Down with the malternatives

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SOME DAY, the beer gods willing, Americans will come to their senses and stop guzzling crappy malternatives.

You know, those clear, sweet, sodalike beverages named after hard liquor and favored by the fake ID crowd on Delaware Avenue. Ostensibly brewed with malt, they’re actually a mix of distilled alcohol and citrusy, sweet flavors.

Some day, everyone who has ever ordered one at the bar will wake up and realize they’re little more than, as George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest once wrote, “an alcohol-delivery system for the Pepsi generation.”

Don’t get me wrong. Joe Sixpack is not siding with finger-waving neo-prohibitionists. Hell, I think if you’re 18 – maybe even younger – you should have the right to drink a beer or wine with your family.

I’d just like to see malternatives – known in the industry as flavored malt beverages – wiped from the face of the earth because they rob valuable space on deli shelves from real beer.

You know: an adult beverage made with malt, yeast, hops and water. Not a science project in which every last vestige of the brew’s original ingredients has been stripped away and replaced with chemicals and flavoring agents.

The problem is, though FMBs have no apparent redeeming value, Americans – even responsible adult Americans – will continue to drink the stuff. That’s their right.

And that’s why I’m troubled by the alcohol rules being proposed in Washington.

The new rules stem largely from Prohibition-era laws that tax distilled alcohol (rum, vodka, whiskey, etc.) at a higher rate than beer.

As I revealed in a Daily News report last year, though FMBs largely contain distilled alcohol, they are taxed at the same rate as beer. That has allowed brewers to avoid millions in higher state and federal excise taxes.

For industry leader Smirnoff Ice, I estimated the tax savings at $80 million a year. According to the federal government, all but a handful of FMBs derive almost all of their alcohol from distilled spirits. That not only means lost taxes, it blurs the line between hard booze and beer. For example, though the networks ban TV ads for distilled spirits, they permit advertisements of malternatives. Meanwhile, states like Pennsylvania aren’t certain whether the stuff should be sold in liquor stores or delis.

Looking to establish new standards, the Treasury Department’s Tax and Trade Bureau is floating a pair of proposals to cap the amount of distilled spirits in malt beverages.

One measure, favored by much of the brewing industry and anti-alcohol groups, would limit the amount of distilled alcohol at just 0.5 percent of volume.

The other, backed by the largest FMB producers, would require that 51 percent – the majority – of the drink’s alcohol must be from malt fermentation.

“It all boils down to beer integrity,” said Daniel Bradford, president of the Brewers Association of America, which favors the stricter limit. “We need to make sure that beer is beer and spirits are spirits. FMBs are not beer.”

Victory Brewing’s Bill Covaleski agreed, writing in a letter supporting the rule that the Downingtown micro’s success is due partly to a “renewed commitment to traditional processes and beer styles.”

Some of the FMB makers fret that the 0.5 percent limit will mean the end of their $2.5 billion industry. They say it’s impossible for them to make a palatable product without distilled spirits.

“If the bar is raised, the taste profile is threatened, it could change the whole dynamic of the industry and lead to a shakeout,” says Gregory Altschuh of the Flavored Malt Beverage Coalition, which supports the 51 percent measure. Yet, the big three – Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors – support the stricter limit.

Altschuh says that’s because only the mega-brewers have the technological ability to produce a decent-tasting malternative without distilled spirits.

“Right now, four of the five biggest FMBs are produced by smaller brewers,” said Altschuh. Actually, they’re not all that small: Diageo, which makes Smirnoff Ice as well as Guinness Stout, had sales of $17 billion in 2003. But even at that size, Altschuh says that if the rules are changed, the smaller players will likely disappear.

The beer purist in me wants to agree with the craftbrewers. Like I said, I hate malternatives and wish they’d vanish. I was outraged last spring when distributors poured the junk at the Michael Jackson beer tasting at Penn. And there’s an A-B rep out in Denver who’s still wondering what hit him following my run-in over a bottle of Bacardi Silver being foisted upon unsuspecting patrons at the Great American Beer Festival.

But as a consumer, I don’t want the feds (with the support of breweries) big-footing an entire sector of the industry just because the booze was manufactured at a distillery.

I don’t see how FMBs challenge the integrity of real beer. One sip, and you know that Skyy Blue is not beer. And I strongly doubt that anyone who drinks Jack Daniel’s Original Hard Cola will ever sit down for a pint of Victory Golden Monkey.

Bottom line: Alcohol is alcohol. Maybe it’s time the laws reflected that reality and taxed everything – beer, wine, spirits – at the same rate.

One other thing: Small brewers should really think twice about siding with the likes of A-B on any issue involving money. If anything, the presence of FMBs is a sign of healthy competition. More choice is always better; wasn’t that the mantra of the microbrewing revolution?

But readers, I’m askin’ ya, please: Stop drinking that stuff. That’s the best way to make malternatives disappear.

 Jukebox heroes

Joe Sixpack’s list of the 33 best jukebox hits drew a great response from readers, many of whom agreed with my No. 1 choice: the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” The readers’ favorite was my No. 5 tune: “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

A few of you took me to task for missing several obvious songs. William Taylor 3rd of Philadelphia said, “I do not know what bars Joe may have been in, but the greatest bar song of all times was sung by the late and great Marvin Gaye: ‘Let’s Get it On.’ ”

Gina Novelli nominated Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” And Dave Eschleman of Downingtown said his No. 1 song is AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”

“Miss American Pie” and “New York, New York” – both of which I excluded because they appeared on VH-1’s lame list of favorites – also got support.

Congrats to Jack Finnegan of Sewell, N.J.; Jerry Mazeika of Bensalem; and Jo Anne Tascione, Allen M. Simmons Sr. and William Taylor 3rd, all of Philadelphia. They won tix to last week’s disco show at the Wachovia Center.

 Beer radar

Pottsville’s Yuengling is getting bigger every day. Now, the fifth-largest brewery in America, it recently moved into North Carolina. . . . It took 8,000 to 10,000 years of civilization, but China is now the No. 1 beer producer in the world. Agence France Presse reports the nation inched ahead of the United States last year for the first time, brewing about 40 million more gallons.

 Calendar

Tonight: Brewers’ Reserve Night, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant (147 E. Main St., Media), with cask-conditioned ales from three Iron Hill locations and seven other area breweries. 7 p.m. No cover. 610-627-9000.

Tomorrow: Miller Lite Catfight Girls celebrity appearance at the Bayou (4245 Main St., Manayunk). To paraphrase the commercial, “Let’s make out!” 9:45 p.m. 215-482-2560. *

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Hapkin Strong Golden Ale.

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