Dry Beer

How Dry We Might Be: Dry Beer, Malt Liquor and the Second Coming of Prohibition

This article appeared in the Syracuse New Times, September 21-28, 1988. The statistical and brand information is thus dated, but there are some larger truths that remain relevant.

* * *

We are a jaded people, forever searching for something new. New cars, new movies, new stereo components, new fashions, new desserts, even new advertisements to keep us buying old favorites like Levi’s and Coca-Cola. And when, in pursuit of something new, we give up an old product for a new one, someone Old loses money and someone New makes a bundle.

The people who make and sell beer live and die this way, and they must scan the horizon for what’s new as often as they dare look up from their spreadsheets.

A few years ago, Corona was a pleasant Mexican beer set apart only by its clear glass bottle and painted label which made it easy to spot, even across a crowded bar, as something new. In a stunningly short time, it has grown to threaten Heineken’s half-century reign as America’s top import.

Japan’s draft beer, filtered rather than pasteurized, had a broader effect. Miller Brewing purchased the technology from Sapporo in 1979 and eventually produced Miller Genuine Draft. The encouraging sales of Genuine Draft prompted the Adolph Coors Company to change, in name only, its 115-year-old Coors Banquet brand to Coors Original Draft to spotlight that brewery’s pioneering of filtration in 1959.

Now a new wave of beer is rolling in from Japan — dry beer, dry as in not too sweet. Japan’s Asahi Brewery introduced Asahi Super Dry Draft Beer in 1987 and posted a huge 33% sales gain for the year. It hoped to sell 1 million barrels of dry beer in 1987; instead, it sold 13.5 million.

All three of Asahi’s competitors — Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory — quickly followed with their own dry beers. As of June, 39% of the beer sold in Japan was dry. Megabrew, megabucks.

:: What Makes a Dry Beer Dry? ::

In fermentation, yeast changes the available brewing sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Asahi created dry beer by fermenting beer longer and more thoroughly, decreasing the sugars left at the end of the fermentation, increasing alcohol and carbonation, to produce a beer with a lighter body and drier taste. Brewed in the same manner, Kirin Dry Draft Beer is billed as “exceptionally delicate, well-balanced with a dry finish.” Suntory Dry is said to be smooth and clear-cut, and Sapporo Dry Draft Beer offers “an unusually smooth, sharp taste with more carbonation.”

The first American dry will be Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob Dry Beer, rushed into five test markets September 1, even before the six-packs were printed. There are two ways to lead in a brewing category: Get there first or come later with lots of money. In the light beer column, Anheuser-Busch got burnt by Miller Lite and had to buy Bud Light’s third-place market share at a great price. It had no response to Miller Genuine Draft. With dry beer, Anheuser-Busch is flying.

Said to be endowed with a less-sweet flavor, fresh aroma and fleeting aftertaste, Michelob Dry Beer is ahead of its advertising plans. Japanese brewers have positioned dry beer with a macho image, selling that image with spokesmen such as Gene Hackman and Mike Tyson.

Recognize anything familiar? A macho image, a more fully fermented beer with higher alcohol… Holy Hammer Head, it’s malt liquor?

Almost. Malt liquor differs because additional brewing sugars boost its alcohol content even higher. But as these two styles are more completely fermented, less sweet, with less body and more alcohol, they are similar.

To put the alcoholic content in perspective: Light beer contains approximately 4% alcohol by volume, regular beer 4.5%, dry beer 5%. Malt liquor varies from 5% to 7.5%. When light beer became popular, it represented a 10% step down in alcohol content. If dry beer were to be equally successful, it would mean a 10% step up for the beer drinker, 20% up for the light beer drinker.

At the moment, stronger beers run counter to consumer concerns about health and driving while intoxicated. Malt liquor has had a limited success outside its main market of young black me (just 3% of the brewer’s market overall), but dry beer shows tantalizing signs of being in a winner in the mainstream.

:: Stronger Brews ::

New beer styles — light beer, malt liquor, dry beer — emerge when lifestyles and social conditions meet brewing technology. In the case of stronger beers, some people have always had more to escape from and fewer ways within their means to do so. So all beer drinking nations have brewed some beers with a higher alcohol content to meet the demand for an inexpensive escape, a social anesthetic.

Hundreds of years ago, stronger beers were consumed within certain social guidelines. Holidays and celebrations permitted a higher level of hilarity and allowed time to recover. In the winter, warriors, farmers and workmen desired a sensation of warmth, had less work to do and more time for incapacitation. Evening drinkers were more meditative and could safely sleep off more alcohol.

In England, the call for stronger beer resulted in holiday ales, winter warmers and barleywines (the port wines and sherries of beer). In Germany, brewers responded with festival beers, bock and doppelbock beers. All to be consumed at set times and places.

