In the video, a man wearing a black ski mask and an orange Adidas track jacket is seated in what looks like a suburban garage behind a makeshift desk fashioned from a pair of cardboard boxes. To his left, a Christmas tree; to his right, a pair of American flags and a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump. The clip is, in a sense, an endorsement of the GOP front-runner, though how effective it might be is anyone’s guess. “Trump wins again in Oregon,” the man declares, “while fucking Hill-dog loses to a fucking communist. What does that tell you, Hillary Clinton? You should be going to fucking prison. Trump 2016 — going to make American great again.” Then, after a pause: “Malt liquor!”
C-Murder’s “Down for My Niggas” blares from a set of cheap speakers as our host cracks the cap on a frosty glass bottle of St. Ides and starts guzzling.
This video, recently posted to YouTube, isn’t the manifesto of some drunken redneck militiaman, wannabe bank robber, or homegrown terrorist sympathizer, but the latest manifestation of an internet fandom whose sole mission is to evangelize on behalf of a favorite beverage: malt liquor.
Malt liquor is commonly defined as beer with an alcohol content above the 3.4 to 4 percent usually found in your garden-variety lager like Budweiser. While it was initially marketed to upper-middle-class whites in the mid 1950s, malt liquor’s popularity didn’t explode until the 1970s and ’80s, when brewers and distributors began advertising to black Americans in low-income neighborhoods. Malt liquor soon earned a gritty, urban reputation, an image later cemented into popular culture in the 1990s as hip-hop artists like Ice Cube, the Wu-Tang Clan, and others promoted it as an essential part of the gangsta-rap lifestyle.
In the years that followed, that edge softened as malt liquor was co-opted by young, white, college-aged men who flocked to gangsta rap and rushed out to buy the iconic 40s. Eventually, these same young men jumped online to proclaim their love for the cheap, sweet high-alcohol beverage.
The internet provides endless opportunities for people to coalesce around ephemera, and malt liquor is no exception. The drink’s hard-core aficionados have had a home online for more than a decade, eschewing the snooty commercial trappings of the craft-beer scene for a far weirder evolution.
A website called 40ozmaltliquor.com was the first major online hub for the malt-liquor fandom. It began in 1999 as a GeoCities site created by “Bruz,” a student at Rutgers University who had been drinking and collecting 40-ounce malt-liquor bottles for 13 years, and evolved to become a focal point for the internet’s malt-liquor community, providing product reviews, a blog, and, most important, a message board where the site’s users gather to discuss their passion.
Bruz, who asked that I not use his real name, is an elder statesman and historian of the internet’s 40oz malt-liquor fan community, and the embodiment of its image. Far from the skinny, bearded, bespectacled hipster who helped fuel the craft-beer renaissance, those who frequent Bruz’s site are average joes and working stiffs, sometimes insistently so, concerned more with getting an alcoholic bang for their buck than sipping on small-batch farmhouse saisons in overpriced brewpubs.
“While craft-beer snobs will study the head and aroma of beer, and try to pick out subtle flavors of acorns and pine needles, we focus more on the overall ‘taste’ as well as how much of a punch it packs,” said Bruz.
While they may turn up their noses at the snobbery and fussiness of craft beer, the estimated 2,000 worldwide members on Bruz’s forums are no less obsessive about their liquid refreshment. When one manufacturer decided to move from the traditional 40-ounce glass bottles to “shatter-proof” plastic bottles and back again, forum members called one company’s toll-free hotline, and Bruz himself reached out to a “company insider” he knew at Miller-Coors, producer of Mickey’s, Olde English, and several other popular malt-liquor brands. In other threads, users discuss their efforts to obtain exotic “white whale” brands like Jaguar, a brand released and quickly pulled from shelves in 1984. And they are open about the problems malt liquor can cause, doling out advice in a popular 2013 thread titled “taming alcoholic dirtbag behavior,” in which one user expressed concern that drinking too much had left him hung-over and depressed.
In 2007, as social media and video began to dominate the internet, members of the site calling themselves the “40oz Crew” began posting videos of themselves drinking malt liquor. The low-quality, unedited clips featured various crew members hanging out and drinking in their homes, hotel rooms, and at various meetups organized through Bruz’s website. Those original videos set many of the conventions characteristic of malt-liquor videos to this day.
They often feature men in ski masks or bandanas (many attempt to conceal their identities) chugging 40-ounce bottles as music blares in the background. Purists vocally espouse “following the blueprint,” as they call it: Keep the bottle’s label facing the camera for the entire video. Do not “foam” the malt liquor by drinking it improperly. And polish off the 40 within ten minutes or less.
