I’d like to begin Part I by recommending that you read the Introduction. Not only will it tell you something about the inspiration for the series, but it will provide some “rules of engagement” as it were.
A Question of Terminology
WARNING: I am not a journalist. I am a scholar accustomed to writing things for peer-reviewed academic journals that no one reads. I am overly cynical and overuse punctuation like semicolons; I find that commas don’t communicate enough weight and periods don’t link related clauses satisfactorily (I am also fond of parentheses). In short, this will probably be a wonky read for those of you accustomed to the streamlined, logical progression of blog articles written by journalists who have the good sense to the put the most important stuff up front and work their way through supporting details without tangents and oddly placed caveats.
I’d like to begin with a caveat about a key piece of terminology I plan to throw around for the duration of this article, that being the phrase black beer culture. As I mentioned in the Introduction to this series, I wholeheartedly recognize that the racial dynamics of beer culture or American culture at large cannot be compressed into a black and white dynamic (my family of 3 is more complex than this). So, there is a bit of danger and imprecision in using a term like black beer culture, particularly in comparison to something I am suggesting is “unbearably white.”
The thing is, I simply can’t come up with a better term. I considered “minority beer culture.” This struck me as far too bookish and oddly sanitized of the kinds of common cultural references that I will be drawing upon. And there is the small bit of reality that my discussion here is in fact largely about Blacks and Latinos (though I hope the underlying ideas apply more broadly). Similarly, I thought of using the term “urban beer culture,” but I realized that term is just as effective in evoking the image of a chic gastro-pub on your nearest gentrified inner city block as it is in evoking the image of a convenience store where the cashier keeps a pile of 40oz-sized paper bags on the counter like coffee shops keep cardboard sleeves. I thought about using “40oz beer culture,” since that particular form factor for malt beverages will be a central focus for this post, but ultimately I found the term in one sense too narrow (since it leaves out rural areas in which the kinds of cultural phenomena I will be discussing thrive) and in another sense too broad (since ironic hipster-types and frat boys love to drink 40s in eye-roll generating acts of cultural appropriation). Ultimately, I decided to settle with black beer culture, for all of its flaws and exclusions, it does the best job of referencing what I am trying to get at… that is, the idea of a beer culture, largely made up by Blacks and Latinos, in which convenience stores (not bars, brewpubs, or bottleshops) are the primarily means of distribution for a “beer” product that remains largely outside of mainstream beer consumption and certainly outside of craft beer consumption–that is, “malt liquor.”
While there are certainly a number of barriers in play, including income levels and the geographies of distribution, it is my assertion here that the existence of black beer culture is the biggest barrier to entry into craft beer culture for people of color. I don’t mean to say that people of color are all a part of black beer culture and so they aren’t inclined to jump ship for what is ostensibly a white beer culture (though that is certainly the reality for some), I mean to say that the idea of black beer culture alone has had a tremendous impact on the shape of the brewing industry and beer consumption. Though I will have to do more research to support this hypothesis, I believe this impact is part of the reason why status seeking Blacks are so insistent on conspicuously consuming premium liquors–as an effort, in part, to make distance between black, cosmopolitan, upward mobility and the comparatively low status of black beer culture. I believe the desire to make distance (though it might not be one that people overtly recognize) is so great that upwardly mobile Blacks have largely abandoned beer entirely–rarely acknowledging the possibility of enjoying “good” beer.
The question to start with is then, “Where did black beer culture come from?”
An Origin Story
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to All About Beer‘s Julie Johnson, first for reading and commenting on my in-cohesive babble and second for turning me on to the writing of Kihm Winship. Mr. Winship has dome some incredible work on the history of malt liquor in the US that has far eclipsed any of the ragged strands of research I have been attempting to weave together for this series. In fact, if you have the time, you should read Malt Liquor: A History before reading on. It’ll save me from having to pen a few thousand words of background.
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Informative, right? What I think is most important to take from Winship’s piece is that the marriage between poor & working class, urban Blacks and malt liquor was not a maliciously arranged one. It was, as are many things of this nature, the result of social knowledge, practical business decisions, biases and stereotypes, complicity, and good old fashioned chance. The perpetuation of this relationship, I believe, is another story entirely. Further, I happen to agree (though for different reasons entirely) with religious leaders in the black community, urban youth advocacy groups, and conspiracy whackos that this marriage has not been a good thing.