But times change. Growing cities and advancing technology distance us from the rhythms of the seasons and country life. We work in sealed buildings, watch 39 channels. Lands’ End catalogs arrive in the mail 13 times a year; sports seasons overlap; we live in the timelessness of video replay.

At the same time, growing stress, poverty and greater pessimism about the future swell the numbers of those who seek cheap and immediate escape. The desire for additional alcohol has become continual, broken loose from the bounds of nature and polite society, crossed into all seasons, all times, all places.

Among those drinkers who prefer beer, one modern response has been a preference for malt liquor. Brewers did not create the demand for malt liquor, nor select its market. History created the demand; society created the market. Brewers stumbled into it while looking for something new.

:: The Birth of a New Brew ::

In the early 1960’s, the National Brewing Company of Baltimore, a regional brewer in spite of its name, was feeling pressure from truly national brewers such as Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz Brewing who were “invading” National’s home turf in Maryland. People at National thought that if they could create a product the larger brewers weren’t offering, something unique and new, they could survive and prosper.

A few small Midwestern breweries were marketing malt liquors with little success, but National took a chance on their own version and named it Colt 45. The early television ads for Colt 45 showed a plain white gentleman in a dark suit surrounded by extraordinary events. But Colt 45, “a completely unique experience,” completely missed plain white men in suits.

A quarter century later, Colt 45 is brewed by Heileman, and in recognition of reality and the black urban market that has made it a successful brand, the brew is advertised as “All the Way Live,” and “A 40-Ounce Power Supply.” The classic Colt 45 label still bears a bronco for kick, a horseshoe for good luck, and the name of a popular weapon. (Just say whoa!) And this is only one example of a whimsical reading of federal regulations and industry guidelines against displaying or alluding to alcoholic content.

Miller outguns Colt 45 with Magnum. Stroh packages Schlitz Malt Liquor with a raging bull, powerful and virile. Anheuser-Busch’s King Cobra hisses with paralyzing strength and venomous potency. Pittsburgh Brewing breathes fire in the dark with Midnight Dragon, and recently Coors hit the streets with Turbo 1000. All this is deemed necessary to appeal to malt liquor fanciers, but it hasn’t done much for that plain white guy Colt 45 left sitting in a chair years ago.

Enter dry beer. Is this going to be the white man’s malt liquor? Will regular white guys be saying, “Great set of tennis, Brad. How about a Super Dry?”

Imagine for a moment that dry beer grows as quickly in America as in Japan, a tenfold increase in less than two years. The single most overwhelming consequence would be an increase in the consumption of absolute alcohol — exactly the reverse of the trend light beer caused.

:: The Neo-Prohibitionists ::

One group that should be having fits about dry beer sits strangely silent on the issue, probably because they can’t take their eyes off Spuds McKenzie, Bud Light’s advertising spokesdog and party animal. I speak of the neo-Prohibitionists.

For the past several years, led largely by Washington D.C.’s Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), various groups have been trying to dry out America. But not in the clumsy fashion of Prohibition (1920-1933). That amateur adventure failed because the law was changed but minds were not. The neo-Prohibitionists are working at subtler changes in both law and public thinking.

While the first Prohibition targeted geographic entities — towns, counties, states, nations — the next Prohibition will be demographic, progressively targeting age groups, economic groups and social groups, making it more difficult, more unpleasant and more unusual for people to drink.

The first dry territory is age 18-20, and legally that victory has been won. This was done to shrink the market and to decease DWI deaths among teenagers. Jerry Steinman, publisher of Alcohol Issues Insights, noted that the year after widespread legislation raised the drinking age to 21, 15-to-19-year-olds died in greater numbers in drunk driving accidents. But it will probably take years of statistics before anyone even dreams of repeal.

:: Blame It on Advertising ::

Again focusing on youth, CSPI opposes all television advertising of beer and wine because children watch the tube and may grow up believing beer and wine coolers are mandatory elements in adult recreation.

More generally, CSPI contends television advertising influences people to drink and drink more. Brewers claim advertising only influences brand selection. The notion of suggestibility and cultural influence supports the CSPI view. The steady decline of alcohol consumption since 1980 in the face of increased advertising, and the growth of heavily advertised brands in the declining market, support the brewers’ view.

Historically, television can’t be blamed for everything. From 1790 to 1830, well before most homes had a television set, the average American of drinking age consumed six to seven gallons of absolute alcohol each year, generally in the form of hard liquor. During Prohibition, in the total absence of television and advertising, not to mention the legal manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, Mr. & Mrs. Average American still drank a gallon of absolute alcohol each. When television was introduced to American homes, the yearly average had risen to two gallons. Consumption peaked in 1980 at about 3.28 gallons per person and since has declined every year, to 2.94 gallons in 1987.

