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Alcopops & Malternatives

I guess I should start out with the title of this section - "Alcopops and Malternatives".  I prefer the term "Flavored Malt Beverages" of more simply "FMBs".  I used the name as a "hook".

Although viewed by some to be a recent phenomenon, these beverages have actually been around for some time.  I remember how surprised (and disappointed) my (at that time future) wife was when I told her around 1988 that “Matilda Bay” was actually a malt beverage (you had to read the fine print).  Matilda Bay was made by the Miller Brewing Company.   I have to believe that this type of beverage was produced as an effort to (1) get around regulations and licenses that only allowed the sale of malt beverages; and (2) take advantage of a more favorable tax scheme for beer and malt beverages.  Remember, alcoholic beverages can be place in two very broad groups – fermented beverages (beer and wine) and distilled beverages (liquor).  Although with “special” yeasts and other process tricks it is possible to achieve very high percentages of alcohol by volume without distillation, most fermented beverages top out at around 12-13% Alcohol By Volume.  A “great” remnant of prohibition is the patch work of state alcoholic beverage control laws.  Suffice it to say that malt beverages, wines and liquor and distilled spirits are treated differently.   A roughly 5% Alcohol by Volume Matilda Bay was a relatively “tame” early “malternative”.   The actual term “malternative” can be attributed to Coors “Zima” which came out around the early 90s. 

Fast forward to today and “Malternatives” and “Alcopops” are everywhere.  At my local C-Store there is a better selection of these beverages than all beers in single servings.  They are marketed under familiar names like Smirnoff (known for vodka), Bacardi (known for rum), and even Jack Daniels (whiskey) but they don’t contain a drop of distilled spirit.

These malt beverages should not be confused with premixed cocktails that are also widely available but only in outlets licensed to sell liquor since they do contain distilled spirits.

These beverages generally come in three strengths; 5.0%, 8.0% and 12.0 % ABV.  What I find interesting is that 5% stuff tends to come in 12 ounce bottles, 8% stuff like “Mike’s Harder” come in 16 ounce cans and 12% stuff like Colt 45 Blast and Four Loko come in 23.5/24 ounce cans (I haven't figured out yet why 23.5 ounce but again it has to be to get around some law or regulation).  Regardless of their alcoholic strength, they share some common traits.  Although they are “malt beverages”, they have absolutely no beer characteristics.  All being a "malt beverage" means it that the alcohol was derived through the fermentation of malted grains (probably corn for the most part since it is the cheapest).  Beer and ale are malt beverages but not all malt beverages are beer or ale.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have sampled Mike’s Harder Black Cherry while cutting grass on a hot day and actually like it.  The thing is that I am experienced enough to know that one is just the right amount.  I have also consumed other beverages like Colt 45 Blast and Four Loko and generally don’t like the abundantly sweet taste.

There are a few problems with these beverages that make me take pause regarding them.

A single 24 ounce can of 12% ABV beverage is roughly the equivalent of five “standard” drinks.  Just for comparison, a bottle of most American wine is 750 ml (25.4 oz.) and has between 11 and 12% ABV. Considering that these beverages have absolutely no “warning properties” (they don’t taste of any alcohol), they very easy to quickly consume.  For someone of moderate stature, especially a woman, one of these will render you intoxicated by any standard and two will add up to extreme intoxication and maybe even a trip to the ER and without sounding to glib, even the morgue.

You may remember the incident at Central Washington University in the fall of 2010 where several students ended up in the hospital after consuming Four Loko, a brand of flavored malt beverage.  Never mind there was evidence of consumption of other forms of alcoholic beverages; the “alcopop” took the hit. 

Besides their sweet, alcohol-free flavor, these things are cheap; the big boys typically go for around 2.49 and the 16 ounce can often is yours for a buck.  Even a 750 ml. of MD 20-20 (roughly the same alcohol) will set you back over 3 bucks.  While MD 20-20 doesn’t enjoy much of a reputation other than being “Bum Wine”, beverages like Blast and Four Loko are perceived as “hip” or whatever term the young people use today.

Shelf space in any retailer is at a premium.  Any space devoted to these beverages takes space away from something else.  Since I seriously doubt that Bud Light or Coors Light are in danger, which means "good" stuff will be less available.  Heck, even the rough edge malt liquors that I enjoy nostalgically from time-to-time are losing out to these things.

Of course, as a craft beer lover, I’m not too worried since like with all things, if there is a demand (and there certainly is with craft beer), there will be a retailer that carries what I want.

I’m having a hard time thinking of anything good to say about these products.  Some “advocates” propose simply banning the products.  I am strongly opposed to that since most of the schemes involve prohibiting any beverage over a certain percentage of alcohol.  The “unintended consequence” here is that there are a good number of high quality craft beers that have a relatively high percentage of alcohol that would also be banned.  Another proposed “solution” is that high alcohol malt beverages should be treated as distilled spirits and only be sold at liquor stores.  Again, this “solution” would impact a fair number of high quality craft beers.  They are not distilled beverages and honestly, selling them at liquor stores only will have no effect other than to favor one class of retailer over another.

Don’t expect much cooperation from the makers of these products; the profit margin is just too high.  Besides, if demand wasn’t there these things would be history; remember the shelf space thing – no one in the business likes using store shelves for long term storage.

The answer is not another useless law that is passed as a knee jerk reaction to some tragic event.  The solution is education.  As a parent, I have taught my kids about alcohol consumption.  They don’t see me really piling it away and they certainly will never see me get into a car after drinking except as a passenger.  Another thing is to never drink anything that you didn't see come out of a closed container.

Vilifying them is a sure ticket for failure too.  An old friend of mine used to say that whenever he heard “thou shalt not” is pretty much went to the top of his to do list.

These things are here to stay so we might as well get used to them being around.  One thing I wouldn't mind seeing is a requirement to put the number of equivalent standard drinks on the label.  Of course, the problem with that is that some would look at that as a competition to see how many they could put away.

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