G. Heileman creates brouhaha Is Colt 45 Premium just a new name for PowerMaster?

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 blacks.

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 whether the product would be sold nationwide.

"It depends on the results," he said.

It is understandable that Heileman wants to put distance 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 malt liquors, such as Heileman's Colt 45, with an alcohol content of 4.5 percent.

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

Mr. Powell said Colt 45 Premium is a different product from PowerMaster, but he declined to disclose the alcohol content of the new malt either product.

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," he said.

The bureau objected to the word "power" in the name, 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 negotiated on what would be an acceptable name, and the bureau approved Colt 45 Premium.

Though the 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," he said.

He said he has trouble understanding the controversy since table wine has an alcohol content twice as high as Colt 45 Premium and fortified wines are four times as strong.

"If you are talking about something that has a high potency, you should talk about the fortified wines," he said.

But one PowerMaster opponent is ready to oppose the new brand, depending on the 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.

"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.

In its test marking in Philadelphia and Detroit, Heileman is using only radio advertisements which use the line: "Be a premium player." The Journal article said the player reference has inner-city connotations of pimps and gang members.

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