Whatever the media, CSPI opposes any advertising that a child might find attractive. For example, kids like dogs, hence the scrap with Spuds McKenzie. Kids also like sports, music, food, and bright colors. If reformers establish a precedent by curbing Spuds, and keep people nodding through successive limits, beer advertisements will eventually resemble classified ads with messages like, “Bud Light… When Your Plates Come Out at Night.”

A total ban on beer advertising could benefit larger brewers who already have shelf-space and who can afford to research and implement whatever steps it takes to stay in business, including discounting to retailers. An ad ban would hurt smaller breweries, new breweries and any brewery that wanted to introduce a new product.

The effect on the beer drinker: more vanilla choices. The effect on the problem drinker: none at all.

With malt liquor in particular, CSPI’s Marketing Booze to Blacks (1987) calls for a ban on all ads featuring athletes, celebrities and any reference to professional, social, athletic, sexual or economic success.

Malt liquor itself could have its fangs pulled by laws setting a maximum alcohol limit of 5% by volume for malt beverages. Presto chango. However, this would simultaneously ban many imported ales, bocks, doppelbocks and barleywines, as well as American microbrewery holiday and specialty beers — anything, in fact, stronger than a lager like Michelob.

And while we wave goodbye to several beer styles and freedom of choice, we are to believe, in a flight of elitist fantasy, that young urban black men will drink the new milder malt liquors and innocently avoid wine, hard liquor and the many illicit intoxicants which will still be plentiful.

:: The Battle Widens ::

CSPI supports sharp increases in excise taxes to price alcohol out of reach of the poor and to cut consumption by the middle class. Historically, higher taxation on beer leads to higher consumption of hard liquor, and higher taxation on all alcohol leads to lower quality, adulteration, moonshine, bootlegging and all manner of impolite behavior. But it does raise revenue.

CSPI also wants health warning labels on all alcoholic products and equal time for public service advertising to negate advertised images of convivial drinking. One congressional bill endorsed by CSPI called for a label to remind drinkers that alcohol consumption “may cause sickness or death, impair driving ability, create dependence or addiction, and harm the unborn.” (CSPI has made no mention of an “encouraging label” citing studies showing drops in heart disease rates among moderate drinkers.)

The intent here, in an obvious parallel to labeling on cigarette packaging, is to shrink sales by giving drinkers the shivers, and by positioning all drinking as an undesirable social activity. In this area, the battle for your mind will be as critical as any legislative effort.

:: What’s Inside? ::

The brewers, not surprisingly, oppose warning labels, and many of them oppose ingredient and alcoholic proof labeling as well. You can find out what’s in a Fig Newton, but not a bottle of beer. A 1980 federal regulation required brewers to list ingredients, but the rule never went into effect. CSPI sued twice, successfully, to require the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) to implement the law. So the Reagan Administration, in a move that could be interpreted as something less than a total victory for the consumer, simply rescinded the regulations. So there.

The Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association are also in favor of ingredient labeling, and the Adolph Coors Company is currently suing the government for the right to list alcohol content. The BATF, with administration support, remains bizarrely, steadfastly dumb. And very few brewers list ingredients voluntarily.

From issues of drinking age, through advertising, packaging, price and public image, CSPI and the neo-Prohibitionists are attacking the alcohol industry. You can’t blame them for trying. The misuse of alcohol is America’s worst drug problem, with a tremendous toll in human life, lost productivity and human misery. But it remains to be seen if their efforts will curb alcoholism, DWIs and other serious aspects of the problem, or if they will just make it more difficult for the alcohol industry to do business and for moderate drinkers to find a beer.

:: Light vs. Dry ::

And now, at this juncture in history, comes dry beer with more alcohol. If CSPI opens fire, will that suggest that encouraging drinkers to drink light beer, with less alcohol, wasn’t such a bad idea. Both Miller Lite and Coors Light outsell their stronger siblings. Bud Light has grown at the expense of Budweiser. As more and more people heed the advice of Spuds McKenzie, they drink less and less absolute alcohol.

Anheuser-Busch has already show its sensitivity to the issue of higher alcohol in its first dry beer press release. “Recently,” it says, “the term ‘dry’ has been associated with Japanese products brewed for a higher alcohol content. Michelob Dry is brewed to create a new taste experience. Its alcohol content is approximately 5 percent when measured by volume, identical to that of Michelob beer.”

That reads as if Michelob Dry will have less alcohol than the Japanese originals. Nice try, but the fact is that Japanese dry beers also have approximately 5% alcohol by volume.

Ah, it will be interesting. The brewers versus the neo-Prohibitionists, with the truth a frequent casualty. Watch them both carefully.

Meanwhile, I’d advise any serious beer drinker to learn homebrewing. The craft has made wonderful advances since its last boom during Prohibition, and you can produce first-rate beers, to your tastes, in your own home, with full knowledge of the ingredients and alcohol content, and without higher excise taxes and governmental interference.

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