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Know Your Malts, Part I: The Story of the Forty (See Part II)

(Originally published in the Oct/Nov 2013 issue of Beer Cans & Brewery Collectibles Magazine)

The 40oz bottle. The one package of beer that both the majority of beer drinkers and beer collectors over the age of 25 shy away from. You see them in the cooler at your corner store and you quickly divert your eyes, hoping that no one saw you look at them in the first place. No, you would never drink such a thing! That's for bums and people with no taste! Grab one for your collection? Never, craft beers have much nicer labels and take up less shelf space! Besides, you don't want broken glass on your floor if one were to fall, so better to just stick to collecting cans instead!

But what if that was the appeal all along? What if giant bottles of cheap beer featuring wild animals and graffiti-style fonts actually had a growing support amongst both consumers and collectors?

That's exactly the reason I started collecting 40oz bottles back in 1999, during my college years. Fast forward 14 years through the birth of a website devoted to them, thousands of miles in road trips, and tens of thousands of miles in postal trades, and I now have 938 different bottles as of this writing. That's the largest collection of 40s in the world, and has been since I had somewhere around 140 bottles. Now I hope to share some of that enthusiasm with the rest of the breweriana colleting world.

Why 40 ounces? What an odd serving size! Well, quarts (32oz) were not odd serving sizes, nor were their doubly-sized counterparts, the half gallon (64oz) picnic beers. 40oz bottles are an even 25% (8oz) more than a quart, so it made for a logical next step up. Originally intended to be poured out and shared with others, it soon became apparent that many were enjoying these as single servings for themselves, straight from the bottle.

No one knows for certain when the first 40oz bottle was produced or what brand it was, but we have a leading candidate that can take that claim until proven otherwise. During all of my research, networking, and collecting, I have what is and has been known for some time now as the oldest 40oz bottle: A-1 brand beer from 1961, in what 40oz collectors call a "stubby" neck 40. Stubbies dominated the 40oz bottle mold up through the 1980's, besides Carling's Black Label which came in a long neck style 40oz bottle from the late 60's through the mid-to-late 70's. An article about the A-1 brand online states that this label design was created in 1959, so it's possible the 40oz bottle may go back even a couple more years.

40s started becoming more widespread in the 1980s, thanks in part to Billy Dee Williams, still riding his success as Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars movies, becoming the spokesman for Colt 45 malt liquor. If it worked every time for Lando, then surely it could work every time for us too! The 40oz is most often associated with malt liquor, and due to a pre-internet time period and poorly documented past for these sort of details, the first 40oz malt liquor is not known for certain, but is believed to be Colt 45. Colt 45 worked so well every time that soon other malt liquors were following their lead!

By the 1990s, thanks to Billy Dee's endorsement of Colt 45 and the economical advantages of getting more bang for your buck, 40s were now primarily being marketed towards African Americans in low income neighborhoods. Before the tech boom and housing market boom there was the 40oz boom, and the 40oz boom occurred when rap artists started including the oversized beverages in their songs. N.W.A. and Eazy E kept the 8-Ball (Olde English 800) rollin', Notorious BIG was sippin' on Private Stock, and St. Ides was paying N.W.A. member Ice Cube to switch his allegiance to their brand and tout it as that decade's version of Viagra. Who knew St. Ides malt liquor could make your jimmy thicker?! This is the decade that permanently defined 40oz malt liquor for what it was. Long gone were the days of Country Club malt liquor being illustrated in advertisements featuring smiling upper middle class white folks pouring it into fine stemware served on trays held by women in pearl necklaces at fancy dinner functions.

