Behold the Forty

A paean to the big bad bottle

Dennis Buettner of Baltimore-based Beer Radio echoes Thompson's praise for the big bottle's efficiency. "The last time I bought a Forty was when I was going to a friend's house who didn't drink," says Buettner, whose organization is in the early phases of constructing a Beer Hall of Fame in (of all places) Cincinnati. "I didn't want to buy a six-pack, so I bought a Forty."

These days, inside the city limits of St. Louis, this entirely reasonable beer-drinking option is universally believed to be illegal.

In 1994, with the backing of then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., the beer industry, package liquor stores and neighborhood groups, City Excise Commissioner Bob Kraiberg issued an administrative order banning retailers from selling 40-ounce bottles of beer below room temperature. Which is to say: No more cold Forties. In a reciprocal concession to the liquor industry, Kraiberg made legal the sale of single 16-, 24- and 32-ounce cans, which previously had to be sold in packages of at least three. The rationale cited for these measures was simple: too damn many Forties failed to find their way into trash cans, instead assailing the city's streets with shattered glass.

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.

"Aluminum cans have a tendency to get picked up and recycled, but no one wants to pick up broken glass," Kraiberg enlarges. "It was a win-win-win across the board. The retailers liked it because it didn't take up as much room in their coolers, the brewers liked it because 24- and 32-ounce cans essentially replaced 40-ounce bottles, and the neighborhoods liked it because we eliminated tons of glass from the streets."

"It defeated the purpose entirely," counters a still-bitter Robin Thompson.

"The liquor companies were making money, because the 24-ounce cans cost the same as a Forty," puts in Bob Putnam, boozehound extraordinaire and proprietor of the Way Out Club at Jefferson and Gravois. "It's a win-win, sure -- except for the guys trying to get their nickels and dimes together to buy a Forty."

Which came first, the rapper or the trend?

"Hip-hop is just an avenue for everything now," argues Ali, a charter member of Nelly's St. Lunatics crew. "So there is no new trend."

Echoes local rapper Spaide R.I.P.P.E.R. (who favors Bacardi rum): "Rap gets too much credit and too much blame for people's decisions. You rap about what's going on. People get it ass-backwards."

When it comes to the 40-ounce phenomenon of the early 1990s, upstate New York-based writer Kihm Winship agrees.

"Young black musicians have been writing what they know about," says Winship, whose exhaustive essay "A Story Without Heroes: The Cautionary Tale of Malt Liquor," has become something of an underground phenomenon. "So it's logical and natural that the Forty would appear in music."

And appear it did. The first notable blast in a fusillade of 40-ounce anthems was fired in 1987 by the seminal rap supergroup N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude) with "8 Ball," an homage to Olde English "800" malt liquor.

Olde English "800" 'cause that's my brand

Take it in a bottle, Forty, quart or can

Drink it like a madman, yes I do

Fuck the police and a 5-0 too

Vocalist Eric "Eazy-E" Wright took the brisk, take-no-bullshit call-to-swig to its one-line chorus: Eazy-E's fucked up and got the 8 Ball rollin'.

Young brothers heard that, including Ali. "The whole 8 Ball, 40-ounce thing, that was Eazy-E and all them," the rapper reminisces. "The best-tasting Forty was Budweiser, but it wouldn't get you as tore up as 8 Ball. 8 Ball would just tear you up."

Flavor notwithstanding (for the results of a gourmet 40-ounce tasting, see accompanying sidebar), Forties of malt liquor -- already a popular option in the black community -- became the beverage to have in hand, be it at a summer barbecue or on a street corner, fending off the heat one cold gold ounce at a time. But it wasn't until one of Wright's N.W.A bandmates picked up the 8 Ball and ran with it that Forties blowed up large.

Long known for its high alcohol content (7 to 8 percent, as opposed to 5 percent for beer) and low price (it wasn't uncommon to scoop up a Forty for 99 cents), rather than for mainstream marketing efforts, malt liquor stepped into the spotlight in the early 1990s when the McKenzie River Corporation, makers of St. Ides (the beer now flies the Pabst Brewing Company flag), resolved to capitalize on the "8 Ball" phenomenon.

A formidable roster of musicians signed on for the ad campaign, which featured a series of one-minute emcee-mercials extolling the virtues of St. Ides. King Tee, DJ Pooh, Eric B & Rakim, Erick Sermon, the Geto Boys, Warren G, Nate Dogg, Scarface, the Wu Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg and O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson of N.W.A all stepped up to the mic.

Get your girl in the mood quicker, get your Jimmy thicker, with St. Ides malt liquor, rapped Cube.

S-T-Crooked-I-D-E-S: Guaranteed to get a big booty undressed.

I'm talking 'bout the St. Ides malt liquor: It'll prolly make ya faint. And you'll paint the town red, after you take a Forty-dog to the head.

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