatively poor musician, so I decided I needed something cheap and nasty. Not my finest moment, but it got me through the night. I suspect this is the key to the success that malt liquor has achieved in the adult-beverage industry.
None of what has been said here so far addresses the cynical nature of the marketing of malt liquor—and its repercussions. Well, I’m not going near that; who needs a white dude in the beer industry pontificating on racial issues? I know I don’t. However, I will point you toward a write-up on the history of malt liquor titled “A Story Without Heroes: The Cautionary Tale of Malt Liquor” by a writer named Kihm Winship, if you want to dive all the way into the subject. The article is a more-in-depth summary of malt liquor than I could ever fit in one column (or that I would ever have enough patience to research for myself), and it is extremely well-sourced. A little bit of what you read above was certainly pulled from it.
Malt liquor is definitely still out there, despite declining sales and lawsuits in recent years. Breweries simply can’t give up making the stuff. It sits in every fridge in every convenience store that is allowed to carry it, and most of us pass by it without giving it a single thought. Still, it remains a part of American culture, for better or for worse, kept alive by hip-hop-culture-worshiping suburban kids who—like kids in generations before—want to find a way to get drunk cheaply. Some of the latest versions of these drinks are energy-drink hybrids, meant to create some sort of super hangover juice. (See the infamous Four Loko; a whole column could be written on the popularization of these types of drinks and the mayhem its drinkers caused before manufacturers were forced to remove the caffeine.)
Whether in original form, a new form, or a yet-to-be-invented form, malt liquor is here to stay—and will likely be around for a long, long time.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.