Behold the Forty

A paean to the big bad bottle

Each day, Kenny rides his bicycle to Dean's Spirits & Sundries in downtown Collinsville and purchases six bottles of Milwaukee's Best beer. He does not buy them all at once in traditional six-pack form, but rather individually, ferrying one bottle roughly every two hours to the cashier's counter on his way out the door.

"He straps them to the back of his bike and off he goes," says Dean's attendant Chris Zaganelli, a mellow, quizzical man with a brown ponytail and goatee and wire-rimmed glasses. "He's a grown man and he doesn't drive a car."

Zaganelli, who's lived in this small, southwestern Illinois town for most of his life, has an apartment above the liquor store, which has occupied the same Main Street storefront since 1934. Dean's is all booze and cigarettes, all the time -- albeit split into two halves: one for wine, the other for beer, liquor and tobacco products. The wine half exudes minimalist class, bottles arranged neatly in wooden racks, complete with the occasional Wine Spectator plaudit. With the exception of a few high-end spirits, the other half of Dean's, where Zaganelli stands watch, gives off the opposite vibe. Fruity cardboard four-packs of Jack Daniel's "malternatives" are stacked near the store entrance. A few steps down, a promo offers patrons who buy a bottle of Whiskey River whiskey a free CD single of Willie Nelson singing "Whiskey River." Which makes a lot of sense if you pause to think about it.

Thanks to crafty municipal orders and public flogging, 
the Forty has given way to tall cans -- and Cognac -- 
up in the 'hood.
Jennifer Silverberg
Thanks to crafty municipal orders and public flogging, the Forty has given way to tall cans -- and Cognac -- up in the 'hood.
Thanks to crafty municipal orders and public flogging, 
the Forty has given way to tall cans -- and Cognac -- 
up in the 'hood.
Jennifer Silverberg
Thanks to crafty municipal orders and public flogging, the Forty has given way to tall cans -- and Cognac -- up in the 'hood.

"This room's a whole 'nother world from the room in there," Zaganelli says of the spiritual division.

His cold case holds shelves filled with canned beer in 12-, 16-, 24- and 32-ounce (oil can) quantities, along with a smattering of Boone's Farm and Mad Dog 20/20 wines, two favorites of eight-o'-clock-shadow vagrants and high-school girls. Dean's also stocks five different brands of an endangered species: the 40-ounce bottle of beer. Effectively banished from St. Louis through a crafty administrative order eleven years ago, Forties are increasingly hard to locate these days, especially on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. But at Dean's, customers may choose among Forties of Budweiser, Bud Light, King Cobra, Evil Eye and Milwaukee's Best.

"The best-selling one is 'The Beast,'" says Zaganelli, calling Milwaukee's Best by its well-worn nickname. "I meet as many crazy people in the wine room as I do out here. Some of the 40-ounce buyers are extremely interesting, intelligent people. One regular buys one Forty every two days and just moseys with it. He's really fun to talk to."

Still, the Forty -- and its primary contents, malt liquor -- is low bottle on the totem pole, even in a bipartisan boozetopia such as Dean's.

"We've got a lady who buys a couple 24-ounce cans of Colt .45 every day," Zaganelli says. "She puts it in our commemorative carrying case: the brown paper bag. People who buy wine get a nicer bag."

Zaganelli doesn't waste the nice bags on Pedalin' Ken.

Kenny, you see, doesn't buy six twelve-ounce Beasts each day. Kenny buys six Forties, consuming them at a moderate pace. The logic is unassailable: If Kenny were to strap more than one Forty at a time to the back of his bike, he'd increase his odds of losing precious cargo on the ride home, or wherever he may roam.

Not that Zaganelli hasn't wondered why people like Kenny don't buy their Forties in bulk. The obvious assumption would be that Kenny's a street person, seeking the best bang for his buck every time he scrounges said buck. But downtown Collinsville isn't exactly the 'hood -- and Kenny isn't exactly a street person, says Zaganelli. The sum of which gives him pause for thought.

"A lot of people buy one at a time, several times per day," the clerk muses. "We went so far as to put a case price on them and say, 'Here, buy a case.' But I think it's a social thing.

"And," he adds, "you can say you only had one beer."

Jackie Chan sidekick Chris Tucker might be an internationally recognized comic actor and multimillionaire, but he has at least one outstanding debt.

"He still owes me $4.35 for a chicken sandwich at Jack in the Box," maintains fellow comedian Robin Thompson, Tucker's onetime warmup act.

The 34-year-old Thompson, who has also opened for Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer, is a lifelong north St. Louisan who grew up near the intersection of Natural Bridge and Kingshighway, the historic confluence immortalized by Nelly in song. These days Thompson's alcohol intake is somewhat constrained by the responsibilities of tending to a young family, not to mention the professional necessity of staying sharp after dark. But back when he hit the sauce with vigor, Thompson's motto was "Let's Get It Done." Which meant one of two things: a shot of tequila, or a Forty.

Never a tall can, always a Forty, and with good reason.

"Beer tastes better out of a glass," says Thompson, who favors St. Ides malt liquor, which takes its name from a fortune-telling Irish nun born in 475 A.D. "An ice-cold, frosty Forty is like being in a bar with a frozen mug. The Forty is like a buffet: You get all the beer you need in one bottle."

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