Today you can find brands producing their 40s in a variety of bottles. Coors and Anheuser-Busch both have a "long neck" style of 40oz bottle, but their respective shapes differ slightly. Miller and Pabst brands currently come in what collectors refer to as the classic small mouth bottles, shaped like bullets. Other brands, especially in Canada, come in wide mouth bottles, with Canada's wide mouth bottles being a little taller and heavier than America's wide mouth bottles. Canada's biere forte ("strong beer", i.e., malt liquor) labels also read "1.18 L", the metric equivalent of 40 fluid ounces. Mexico's caguamons (40oz bottles) have a curvy long neck style, and their labels are also metric. Originally Mexican 40oz labels had "1.18 L" printed on them , sometimes with "25% mas", to let you know you were getting 25% more than in their quarts. Eventually Mexican breweries started rounding up to "1.2 L", with "27% mas", but the bottles were identical. France has at least one 40oz, Desperados, that comes in an entirely unique bottle shape, and is also measured as 1.2 L. Japan has had some 1.2 liter can-bottles as well, but most 40oz collectors draw the line with including these in their collections. Suntory has dozens of curvy penguin characters in 1.2 L size plastic bottles, Kirin has a 1.2 L plastic space shuttle, and Sapporo has a 1.2 L metal robot can. Obviously these "40s" have very little to do with the ones originating in America.

Then there are the bigger sizes that 40oz collectors count as part of their collections: 45oz and 64oz bottles. 45oz bottles were first introduced by Colt 45, brilliantly, as a way to give their "40" an edge over the competition. Who wouldn't choose Colt if you could get 5 extra ounces than what the other brands were offering? Others soon followed suit, and 45oz bottles of Mickey's, Mickey's Ice, Colt Ice Malt Liquor, and Olde English 800 all existed, but none were as popular or memorable as 45oz Colt 45. 64oz bottles were also targeted towards the 40oz consumer, giving them even more malt liquor at cheap prices. We're not talking about the half gallon picnic beers that existed prior, or the half gallon growlers of craft beer that you can get today. The 64s that 40oz collectors seek out and miss terribly were for brands that also came in 40oz size. Olde English 800, Colt 45, Mickey's, Haffenreffer Private Stock, Ballantine Ale, Big Bear, Midnight Dragon, Blatz, Big Jug, and many others were produced in these oversized bottles. 45oz and 64oz bottles were discontinued in the late 90's, but consumers have been begging for them to be brought back ever since.

Some 40oz brands stand out amongst collectors for different reasons. I've already mentioned the oldest known 40oz, A-1. But what about the most valuable? Value is subjective and changes wildly amongst 40oz collectors, since there are so few of us and so what we're willing to spend can depend on who exactly is actively collecting at the time, how much they have to spend at the moment, and how much they personally like a particular bottle. Turbo 1000 was a malt liquor produced by Coors that only lasted on the market for about a year or so. It was available in 40oz bottles, and when one finally popped up on eBay, it wound up fetching around $300. The bidding war was between only 2 people, however, neither of whom actively collect anymore, and the person who won it eventually gave it to me for free for inclusion in my collection. If another Turbo 1000 popped up on eBay today I'm pretty sure it would sell for less than $100, and probably closer to $50. With so few collectors, demand for old 40oz bottles can fluctuate greatly.

The most rare 40oz bottle would have to be the one created by Pabst Brewing Co. for the rapper Snoop Dogg's 40th birthday party. Snoop inherited the mantle of spokesperson from Billy Dee as Colt 45's celebrity endorser, so when Snoop turned 40 years old in 2011, Pabst hosted a party for him complete with custom Colt 45 40s. "Snoop Dogg's Funky 40th" special limited edition 40s were limited to only 40 bottles at the party, with each one individually numbered. Pabst was thoughtful enough to reserve #1 of 40 for my collection and sent it to me, sealed, with Snoop's autograph on the label. Pabst's generosity did not stop there, however. Less than one year later they paid for my round trip airfare to LA and hotel accommodations for 2 nights, to drink malt liquor at the Playboy Mansion with Snoop Dogg at a Colt 45 sponsored party, which is a story you can read more about here.

