40 Ounces to Freedom

The one bottle that taught an entire generation how to drink, and how not to drink. Besha Rodell explores the 40's strange cultural impact and appeal.

In the summer of 1992, exactly one year after I moved to Hartford, CT with my American mother, I returned to my hometown of Melbourne, Australia to visit my father and friends. In the year I’d been gone I had changed immeasurably—or so I imagined. I scoffed at my Australian friends as they danced in exaggerated sexual gyrations to Prince. None of them had even had sex yet! I rolled my eyes as they sang along to Public Enemy. They didn’t even know any black people! I was so much more worldly, so much badder/bolder/better. I was 16 and insufferable. Is there any other way to be 16?

But the complaint I made the loudest, to anyone who would listen—even my poor father who had brought me up to recognize a classical composer by a few bars of music and wine grape varietal by scent—was that Australia had no 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. What a bore, to have to drink beer after beer to achieve intoxication. How irksome to not have your own personal vehicle to that intoxication, in one convenient receptacle. “A 40 is, like, the perfect amount of drunk,” I’d blather, as if anyone cared.

After two painful 40-less weeks I returned to Hartford with a mission. In those days I refused to eat or sleep on planes, and by the time I landed, in the early afternoon, I’d been up for around 38 hours and hadn’t eaten in just as long. After a bleary hello to my American-residing family, I took a bus to the North End, went to the liquor store that would sell to me, and bought a 40 of Olde English. I threw in a strawberry Cisco for good measure. Then I parked myself on the soft green slope of Keney Park’s eastern border, and consumed both.

Later, after a car ride with a boyfriend who had resumed relations with his ex during my Australian sojourn, I threw up in the shoe department of a Bob’s Store.

As stupid 16-year-olds, we sat in parks and on train tracks drinking sweet malt liquor, and dreamed of the day we’d be old enough to go to bars. That’s when life would really start, we imagined. Now that we’re adults, we long for the days when we roamed our cities in the dead of night, or when the plan for a summer day stretching out ahead of us could be as simple as “wanna get 40s?”

That year, 1992, was just about the apex of the 40’s strange cultural impact and appeal. Malt liquor had been around since the 1930s, born of the Depression and the rationing during World War II, when brewers didn’t have enough malt to make beer. By the mid 1960s, malt liquor companies had begun to advertise specifically to an African-American clientele, and over the next two decades, that advertising grew more and more raunchy. In the mid 1980s Colt 45 brought on Billy Dee Williams as a spokesperson. His famous tag line was “The power of Colt 45, it works every time,” with ads showing Williams holding a can of Colt 45 with a randy-looking woman touching him suggestively. In 1986, the first poster for a new malt liquor called Midnight Dragon featured a black woman dressed in red, garters showing, straddling a chair and sipping a 40 through a straw. The caption read: “I could SUCK! on this all night.”

According to Pete “Bruz” Brusyo, the proud New Jersey owner of the world’s largest collection of 40s, the first beer to be sold in that specific bottle was called A-1, and the oldest known bottle is from 1961. But it wasn’t until the ’80s that the 40 became common. It’s not clear why malt liquor started being sold in that particular quantity. A New York Times story from 1993 quoted a spokesman from the Miller Brewing Company as saying it was a matter of “retailer and consumer convenience,” and cited the fact that store owners loved 40s because they took up so much less space on the shelves. After the mass introduction of 40s, malt liquor consumption in America increased by tens of millions of cases over only a few years.

Many things have been blamed for the rise of the 40 in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but the usual culprit cited is rap music. By the late ’80s, 40s were showing up in many rap songs—Eazy-E had an entire song dedicated to Olde English, called “8 Ball,” on N.W.A.’s first album. Then came Minott Wessinger. Wessinger was a descendant of an established brewing family in Portland, OR. In 1987, he began brewing a new malt liquor—St. Ides. After hearing rappers praise 40s and malt liquor brands without prompting, Wessinger correctly assumed that some of them might be open to a commercial relationship. The resulting advertisements are practically a hip-hop genre unto themselves, with everyone from Eric B. and Rakim to Snoop Dogg to Notorious B.I.G. to WuTang Clan appearing in St. Ides commercials. And who can forget the classic words of Ice Cube: “Get your girl in the mood quicker, get your jimmy thicker with St. Ides malt liquor”?