In particular, there are three practices that have been adopted by the brewers of malt liquor since it was first targeted toward minority markets in the 1960s that I believe defined and solidified the nature of black beer culture as it exists today. First, producers of malt liquor have maintained “beer” and “malt liquor” as conceptually different products. Second, malt liquors do not bear the names of their parent brands. Third, producers have been remarkably narrow with distribution practices for these products. I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that the producers of malt liquor have adopted any of these practices with any other intention than to make money. I am however, suggesting that consequences are rarely a matter of intention and that these practices have had some very real, very lasting effects.
Conceptual product differences: Beer vs. Malt Liquor
The other day I was talking though a mental draft of this blog entry, and my wonderful partner looked at me asked, “so what’s the difference between ‘malt liquor’ and ‘beer’.” And I responded by pointing out that in many states laws governing the sale of alcohol mandated that beers above 5% ABV must be sold under the name malt liquor. With another side cock of the head, “are those laws still enforced?” I offered that I thought not, with all the legislative victories won by craft brewers in the last 15 years or so. I then posited that it was the percentage of adjuncts (sugar, rice, corn, and even soy) used in the brewing of malt liquors that set them apart from “proper” beers. But, I realized that assertion was completely wrong before it came out of my mouth. Traditional domestic brands–think the big three and their “lights”–typically contain 25%-65% adjuncts (Tremblay and Tremblay, 2005, p 108). So if the stuff inside a 40oz bottle has no higher a proportion of adjuncts than the Silver Bullet and has just as much a legal claim to the name “beer” as does a 60 Minute IPA, why exactly don’t we call it beer?
I don’t know that I can answer this question with certainty, but I would hazard a guess that in matters of love and capitalism there must be some value in keeping things the way they are. It has been established that American malt liquors, since the time of their introduction, have been marketed on the grounds of their potency–so perhaps there is an affinity for the word “liquor.” To be honest, I am less interested in why and more interested in what I believe to be the result–a conceptual differentiation that makes malt liquor simultaneously beer and not beer. A result that has produced a kind of “separate but equal” economic positioning of malt liquor brands on the part of the industry… and we all know that “separate but equal” does wonders for making arbitrary segregation make sense.
The 40oz bottle, then, has embodied this conceptual difference. It is a form factor almost exclusively used by malt liquor brands. With its clear glass (who cares about light damage? it already tastes like crap), the product inside obviously presents itself as beer-like, but physically it distinguishes its drinkers. My fellow craft beer aficionados know that as craft beer gravities begin approaching double digits, packaging starts moving from 6-packs to 4-packs and pub pours move from pints to 10oz snifters. However, malt liquors offer a high gravity product in a container that encourages rapid consumption in a single sitting. Drinking a recapped 40 is something akin to eating a cold Bloomin’ Onion, it can be done but the limited shelf life of the product is palpable. Drinking a 40 too slowly results in a significant warming of the end of bottle, and with warmth the assy notes in American malt liquor become really pronounced.
Even stranger to me is that the 40oz bottle seems to have made its home in public life. The idea of someone taking a 40 of malt liquor home to pour it into a glass to enjoy with dinner is as strange as the idea of country music rapper (sorry “hick-hop” artist), Cowboy Troy. For better or for worse the 40oz bottle of malt liquor is understood as a direct-to-mouth delivery method, oriented for largely public and social consumption. Whatever the causes for this understanding, the effect has been a very lasting stigmatization of malt liquor as a sign of abuse by the underemployed (being in public drinking and not at work).
Perhaps it’s not so mysterious that commercial breweries don’t want to call their “premium light lagers” and their “malt liquors” by the same name.
