Heileman in hot water again over malt liquor


May 13, 1992|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

First there was PowerMaster, a high-alcohol malt liquor roundly attacked for its name (implying that it was a strong intoxicant) and its alleged targeting of the black community.

G. Heileman Brewing Co., the maker of PowerMaster, pulled it from the market in July after only a few weeks when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said the name ran afoul of a law prohibiting the promoting of a beer's strength on its label.

Now, Heileman is back with a new malt liquor called Colt 45 Premium. The problem is that it is in virtually the same style can as the old PowerMaster, and many of the same controversies are dogging the company.

The can of the new malt liquor, brewed at the company's Halethorpe plant south of Baltimore, features a red horse on a black background, as did PowerMaster. But there the similarity ends, the company says.

"The only thing that is the same is the ink on the can," said Charles E. Powell, vice president of marketing for Heileman, which is based in La Crosse, Wis. "We don't compare it to PowerMaster."

Mr. Powell said the company used the same packaging design as PowerMaster to save money. He declined to say how much such packaging designs cost but said that "it is a significant sum of money."

The company also issued a statement yesterday attacking a Wall Street Journal article Monday. "Despite [Heileman's] telling the Wall Street Journal reporter that the products were different, the reporter chose to report incorrect information," the release said.

The company also said the article's reference to the product as "high-firepower malt" was "false and misleading."

Heileman began test-marketing Colt 45 Premium last week in Philadelphia and plans to introduce it next week in Detroit. Mr. Powell said he did not know how long the test marketing would last or whether the product would be sold nationwide. "It depends on the results," he said.

It is understandable that Heileman wants to put as much distance as possible between Colt 45 Premium and PowerMaster. PowerMaster was attacked by black leaders even before it reached the market for allegedly targeting inner-city blacks.

U.S. Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello also asked Heileman to abandon its PowerMaster sales campaign, saying it appeared that the company was targeting minority consumers, who suffer a higher percentage of alcohol-related diseases than the overall population does.

According to published reports, PowerMaster had an alcohol content of 5.9 percent, about one-third higher than most other malt liquors, such as Heileman's Colt 45, which has an alcohol content of 4.5 percent.

The alcohol content of most regular beers ranges from 3.2 percent to 5 percent.

Mr. Powell said Colt 45 Premium is a different product from PowerMaster, but he declined to say what the alcohol content of the new malt liquor is or what the strength of PowerMaster was.

In any case, the malt liquor itself and its alcohol content was never an issue for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said bureau spokesman Jack Killorin.

"We never had a basis for objecting to what was in the can," Mr. Killorin said. Instead, the bureau objected to the inclusion in the name of the word "power," which was judged to violate a 1935 law prohibiting brewers from advertising the strength of their beers.

After PowerMaster was pulled from the market, Heileman and the bureau started negotiations on what would be an acceptable name, and the bureau gave its approval to Colt 45 Premium.

Even though new product had its genesis in PowerMaster, Mr. Killorin does not dispute Heileman's contention that it is different product. "They have a right to change the formula and alcohol content if they wish," he said.

But one opponent of PowerMaster is ready to oppose the new brand, depending on Heileman's marketing strategy.

"I'm going to see how they intend to market this strategy," said Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who was an outspoken critic of PowerMaster. He said he is willing to wait but remains suspicious of Heileman's plans.

"For a particular company to continue to target these communities is a serious injustice," he said.

Mr. Powell said the company is not targeting minority populations, but is advertising to men over the legal drinking age.

Jerry Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights, said it was "absurd" to believe that Colt 45 Premium is a stand-in for PowerMaster because the old product, on the market for only a few weeks, has so little recognition.

"If you walk out on the street and show people the can and ask whether they remember, no one would know," he said. "I think the whole brouhaha is amazing."

Besides brewing Colt 45 Premium, the Halethorpe brewery is making another product that has been a source of controversy.

Crazy Horse, a malt liquor that has a 5.7 percent alcohol content, is being brewed under contract for Hornell Brewing Co. of New York. The malt liquor has been criticized by Sioux leaders for using the name of a venerated Indian chief. The company has contended that the name is meant to honor the chief.

Although the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has objected to that product's packaging, which may make it look more like distilled spirits, it has not pushed for a name change. "The fact that you are rude and insensitive is not a criminal offense," Mr. Killorin said.

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