Aesthetically, the clips resemble a cross between a late-night cable-access show and a professional-wrestling promo spot, leaving some viewers wondering whether the boastful personas the performers take on are for real, or if the whole genre is maybe some sort of gonzo performance art.
Steeleworldwide has been making malt-liquor videos on YouTube since 2009. He has amassed just over 3,000 subscribers and more than 1 million total views. In his videos he can usually be found wearing his mask, sitting at a desk made of cardboard malt-liquor boxes, and watching television or viral internet videos — pausing briefly to tip back his 40 and order viewers to “drink malt liquor and only malt liquor.”
Early on, the popularity of such videos attracted forum outsiders, who began posting videos of their own. Soon a pair of YouTubers known as Jayyjjay and Cowboyintn1979 started posting videos of themselves drinking as well, but their preferences went beyond malt liquor, and soon they formed another crew, Beer Drinkers United. Other YouTubers followed their lead, sparking the form’s growth, giving birth to what is now commonly referred to as the YouTube Drinking Community (YTDC) and, according to some early adopters, ruining everything.
“We’ve all seen what happens when you have two similar ‘crews’ trying to claim the same piece of turf,” a post on the 40ozmaltliquor.com website states. “Couple that with the internet and you have all-out drama.”
The flashpoint occurred after a 40oz Crew member posted a video by BDU crew member BlackMetalTroy322 to Bruz’s forum along with a thumbs-down emoticon. This seemingly small gesture took the rivalry to a new level. After a lurking BDU member saw the post, it was war.
“All hell broke loose,” Bruz wrote.
It began with callout videos filled with insults and endless rounds of trolling. Then it escalated to doxxing. Soon the battle spilled over into real life, with members of rival factions calling and harassing each other’s families. In time, Bruz and many of his website’s veterans retreated, taking refuge in a more private Facebook group called Support Malt Liquor. In their absence, the YouTube drinking scene grew. Slick, well-produced videos of YouTubers tasting and analyzing craft beer gained popularity. Meanwhile, the renegade, outsider spirit of malt liquor persisted in a smaller corner of the internet.
Despite the drama, Steeleworldwide has remained particularly dedicated to the cause, still posting regularly to YouTube. Lately, the content of his videos has taken a political turn. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the man who encouraged his viewers to “take a shit” on the doorsteps of craft-beer home-brewers would come out in support of Donald Trump. A life-size cardboard cutout of the presumptive Republican nominee now appears in the background of most of his videos. It’s hard to tell whether his support for Trump is genuine or part of the act. Either way, it seems clear: Game recognizes game.
“Shout out to Donald Trump. Still fuckin’ trolling even though he has the Republican nomination all locked,” Steeleworldwide proclaims between long pulls of Colt 45. “That’s why he’s gonna win it all.”
Steeleworldwide represents the prototypical malt-liquor fanboy in another very important way. He’s white. The members of this movement are almost exclusively male and mostly Caucasian. The irony of drinking malt liquor from a bottle with the smiling face of Billy Dee Williams on the label while singing the praises of a man whose campaign has earned the seal of approval from white supremacists like David Duke appears to be lost on Steeleworldwide.
Meanwhile, the latest challenge to the malt-liquor community is coming from an unlikely quarter: fans of the beverage who have adopted the connoisseurship and refinement that characterize the detested craft-beer movement.
Chief among those is hip-hop artist E-40, who recently released his own eponymous brand of malt liquor. The beverage is specifically advertised as a “craft” malt liquor product, boasting that its ingredients include a “touch of honey.”
“If you were to do a blind taste test and you poured my beer next to a craft beer or two, nobody would know that mine was a malt liquor,” the rapper told Forbes.
So, will the malt-liquor community outgrow its defiantly humble tastes, morphing into a somewhat more drunken version of the craft-beer community it rails against? In a recent post on his website’s forum, Bruz expressed doubt that products like E-40 signaled the end of the online malt-liquor community he helped build.
For one thing, he was skeptical that malt-liquor drinkers would ever pay a premium for a “craft” product. A 40 of E-40 retails for about $6, nearly twice the price of a regular malt-liquor brand like Olde English.
“Craft malt liquor or not, I don’t know how this brand will stick around for long at that price,” he wrote. “People will get over the novelty and go back to drinking the better tasting and cheaper 40s.”
His assessment gets at the heart of why Bruz and other malt-liquor connoisseurs remain stubbornly committed to the cheap liquid gold they celebrate online. For them, it’s not about fine ingredients or nuanced flavor profiles. It’s about drinking something that’s affordable, authentic, and, in the immortal words of Billy Dee Williams, “works every time.”