Protest Brews Over Malt Beer

June 26, 1991|By Cindy Harper-Evans

PowerMaster, the new malt liquor whose high-alcohol content has brought complaints from black community leaders, is making its way to Baltimore-area liquor stores this week.

The malt liquor, which is packaged in a black, 12-ounce can with silver and white letters and a sketch of a blazing red horse, has come un

der criticism from national and local black leaders because of its higher-than-average malt-alcohol content and its intended consumers -- lower-income inner-city blacks.

PowerMaster, which sells for about $18 a case, or about $5 for a six-pack, contains 5.9 percent alcohol. That's 31 percent more alcohol than other malts, such as Heileman's own Colt 45 brand, which has 4.5 percent alcohol. Stroh Brewing

Co.'s Schlitz Malt Liquor, the No. 1 malt liquor seller, also has 4.5 percent alcohol.

What has further increased the concern locally is that PowerMaster is reportedly brewed at G. Heileman Brewing Co.'s Colt 45 plant in Halethorpe, in southern Baltimore County.

LaCrosse, Wis.-based G. Heileman, which has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings since January, has refused to comment on the PowerMaster issue -- except to say that the malt is being marketed on the "basis of its . . . smooth taste and not its alcohol content."

Local officials of the company would not comment either.

"PowerMaster is brewed right here [in Halethorpe] in the Colt 45 plant," said Dan Zaccagnini, sales manager for Best Way Distributing, the sole distributor of PowerMaster, Colt 45 and Heileman beers in Baltimore and Baltimore County. He said that he is certain because "that's where we pick it up from."

G. Heileman produces its popular Colt 45 malt liquor -- whose marketing also is designed to appeal to blacks, as are ads for most malt liquors -- at the 400-employee Halethorpe plant. Industry observers said it is likely that PowerMaster is brewed there, too.

"As part of their marketing objective, it would make sense. That's the brewery they have near the largest population of blacks," said Jerry Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer Insights. The Halethorpe plant is "in Baltimore and near Washington, Philadelphia and New York," he said.

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden said yesterday that he is "maddened" by the entry of PowerMaster into the marketplace and "very upset" that it is brewed in Maryland. He said he will "introduce a resolution before City Council on July 8 asking citizens to boycott establishments that sell PowerMaster."

He said that he also will draft a letter to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the General Assembly's Black Caucus asking them to help in his efforts to remove PowerMaster from store shelves. To date, however, there is no concerted effort by local organizations to protest the brew.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that a coalition of about 20 interest groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, asked G. Heileman yesterday to take PowerMaster off the market, arguing that it was being unfairly marketed to "low-income, powerless people."

Mr. Snowden said that he hopes that his stance and those of other black leaders around the country will have the same effect as a nationwide protest last year against R. J. Reynold's for its Uptown cigarettes, which also were targeted at blacks. Reynolds canceled its plan to market the cigarettes in January 1990.

PowerMaster is making its appearance in area stores despite the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' letter to the brewery last week asking that the word "power" be taken from the malt's name because the agency believes it refers to the malt's high alcohol content.

By law, marketers of malt beers, which by definition contain more than 4 percent alcohol, are not allowed to state or imply alcohol content on containers.

Dot Koester, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said yesterday that G. Heileman has every right to introduce the beer -- "though we wish they wouldn't" until officials from the company meet with the bureau next Wednesday.

"At that time, we will discuss a name change. How long they have to change it depends on how many labels they have printed, but we don't want it to be that long," she said.

Mr. Snowden said, however, that taking the word "Power" off the label would not satisfy him.

"We want the stuff taken off the market altogether," Mr. Snowden said. PowerMaster "will exacerbate a growing problem in the community of drugs and alcohol," he said.

Ms. Koester said that she was surprised that PowerMaster was in stores already because the brewer had set a target introduction date for July.

A number of liquor stores already had PowerMaster in their refrigerators yesterday. Some had gotten their first shipment yesterday, and others were expecting the malt liquor later this week.

Mr. Zaccagnini said that of Best Way's 2,400 accounts, roughly 50 stores are carrying PowerMaster. He said that he has heard some concerns from his clients about the controversy, but not many.

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