My personal holy grail was Jaguar, produced by Anheuser-Busch alongside King Cobra to see which brand sold better. Jaguar and King Cobra were both filled with the same brew, but it appears A-B couldn't decide which wild animal would appeal more to consumers. When I first started collecting approximately 14 years ago as a college student, I came across a Jaguar 40oz on eBay. Once the bidding went over $30 I backed off, because at the time I thought it was crazy to pay that much for an empty bottle, and figured I'd come across it again, especially since I was building a website which was luring in other collectors. Well, I didn't come across that bottle again until 2013. Prior to this year, soon after joining the BCCA and going through the roster, I recognized the email address of the person who beat me for that original Jaguar 40 many years ago, as it matched his eBay name which was forever burned into my memory. He was a collector of the Jaguar brand, and I excitedly reached out to him, told him my story, and hoped he would sell it for a significant profit. Unfortunately he did not want to part with it. I had a couple other leads over the years that were either people trolling since I had it listed as my "most wanted", or from people who were never able to actually find or come through with one in the end.

Then, a few months ago, I received an email from someone inquiring about the value of a full Jaguar 40oz. Again, value is subjective because there are so few 40oz collectors, and we all know each other. Everyone knew that this bottle was my holy grail since I had missed out on it over a decade ago, so had it gone on eBay, it's likely that no one would have bid against me for it and I could have gotten it for cheap. However, this was marked as the "most wanted" bottle on my site featuring the world's largest 40oz collection, so this guy assumed he had a treasure on his hand. We went back and forth, including him emailing me photos of it, my running his name and email address in Google to make sure he was a real person, and me making a generous offer of $100 plus shipping for the bottle. He said he had to check with his son first, who might want it, and that he would let me know. Over one month passed and he was not returning my follow-up emails until one day out of nowhere he replied asking for a little more than what I offered, sent via overnight mail (a significant extra expense), and in cash. This sounded extremely shady, obviously, but after thinking about it I decided it was worth the risk. I knew the bottle existed via his photos, I knew he was a real person and had previously acknowledged the fact with him that he had his own business in Texas, and so I didn't think he'd risk ripping me off since it could affect him professionally. Also, had I sent him a check via regular mail, he could still just cash it and never send me the bottle. There was no eBay transaction protecting me here either way. I also further rationalized it by the fact that I have been to Vegas 3 times and probably have gambled less than $50 total, since I hate to lose money, so this could be my one big gamble. I gave him some tips on how to pack it carefully, including wrapping electrical tape around the cap since it was full. He provided me a tracking number the next day and I waited to see if I would actually receive my most wanted bottle in the mail or a big box of poop.

The day it was due to arrive I checked the tracking number. It was marked as delivered, so I called my wife to confirm, but she said there was no package. I immediately started panicking that it got dropped off at the wrong address or someone stole it. A couple hours later I got a call from my wife that it was delivered but it didn't look good. The box had a hole in it, was soaked, and was leaking beer. The postal worker thought I had ordered a big box of soy sauce and was upset that it ruined several other packages in his truck. My heart was racing. I had her shake the box to see if it sounded like broken glass inside, and she said it did not. She stayed on the phone with me and opened it, carefully, and said the bottle was intact! The label was soaked, and about 1/3 of the beer had leaked out, even though the cap was wrapped in electrical tape as requested. She carefully patted the bottle and label dry for me and set it on the counter for when I got home. Turns out that the neck/mouth area of the bottle was cracked, and that beer leaked through it. Luckily, none of the glass ever broke off. I decided to take a few sips of this extremely old and mutated beer, just to say I consumed Jaguar even though it was nothing like what the brewers originally intended, and pour the rest out. Finally, after well over a decade and 800+ bottles later, I had a Jaguar 40 in my collection.

Some 40oz brands have received their fair share of controversy as well over the years. Phat Boy, with ginseng, was accused of targeting African American youth based on its name and label colors. Bad Frog was banned in many states due to its offensive label depicting a frog giving the middle flipper. Colt 45 Power Master was deemed to be promoting the strength of its beer through its name, which was a no-no because you weren't supposed to market your product with a name that suggested it would help get you wasted. I guess they thought people were drinking 40oz malt liquors for the taste all along. Colt 45 Power Master was changed to Colt 45 Premium due to the backlash, but the brand was soon discontinued after that.

