The Re-Branding of Malt Liquor

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After reading an excellent post by The Thirsty Wench on the slow introduction of session beers, it struck me that this move towards lower ABV products in the craft scene seems to be occurring in opposition to a general rise in ABV of ‘mainstream’ products. Beers such as Bud Light Platinum, Molson Canadian 6.0 ‘Cold Shots’ and the new Miller Fortune show a trend towards higher alcohol lagers. What I find most interesting about this is the social history of these beers and the various guises in which they have been presented.

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Some of you might indeed be surprised to hear these beers called malt liquors. After all, they are packaged as “Triple Filtered Premium Light” or “Spirited Golden Lager”. However, if one looks at the actual make-up of these beers, they are shockingly similar to the beers we are more familiar buying in 40z bottles. The seemingly deceptive packaging hints at an effort to target a new market.

Kihm Winship wrote a fantastic piece on the history of malt liquor. To give a quick overview, Malt Liquors were originally conceived as a premium product and aimed at white middle-class Americans as an alternative to wine and spirits. Accordingly, many of the old guard had fairly aspiring names: Country Club, Olde English etc. It was an idea, in my view that looked to capitalize on the growing idea of an American identity as well as a distrust of things seen as too European (such as wine). However, it wasn’t until the 60s that malt liquor took off when it started to be packaged in larger vessels. and marketed based on its strength, rather than its superior quality (which, as Winship points out was technically a violation of federal law).

From there, Malt Liquor was marketed in an incredibly aggressive and insensitive manner towards poor, urban minorities. Ads played on racial stereotypes, blatantly flaunted the products’ inebriating effects and hinted at the idea of getting one’s date drunk. Somewhat dishearteningly, these campaigns actually worked and malt liquor began to sell in volume.

Then, malt liquor made an unlikely partner: rap music. Oddly enough, despite developing through a culture of protest and challenging norms, rap not only accepted malt liquor, but embraced it. Several high profile artists openly endorsed some of these products well into the 1990s.

It seemed, from there, that malt liquor was on the wane. Perhaps government pressure to limit ABV was working, or maybe the craft movement provided a different, more legitimate source of high-octane beer. A likely issue was the increasing backlash to the ad tactics engaged in by large companies promoting malt liquors. Whatever the true reason, sales appeared to be in decline.

In their ongoing attempt to capture new markets, it seems big brewers have set their sight on a new target: middle class youth. These new products, without using the word ‘liquor’, similarly allied themselves with spirits. Cold shots, while simply a more official version of shotgunning, call to mind hard drinks. Similarly, Miller’s new Fortune is made to taste like bourbon (which apparently meant using cascade hops). Forgetting for a moment the logic in that (cascade hops would add notes of citrus rather than corn-based spirit), the object is clear: attract the young drinker who is more likely to go for lower calorie / carb spirit.

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Indeed, the idea of marketing malt liquors as light beer drives home the point that the new market is (theoretically) a more informed and health conscious one. Funnily enough, in looking at the nutritional fact sheet referenced earlier one can see that Bud Light Platinum actually has more calories and carbs (should you care) than its older, much cheaper stablemate King Cobra. Having had both, I can tell you they taste rather similar.

To call this strategy deceptive depends on whether you view malt liquor as a distinct style. If so, then you would argue that these new products are covering something up. On the other hand if you were to argue that there is no real ‘style’ in high alcohol pilsneresque lagers, then the companies can legitimately call their products anything they want. However, one might also look to the packaging of these products as evidence that brewers are selling these beers in a less than open fashion.

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The new high alcohol ‘premium’ beer tends to be packaged in a metal container of various shapes to help the beer get and stay cold. Oddly, some of these are designed to look like bottles suggesting the drinker is not to notice that they are drinking from a can. As many craft drinkers know, a cold beer has less flavour (for better or worse) and in particular some of the less ‘smooth’ notes in malt liquor such as the extra sweetness or alcohol notes are better hidden when cold. The aforementioned ‘cold shot’ is actually made to be chugged and have as little of the taste appear as possible. On this point, I would actually commend Miller Fortune for advocating slower enjoyment of their product.

My point here is not simply to condemn the large brewers (for once). The new marketing strategy for these beers is infinitely preferable to the old racist, sexist ads which promoted a sort of silent class separation. At face, this is simply a new way to sell a familiar product. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being tricked when I look at these products. I feel like it’s an attempt to shift a product the breweries are actually ashamed of. As well, the fact that their ‘traditional’ malt liquor counterparts still exists tells me that the strategy has not shifted, but merely expanded to include markets that won’t tolerate being condescended to.

I suppose it is worth noting that in nearly all cases, these beers are marketed to men. From Billy D. Williams’ “works every time” all the way to the present, the target audience has been male. For instance, when discussing the potential consumer base for Miller Fortune, representatives said it was meant to evoke “a guy in a tapered, athletic-cut suit”. Even now, ads for malt liquor frequently feature scantily clad women (and disproportionately one of an identifiable racial minority).

At this point I should point out that I actually enjoy some malt liquors as a craft drinker. That might seem paradoxical, but I genuinely find that certain malt liquors have something unique to say. Beers like Olde English 800 are unapologetically grain-forward with a sourness similar to a young white wine. Molson XXX presents a much burlier take on the traditional pale lager. You may not find all the flavours agree with you, but they are a unique experience that (in my opinion) every serious beer drinker should have before they sneer at. Besides, even if you hate it, you’re not out much money. As a general guide, those much above 8% tend to fall afoul of my palate and I wouldn’t seriously endorse trying them.

Overall, I would say the true value in looking at the ‘bottom of the barrel’ beers is not necessarily the products themselves, but what they say about the society they are marketed to. The movement of high-alcohol lager through various levels of social strata is instructive on our notions of class, gender and race. The way in which beer is marketed says much about how we perceive ourselves and others since it is this perception marketers use as a foundation for their ads. While the marketing of malt liquor in the past has been distasteful it did not come out of a vacuum. My fear is that these newer, gentrified beers will reinforce and justify the gap between the people we think ‘should’ be drinking Bud Light Platinum and those we think ‘should’ be drinking King Cobra.

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