St. Ides sales went through the roof.

That same New York Times article from 1993 also talks about the dangers of the 40 craze, particularly for underage minorities. There was a huge public backlash, particularly from within the black community. Many African-American scholars saw malt liquor as specifically targeting black youth, or as being used to control and keep down people of color.

In 1992 I lived in a depressed American city, and there’s no doubt we escaped our shitty school and home lives (many of them fraught with issues of poverty) by saying, “fuck it, let’s go drink 40s in the park.”

When, in 1993, I moved to a far wealthier community in New York, the kids drank 40s there as well. It’s undeniable that the long term cost and impact of malt liquor was far greater for poor, urban America than it was for the suburban baby hipsters who drank 40s on the weekends outside of punk shows. But still, for a few years, it was as if the 40 was a universal language amongst disaffected American teenagers from all walks of life.

But the astronomical success of the 40 was short-lived. Rappers moved on to cognac and Cristal, Ice Cube moved on to Hollywood, Snoop Dogg moved on to…Hot Pockets. Many cities actually banned the sale of 40s. You can still buy them, of course, but the 40’s share of the market, compared to the 1990s, is negligible.

Occasionally there are signs of a resurgence. In 2004, Dogfish Head announced it would put out a high-class 40 called Liquor de Malt, capitalizing on the nostalgia many of us feel for the 40 while also appealing to the fact that many ex-40 drinkers are now into craft beer. (Currently, Liquor de Malt is on hiatus.) And the 40 never really lost its cache as a provider of good binge drinking opportunities for people looking for that type of thing. “Edward 40-hands” is a more recent frat-house phenomenon, where two 40s are duct taped to someone’s hands and not removed until both have been finished.

My last 40 was consumed not that long ago, I’m somewhat ashamed to say. After quite a few drinks in proper bars, my friend Wyatt and I decided it would be a good idea to get 40s and play bocce on a Midtown Atlanta restaurant’s bocce court, hours after the restaurant closed one night. It was and wasn’t a good idea, as is usually the case with these types of things. In other words, nothing bad happened and I felt like shit the next day.

But the great part about it, the best part about it, was that feeling of freedom that accompanied drinking in the middle of the night in the open summer air, wandering a city as if it were ours, all of it, not just a collection of points and buildings we travel to in order to get things done. We stumbled down to the gas station on 10th Street and then back to the dark lawn of the bocce court, brown paper bags in hand.

That’s the thing about 40s, the reason almost everyone close to my age has an intense nostalgic reaction when I bring up the subject. As stupid 16-year-olds, we sat in parks and on train tracks drinking sweet malt liquor, and dreamed of the day we’d be old enough to go to bars. That’s when life would really start, we imagined. Now that we’re adults, we long for the days when we roamed our cities in the dead of night, or when the plan for a summer day stretching out ahead of us could be as simple as “wanna get 40s?”

It’s not lost on me that some people’s lives are still like that, and that those lives aren’t enviable. Or that many of the friends I had who spent the afternoons skipping school with me to drink malt liquor went on to serious drug abuse, beyond our teenage dalliances. That’s what makes the idea of drinking 40s on train tracks so sweet, because that kind of drinking happened before everything went to hell. That period between childhood and adulthood, when you taste debauchery but it hasn’t yet ruined anyone’s life, is so fleeting.

For me, that sweet debauchery tasted of malt liquor. The 40 taught a generation how to drink, and how not to drink. I drink esoteric wines now, and mix cocktails at home, and enjoy the fruits of the craft beer revolution. These things bring me great pleasure, but none of them hold nearly the same allure as that disgusting, sweet, half-warm bottle of Olde English on a summer day in 1992.