The union was auspicious. Malt liquor has never captured even a 5% volume share of the US beer market. In the urban, poor, and black communities, however, its presence was huge. In the early ’90s, African-American drinkers composed around 12% of the country's population, according to census data, but they drank around 28% of the country's malt liquor, according to a widely referenced study by Shanken Communications. And additional research suggested that number skewed heavily male.
Virtually all nationally recognizable rappers in that era were black men. More often than not, they were from disadvantaged neighborhoods. And malt liquor, says Shea Serrano, author of The Rap Year Book, was a cultural touchstone, something that said, "You know about this drink if you're a part of this community."
The list of rappers who promoted St. Ides (5.9% ABV at the time; now up to 8.2%) "reads like a who’s-who of the culture's most respected early- to mid-’90s artists," wrote Kyle Coward last year in The Atlantic. Joining Ice Cube in shilling for St. Ides were household names like Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Warren G, Nate Dogg, and the Wu-Tang Clan. It was "one of the earliest examples -- if not the earliest -- of a brand with no inherent ties to hip-hop completely building its identity around the genre," wrote Coward. (McKenzie River Corporation, the brewer who produced St. Ides during that period, declined comment for this story.)
Olde English enjoyed a similar bump as hip-hop hit it big. Unlike St. Ides, the brand had been around since 1964 and already had street cred thanks to its strength -- especially on the West Coast, where looser restrictions on alcohol content enabled its ABV to soar as high as 7.5%. (Elsewhere, it was 5.9% ABV; now it’s higher no matter where you look.) As early as 1987, Olde English was making waves, getting name-checked everywhere from N.W.A.’s "8-Ball" to the lede of an incendiary Time story about gang violence in South Central. John Singleton would use its red-and-gold-foil 40 label as synecdoche for the entire malt liquor category in Boyz n the Hood, released in 1991.
Hip-hop’s high visibility bore fruit on brewers’ balance sheets. In 1989, Olde English 800 produced 950,000 barrels, according to The U.S. Brewing Industry. In 1993, it produced 1,975,000, making it the category’s biggest brand by volume. Not to be outdone, in its first full year of production -- somewhere between 1987 and 1990, according to multiple accounts -- St. Ides saw its sales jump around 25%, according to a case study published in Harvard Business Review.
The industry swelled in turn. In 1992, the Los Angeles Times reported that sales of malt liquor had increased 15% from 1990 to 1991. Total national barrelage leapt from 5,480,000 in ’89 to 8,910,000 in ’93. St. Ides, Olde English, and the rap-aligned "up-strengths," as they came to be known, were driving the category's growth.
Not that everyone was pleased about it. "They took a pretty down-and-dirty road to be able to get some business quickly," says former malt liquor marketer Powell of St. Ides' marketing maneuvers in that era. "They kinda [cast themselves] like a 'ghetto' brand, and that set some people off."
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.)
"They said that we were trying to contaminate the black ghettos and turn black men into derelicts," Powell remembers. G. Heileman, working its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, couldn't afford the bad press or a costly legal defense, and pulled the product in a matter of months, losing a reported $2 million in the process.