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Marketing of Malt Liquor Fuels Debate : Consumption: Sales of the high-alcohol beverage soar in inner cities. Critics complain that shrewd advertising in ethnic neighborhoods has turned it into a status symbol.

Liquor In Los Angeles: Last Of Two Parts.

December 15, 1992|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You won't find Kapone savoring the taste or aroma of his beverage of choice.

The young gang member from the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts offers a simple explanation for his loyalty to malt liquor, in particular Olde English 800: "It does the job the fastest."

Kapone, a lanky 23-year-old who sells drugs for a living, started drinking when he was 10. To him, beer tastes like water. Even some malt liquors no longer give him a kick.

But several 40-ounce bottles of high-powered "Eight Ball," as his brand is known on the street, guarantee "a hell of a buzz," Kapone said. "And it don't take all day."

Malt liquor--which is made similarly to beer but has more than 5% alcohol--has become the drink of choice among many in the inner city. It is heavily discounted in black and Latino neighborhoods nationwide (a 40-ounce bottle can cost less than $1.50), and promotions coyly--and sometimes not so coyly--plug its potency.

"It's a quicker high," said David Frym, owner of Ike's Market on Los Angeles' Skid Row. "You can drink a can and feel a little lightheaded. These guys are not drinking just to quench their thirst."

While beer consumption has been declining, sales of Colt 45, Olde English 800, King Cobra and other high-octane malt liquor brands grew 15% last year. Analysts say much of the sales gain is among ethnic minorities. Blacks, who make up 12% of the U.S. population, represent 10% of beer drinkers but 28% of malt liquor consumers, according to a study by Shanken Communications Inc. of New York City.

"It is one of the few segments of the beer market that is growing," said Tiziana Mohorovic, research director for Jobson Beverage Group in New York. Although it is growing quickly, she said, it accounts for only 3% of the beer market.

Brewers are moving aggressively to capitalize on the demand--but they have been forced by controversy to tread cautiously.

Coors, for one, is not in the malt liquor business. The Colorado-based brewer test-marketed a product called Magnum several years ago but decided that it did not fit into the company's marketing strategies, said spokeswoman Julie Demlow.

Other brewers declined to comment on malt liquor sales strategies. But a brochure sent to retailers by Pabst Brewing, which makes Olde English 800, states that the top-selling brew appeals to minorities because of its "smooth, mellow taste brewed for relatively high alcohol content (important to the ethnic market!)."

Anti-alcohol activists angrily contend that alcoholic beverage manufacturers are taking advantage of minority groups and exacerbating inner-city problems by targeting them with high-powered blends.

"Alcohol flows in a steady stream in South-Central, and it's alcohol that's in these guys' veins when they do their mayhem," said Don Bakeer, a teacher at Washington High School who wrote the novel on which the anti-gang film "South-Central" is based. "Malt liquor makes youngsters brave. It makes them up the ante."

The brewers' shrewd marketing, activists say, has turned malt liquor into an element of machismo. Macho celebrities such as Ice Cube and Billy Dee Williams are malt liquor spokesmen; billboards for the brews line the streets in poor neighborhoods.

"The marketing campaigns say that all of the hip and cool people are now drinking malt liquor," said Mike Neely, an activist with the Homeless Outreach Program in Los Angeles. "It makes you sexy and appealing to women and all of the things you're not. A whole aura has been created around this beverage."

Colette Winlock, executive director of the National Black Alcoholism Council's California chapter in Oakland, said: "Right now, the big thing among young men is to hang out with a 40-ouncer. It's a status symbol, and the industry has created that."

The critics are referring to commercials such as the one in which rap singer King Tee plugs St. Ides Malt Liquor, which--at 5.9% alcohol--is one of the strongest brands:

"I usually drink it when I'm out just clowning, me and the homeboys, you know, be like downing it. Cause it's stronger but the taste is more smooth. I grab a 40 when I want to act a fool."

Recently, however, such bold marketing campaigns have backfired.

* G. Heileman Brewing Co. pulled PowerMaster from the market in July, 1991, after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said its name violated federal rules barring labels or advertising that promote alcoholic potency.

The rejection by thke bureau came as critics rapped Heileman, a Wisconsin brewer that also produces Colt 45, for aiming malt liquor at minority groups. In May, after the debate had died down, the company introduced a product similar in content to PowerMaster but with a more palatable name: Colt 45 Premium.

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