The forty: beer’s bullying half-brother who looks the menace and packs a punch. The birth of 40 ounces of malt liquor happened in the years after World War II. The larger size harkened back to the not-too-distant days of supply rationing, and its carbonation and higher alcohol content made it the perfect champagne alternative for the middle class, albeit one made of corn and other adjuncts added during the brewing process. One of the first forties, Country Club, suggested an elite social set and was advertised with smarmy, Rock Hudson types. Others, like Olde English 600 and University Club, alluded to history and tradition with logos of white-wigged Brits and Latin mottos.
It took more than 20 years for the beast to be unleashed. Colt 45 and its not-too-subtle label design featured a bucking horse and was followed soon thereafter by another: Bull Dog. The message? These brews are feisty. Advertising throughout the 1960s brought the forty to a wider and more diverse audience with sexy names like Soul Mellow Yellow Beer and allusions to “pleasure enhancement” on a tight budget. In the span of a couple decades, the forty had gone from an affordable luxury to cheap beer alternative that delivered intoxicating results.
During the celebrity endorsement era beginning in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, celebrities with broad appeal, such as basketball great Wilt Chamberlain and hip hop stars Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dog, who were already known for alluding to the products in their rap lyrics, also promoted malt liquors despite protests from groups like the NAACP who felt African-Americans were being unfairly targeted and the campaigns were socially irresponsible. Other groups also protested other malt liquors such as Crazy Horse and Hurricane for targeting American Indian and Hispanic groups, respectively.
Despite steady profits for manufacturers, the reputation of the forty has subsequently disintegrated due to bad press, often being associated with convenience stores, inner city crime, the homeless and crazy college kids who have created a drinking game, “Edward Forty Hands,” where forty bottles are duct-taped to each hand and are supposed to be consumed before the overwhelming urge to hit the loo. But while these associations aren’t flattering, the forty can’t escape being ingrained in American culture, for better or for worse. –Sally Semegen
THE FORTY, DEFINED: Laws vary by state, but generally, forties are beers with greater than 5% ABV and usually less than 9% ABV. They are brewed with corn and other sugar adjuncts to assist in fermentation resulting in a higher alcohol content, but they lack hop bitterness. With more than a liter of fluid, the 40-ounce bottles are more than three times the size of a normal 12-ounce beer and are there fore generally regarded for their inexpensive prices yet inebriating effects.