While screwing around on Twitter Sunday afternoon, I made the stunning and repulsive discovery that Betspin impresario Jay Sanin is a habitual Four Loko drinker. At first, I thought he just posted this picture as a goof, but further investigation revealed that he is a married man with two dogs, a job, and a roof who regularly drinks that shit on purpose.
He's also a recent college grad, which explains away some of the dumbfuckness of buying Four Loko with any dollars other than your last two on Earth, and his only previous claim to infamy was running a blog celebrating degeneracy, but even a man with that short and slimy a track record has no good reason to drink Four Loko in his own heated, electrified home.
That particular brand of syrupy malt evil may be faltering; it has recently surrendered its caffeinated advantage and agreed to make its marketing slightly less predatory. But even if Four Loko fades, its imitators will still be around to send teenagers to emergency rooms and 40s of malt liquor to early graves. That's the most offensive unintended consequence of the rise of Colt .45 Blast, Sparks, Mike's Hard Whatever the Fuck, Bud Light Lime-a-Rita, and all the other Loko-alikes that have flooded the market in the past decade: They're displaced the once-proud 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor as the intoxicant of choice for the low-budget drinker on the go.
It would be disingenuous for someone in my position to speak too highly of 40s. Not only am I just another middle-class Gawker Media honky, but I'm the one who yammers on and on every day about roasted-malt this and citrus-hop that. So no, I don't like malt liquor. And outside of very occasional nostalgia for my late teens and early twenties—and lingering appreciation for the rappers who endorsed some of the more famous 40s of that era—I rarely even consciously remember that they exist.
But I still defend the traditional 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor on purely philosophical grounds. St. Ides, Colt .45, Country Club, Schlitz Blue Bull, Mickey's, Hurricane, Olde English 800, King Cobra, Hurricane, Steel Reserve ... most honorable American drinkers have had at least one of these at some point in their youth or their poverty-stricken years, and while they are not "good beers" by any stretch of the imagination, they are all more or less "real beers," and as such can serve as important gateways to pleasurable adult drinking.
Their primary appeal, of course, is their price-to-alcohol ratio, which is now a much less potent advantage with the influx of eight-percent-plus-ABV fruit-punch bullshit like the aforementioned. Classic malt liquors were around six- to seven-percent ABV—the standard-issue Colt .45, arguably the most iconic malt liquor of all-time, is a mere 5.6, though extra-strength models have been introduced since Billy Dee's day. Relative newcomer Steel Reserve is 8.1, but even that's only tied with Green Flash West Coast IPA, a beer that's acknowledged to be potent but not marketed as such. IPAs are just good beers that happen to have highish alcohol contents; malt liquors are just cheap beers that very pointedly have highish alcohol contents. There used to be room for that latter category, but the alco-pops are crowding them out.
Jamie Tallman, owner of N Street Drive-In Liquors near the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln, reports that sales of 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor have declined 24 percent since 2010, as college students have shunned them in favor of the boozy fruit punches. (Which are also called malt liquors, making it hard to parse the data, other than by bottle size. Here's the convoluted definition, but for our purposes here, we know "malt liquor" when we see it, and we know that it looks like bad macro-brewed beer and most often comes in a 40-ounce bottle. It's not that Arizona Iced Tea-looking bullshit that turns modern prom bathrooms into chunky rainbow hellscapes.)
Of course college students aren't the only market for 40s, and I still see plenty leaving the bodega on the less-student-centric side of my neighborhood. But college kids do a great deal of our great nation's binge-drinking, and if they're turning their backs on the 40, then it's fair to say the category is in decline. I mean, all the Miller-owned brands—Mickey's, Olde English 800, Steel Reserve—started packaging their 40s in plastic last year, for fuck's sake!
But alas, nothing gold can stay, and that goes double when the gold in question kinda sucks. Most of the shiny yellow stuff we grew up on contained way too many cheap adjuncts—corn, rice, whatever the cheapest fermentable grain happened to be that day, plus sugar—and hardly any hops, resulting in sweet, shitty beer that wasn't good for a whole lot other than quenching one's thirst or getting one fucked up quick. Now we have water for the former and goddamn Colt .45 Blast for the latter.
I was an Olde English 800 man in my youth, probably because of the N.W.A. song, so that's the one I chose to feature in the review portion of today's requiem. Oh, well.
It looks like the urine sample of a drug-testee who hasn't flushed his system nearly enough, though it does have a decent head if, for whatever stupid reason, you pour it into a beer-tasting glass. It has a very strong aroma of Corn Pops and raw Chicken McNugget batter, and it tastes like cold-buttered cardboard with no hops at all. Pretty gross, to be honest, but at least somewhat beer-like, and therefore infinitely more honorable than Four Loko.
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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain. Image by Jim Cooke.
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