However, the most well known of all the controversial 40s was Crazy Horse. When Crazy Horse debuted with an image of an Indian chief with full headdress on the label, the Native American population was outraged. They did not want their heritage or history representing 40oz malt liquor, nor their race stereotyped as drunks. It took awhile, but eventually the brewers succumbed to the pressure and lawsuits, and they did away with the chief's face as their logo, replacing it with a full color label featuring a horse's head with feathers in its mane. This was not enough to satisfy the offended parties, and the name was also eventually changed as well, to Crazy Stallion. You can still get Crazy Stallion today, but its distribution seems to be shrinking and Crazy Stallion may be on the endangered species list. Due to the controversy over the original Crazy Horse, it is the 40oz collector's version of Billy Beer. Everyone bought and saved Crazy Horse 40s, and you can find them full on eBay often.

The past few years have shown a huge increase in the popularity of craft beer, with more and more craft breweries opening throughout the nation. A few of these breweries have produced their versions of malt liquor, usually as a humorous gimmick for a limited time rather than making it one of their standard offering, and even less have gone so far as to package and distribute theirs in 40oz bottles. Dogfish Head Liquor de Malt was produced 3 years in a row in limited runs and sold in a brown paper bag stamped with the Dogfish Head logo. Labels were pasted on by hand, and the 40s retailed for $6-8 per 40oz, way more than your typical 40 that costs around $2. This was craft malt liquor, though, and it was delicious. The People's Pint in Massachusetts also produced a 40oz malt liquor which they called Tap & Die, and Great Lakes Brewing in Ontario produced Dirtbag McQuaig's Malt Liquor for Fine Gentlemen. Dirtbag McQuaig was never even sold in stores, only being available at the brewery on special occasions, using empty Olde English 800 bottles refilled with their own beer, with sticker labels slapped on.

So what does the future hold for the 40oz bottle, and more specifically, 40oz malt liquor? 2014 will give way to a whole new era for the 40. MillerCoors' Environmental Stewardship program will be hitting full steam, and that includes the debut (not counting previous test marketing) of plastic 40oz bottles! The standard shape will be wide mouth, but Miller High Life will have a special champagne bottle style shape, since it is after all The Champagne of Beers. At first glance, this will give collectors a chance to add a lot of bottles to their collections. However, once we've given them a try and added them to our collections, this is a critical blow to our passion and enthusiasm for the 40oz. Plastic 40s will no longer have that same appeal that brought us to them in the first place.

In addition to the upcoming debut of plastic 40s, 24oz high gravities (HGs) and flavored malt beverages have been on the rise the past couple years. It seems that the target demographic that once used to drink 40oz malt liquor, are now preferring an even stronger and sweeter kick in 24oz cans. Shelf space in liquor store coolers that once was reserved for 40s is slowly being filled with more and more tallboys in bright colorful packaging. Malt liquor aficionados are excited when 24oz HGs such as Dog Bite, Natty Daddy, Earthquake, Schlitz VSL, Colt 45 HG, Big Kat Ice, and Dead President High Gravity Ice debut, but we would prefer all of these brands in 40oz bottles. Flavored malt beverages (or "alcopops") are usually frowned upon by malt liquor purists, who will be quick to distinguish between malt beverages and real malt liquor. We prefer the taste of cheap beer over that of fruity candy flavored alcoholic soda. The younger drinkers, however, seem to prefer otherwise, favoring brands like Four Loko and Joose. Some well respected malt liquor brands are even testing the flavored waters. St Ides Special Brews have been available for years in 22oz bottles, but now we also have Colt 45 Blast and Steel Reserve 211 Blk Berry.

Pabst recently also announced that they are discontinuing production of Big Bear, Coqui 900, and Silver Thunder, which is just one more blow to those who prefer "regular" (non-HG) 40oz malt liquor in the classic small mouth bullet shape bottles. With the 2nd largest beer company in the nation switching to plastic, the rise in popularity of 24oz HGs and flavored malt beverages, and the disappearance of several non-HG 40s, the future of classic 40oz malt liquor remains uncertain. I can only hope that there will always be a market for big glass bottles of cheap beer.

October 2013
If you have any old 40oz, 45oz, or 64oz bottles that you'd be willing to sell/trade/donate, please email me!

Continue to Part II: What is Malt Liquor?
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