In June of 1991, while the reorganized G. Heileman Brewing Company was once again trying to get back on its financial feet after a series of business setbacks, the brewery announced the creation of a new malt liquor called PowerMaster. This new brew would be added to its collection of other high-octane brews, including its best seller, Colt 45. PowerMaster would have an alcoholic content of about 5.5 to 6 percent, depending on the legal restrictions on alcohol content in beer by some western states.
“Upper strength malt liquors, those with a higher alcohol content, are growing,” noted a brewery spokesman, ” in an industry trade journal. Some industry observers, however, weren’t too sure about bringing one more malt liquor into the beer market, especially with the growing wave of neo-prohibitionism and a trend towards moderation in the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
“It’s a gutsy move on Heileman’s part,” said an industry observer, “but I’m not sure they can pull it off.” But one could also see Heileman’s logic in introducing yet another malt liquor. The national malt liquor market had shown increases of 300,000 barrels in each of the last two years to 6.1 barrels in 1990. In an otherwise stagnant market and in a rebuilding phase, Heileman was willing to bring on PowerMaster and pit it against the Stroh brewery’s Schlitz Malt Liquor, Anheuser-Busch’s King Cobra and Miller’s Magnum.
About the same time that PowerMaster was making its debut in Chicagoland, Reverends George Clements and the bete noire of the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Father Michael Pfleger showed up at Heileman’s La Crosse, Wisconsin offices and demanded to speak with the brewery’s president, Thomas Rattigan. The priests contended that the new PowerMaster with its high alcohol kick was being targeted at black communities. When the duo was informed that Rattigan was out-of-town and that no other member of the brewery’s management team was willing to meet with them, they refused to leave the company offices. Company officials called the police who promptly arrested the Chicago clerics for trespassing.
In the courtroom of La Crosse Municipal Court Judge Robert Joanis, the two priests were released on $85 signature bonds and admonished by the judge that any future protests could land them in jail. He also ordered that they return to La Crosse in late August to answer the trespassing charges. In typical defiant fashion, the priests vowed that they would return to the brewery and continue the fight against the marketing and selling of the new PowerMaster product.
Clements and Pfleger, however, were just a small part of a nationwide campaign to usurp the placement of PowerMaster in the retail beer market. Various black leaders, Surgeon General Antonia Novello and representatives of anti-drinking groups had caught the attention of Washington, and in doing so, stirred the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) into action. In early July, BATF representatives descended on the La Crosse brewery, and in a two-hour meeting, informed Heileman that they were pulling approval of the PowerMaster label. Citing laws established by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, the BATF claimed that they were invoking a passage in the Act that forbade the labeling or advertising of beer as being “strong, full strength, extra strength or high test,” all words that could be construed as an indication of alcoholic strength.
After the United States brewing industry had lost its eight month exclusive right to manufacture 3.2 percent beer with the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933, many breweries came out with a line of what were commonly referred to at the time as “headache beers,” malted beverages with a high alcohol content. These beers were brewed strong in an attempt to blunt a possible loss of market share to distilled spirits manufacturers. Claiming since the nineteenth century that beer was really a nourishing “drink of moderation,” the move by brewers to manufacture and advertise high alcohol products seemed a bit hypocritical and left the industry in a sensitive position. Still gun-shy that the federal government could giveth and taketh away the right to brew beer again, the United States brewing industry had grudgingly accepted the labeling restrictions.
Decades later, and following a very wide interpretation of these post-Prohibition guidelines, the BATF claimed that the word “Power” violated federal law. Heileman was allowed to sell its existing stock of PowerMaster for the next four months but would have to stop any further advertising of the product. In a statement by G. Heileman after the BATF’s decision, the brewery acknowledged the financial burden that continued litigation over the issue would entail. In the midst of reorganization, the brewery decided to take their medicine and move on. When pressed by reporters as to how the PowerMaster label could have been approved by the BATF and then suddenly pulled after lobbying by anti-drink proponents, Dan Black, deputy director of the bureau and associate director of compliance operations at the BATF explained away the action. “With upwards of 80,000 labels a year…sometimes these things happened.”
St. Sabina pastor Pfleger, was overjoyed by the BATF ruling. “When we are spiritually strong, there’s no problem we cannot overcome. We have a serious alcohol problem in the [Chicagoland African-American] community, and this means that something worse won’t be added to it,” said Pfleger, then added “Big business better watch out if it’s doing wrong.” St. Ides malt liquor was gaining popularity in the black community, especially after rap and movie star Ice Cube was making commercials for the beer. After the beer was highlighted in the movie, Boyz n the Hood, sales took off. “Get your girl in the mood quicker,” sang Ice Cube in one of the commercials he did for the powerful malt liquor, “and get your jimmy thicker with St. Ides malt liquor.” Today, the Colt .45, St. Ides and St. Ides Special Brew labels are owned by the Pabst Brewing Company. For you readers who have never succumbed to the ass-kicking qualities of this powerhouse genre of beer, I present the following qualities with one caveat. Though I use the word “ounce” in this article to describe the fluid amount of malt liquor in any given container, it’s customary to instead described the liquid measurement as oz., as in “O-O-O-Z-E-E.” Dead giveaway you’re a writer from the suburbs if you use the full-written word;
* Malt liquors range in alcohol content from 5.6 percent (Colt 45) to 8.0 percent (St. Ides) by volume. Regular beer averages 4.6 percent alcohol by volume.
* Four, 12-ounce cans of malt liquor can have as much alcohol as five to eight cans of beer. Malt liquor is often promoted, however, in single 40-ounce bottles. 24-ounce cans are also available and known as “shorty forties.”
* One 12-ounce can of regular beer has approximately the same alcohol as a standard shot of whiskey. All have an average of a half-ounce of alcohol. Drinking one 40-ounce bottle of St. Ides is equivalent to drinking a little more than five shots of whiskey.
* Standard etiquette for drinking malt liquor in Chicago is to stand on a street corner with a menacing group of your friends and drink it from a new paper bag. No plastic bags, please! That would be gauche and so not “green.”
* It gets your jimmy thicker.