That problem was about to get much worse.
The great PowerMaster disaster
Around the same time that St. Ides and Olde English 800 were winning over hip-hop fans, Chick Powell found himself in an up-strength shitstorm. At its center was PowerMaster, a 5.9% ABV brand launched by his new employer, G. Heileman Brewing Company, maker of Colt 45, in 1991. The problem wasn't rap marketing, though. It was PowerMaster’s very name.
See, federal law technically mandates that no alcoholic beverage -- malt liquor or otherwise -- be marketed on the virtue of its potency. For years, malt liquor marketers had profitably toed this line thanks to a combination of heavy implication and lax enforcement and/or general obliviousness by the ATF. But with the word "power" right on the label, G. Heileman’s latest product overreached. "That was just stupid," says Powell.
Things quickly got out of hand. "The surgeon general [Antonia Novello] was on the newscast every night, just ripping us," Powell recalls. At 5.9% ABV, PowerMaster was indistinguishable from other up-strengths. St. Ides was selling more (PowerMaster hadn't even fully rolled out yet), and OE800 was stronger on the West Coast. But politicians, the press, and the public demanded PowerMaster's head. Novello called the product "socially irresponsible." Dr. Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem's influential Abyssinian Baptist Church, decried the brewer’s "insidious and diabolical marketing methods," preaching in a sermon: "We all know that power doesn’t come from a can!" Father Michael Pfleger, a prominent Chicago activist clergyman, led a protest at G. Heileman’s La Crosse, WI, headquarters. (Multiple messages left with Abyssinian Baptist Church's pastor's office and emails to Pfleger’s personal address went unanswered.)