Malt Liquors don’t bear the names of their parent brands
Not only do the producers of malt liquor reserve the name “beer” for their mainstream products, they also fail to claim ownership of their malt liquors. Interestingly, another version of this practice has been in beer news as of late. When the Brewers Association released its Craft vs. Crafty statement last month, ripples shot through the brewing community. The statement, leveled by the organizational heart of the craft beer industry, points out the recent practice on the part of macro-breweries of marketing some of their newer products as craft beers (craft beers, however, are by definition produced by small independent breweries), specifically calling out SABMiller’s Blue Moon and Anheuser-Bush InBev’s Shock Top. The statement suggests that this practice is at a minimum strategic and conceivably intentionally deceptive. For the record, I too, think it sucks.
But this practice has been going on for years with regard to malt liquor brands and this move is no less strategic. Again, I will forgo the question of whether or not this is simply “smart business” or something more sinister (though you are encouraged to comment on the matter below); But, I do want to draw attention to what I think is an important consequence–a lack of product movement among malt liquor drinkers.
Those of you who are now hopelessly in love with craft beer, probably have a story of courtship to tell. Your story may be something like my own, in that it includes keg stands and beer pong and a slow discovery of better flavors among imports and large craft brands (Guinness, Bass, Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, etc.). And like my own experience, you may have eventually come to a watershed moment of discovery of the wonders created in regional breweries, local brewpubs, and Belgian monasteries. My own process of product movement from crap to craft was aided, in part, by a series smaller and horizontal moves. Many of such moves are enabled by parent-brand familiarity. For example, a fan of the ubiquitous Sam Adams Boston Lager may find their way to a Sam Adams Imperial Stout and thus be introduced to a completely unfamiliar style of beer (and perhaps more craft beers in general) simply on the grounds of product movement within a brand. Malt liquor brands don’t bear the names of their parent brands, blocking a potential avenue of product movement for it’s drinkers. In short, malt liquors don’t have way up to different (higher quality) products, which, is in fact odd. Most multi-brand corporations build portfolios that allow consumers a way to “climb the latter” to more costly (and often higher quality) products.
Black beer culture, then, offers few ways out, being a conceptually different product than mainstream beers and offering few avenues for exploration with the brand-familiary avenue blocked.
Producers have been extremely narrow with distribution practices
I’ve already alluded to the final practice I want to discuss a few times; That is, the limited avenues of distribution reserved for malt liquors. With kegs of high gravity offerings now gracing the tap handles of bars all over the country, there are few legal obstacles to potentially serving King Cobra or Hurricane from a tap handle in bar, baseball stadium, or theme park next to Michelob Ultra Light, Bud Light, Rolling Rock, Natural Light, Shock Top and Land Shark (consequently, these are all Anheuser-Busch InBev brands).
Malt liquors are narrowly distributed through convenience stores, gas stations, and grocery stores. Though the statement is not overtly made, many of us have come to understand that malt liquor is not legitimate enough, too dangerous, or too associated with the “wrong crowd” to be served in any self-respecting bar or pub. And again, the stigmatization and isolation of black beer culture is reinforced. I can’t help but ask, if Old English were served in neighborhood sports bars, would the boundary between black beer culture and mainstream beer culture (and thus craft beer culture) be more porous?
For me the answer is undeniably, YES.
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There are, no doubt many more significant contributors to the nature and staying power of black beer culture. And I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the influence of Hip-Hop culture’s adoption of the 40oz bottle as an icon of black masculinity. The degree to which people of color have embraced malt liquor as a very visible symbol of cultural identity cannot be minimized. Every young, dark-skinned, baggy pants wearing man clutching a 40oz of malt liquor as a performance of his “blackness” AND every other young person who chooses to appropriate these gestures, have done just as much or more to solidify the nature of black beer culture as have the producers of the country’s largest malt liquor brands.
I am unwilling to say that this, in itself, is wrong. Performances of identity are powerful things and the choice of symbolic artifacts can be empowering in culturally significant ways that most of us can never hope to understand.
Still, the overarching question that I am trying to address–why is the brewing industry, in particular the craft brewing industry, so devoid of color?–is one inspired by my love of craft beer and its community. It is a question inspired by my belief that many of the things being championed by craft beer culture–knowledge of product origins, respect for quality, exposure to new and different things, sustainability, pride in craft, and strong local businesses– are things that EVERYONE should get to enjoy along with their beer.