In 1997, myself, my brother and two friends would occasionally visit Grocery Food Outlet stores around Portland, Oregon. These stores were at the bottom of the grocery "food chain", with most of their products being rejects from large and established grocery stores and chains. I think these stores are most similar to an Aldi, to give you a point of reference. The possibilities of finding novelty foods and unique packaging were almost endless. Among our favorite finding were Dead Red Unwine (dealcoholized Grateful Dead wine), a half dozen different brands of imitation spam, and breakfast cereal with horribly copied cartoon mascots, so close to the original big name brands that you wonder how they got away with it.
On one visit we found 40 ounce bottles of Phat Boy malt liquor selling for one dollar. Large brown glass bottles with an Urban-African design and name... yellow, red, white and black colors with sharp contrast and jagged, rough street font. I have read that Phat Boy contained ginseng and that was part of the marketing, but the label on the bottle makes no mention of this fact.
Only a couple of days after finding this cache of Phat Boy bottles, we opened one of the three that were purchased and we all had a drink. It was flat, beyond skunky, and sour... incredibly foul and generally tasting like fuel. Simply put, it was one of the most disgusting beer experiences I have ever had. One of my friends kept the second bottle, while my brother and I kept the third. Over the years we lost track of where our Phat Boy was located, but I always reminded my brother to try to find it, as it was most likely the last remaining bottle in the country not sitting in some makeshift malt liquor museum. In October of 2004, I got an email from my brother saying that he had found our bottle of Phat Boy, which was now over 8 years old, with an expiration date of December 1997.
I now have in my possession a Phat Boy, which, humorously enough, is now my most rare and 2nd oldest bottle in my cellar (behind the 96 Rogue Imperial Stout).
The direct marketing attempt at inner city black youth was hard to miss, and what we didn’t know at the time that we found these bottles was that Memphis Brewing Company, who brewed this beer, was coming under a significant amount of pressure to halt marketing or recall the malt liquor because of the youth marketing angle. I should mention that there is no actual brewery that goes by the name Memphis Brewing Company, but rather they were a business unit and manufacturing plant set up by Coors to brew and distribute products such as Blue Moon, Coors N.A., Zima and Killians, among others. Other smaller beers on the market also contained the "Memphis Brewing Company" label, such as Mississippi Mud Black & Tan, which is now brewed by the Matt Brewing Company in Utica, New York. In 1998, about 150 community activists wrote to United States Beverage, LLC, http://www.unitedstatesbeverage.com), who at that time was responsible for brewing Phat Boy, as well as other controversial alcoholic beverages such as Hooch and Seagram’s Coolers, some of which are still being sold and marketed.
Now, one can debate if the marketing company was trying to directly market to youth by using the slang term "phat", or if they were simply trying to tap into the large market of low-income, urban malt liquor drinkers by appealing to them with street language and an afro-centric label. Phat Boy was never recalled, but in a couple of years the brand was cancelled because of poor sales. It’s not hard to see that a product using urban slang would be rejected by the target market. The same thing generally happens with other "Gen X"-labeled products marketed to teenagers.
The outcry from anti-alcohol groups was tremendous in 1997 and 1998, with Booze News and The Marin Institute, both alcohol prevention groups, calling for a petition to block the marketing and distribution of Phat Boy. One internet poster on an African-American message board commented on Phat Boy as saying "this shows you the sickness of the white man and his agenda to elimate Afrikan People. This no good cracker is trying to exploite Afrikan people we must not allow this go on anymore. If Afrikan people must go and physicaly stop this company it must be done by any means nessary. We can not allow this no good cracker to take advantage of Afrikan people." While this is an extreme example of the outrage caused by this product, and should not represent the entire view of the protestors, it is a good example of the anger felt by some in the African American community.
A look at a magazine ad for Phat Boy explains just why the outrage was so severe. The tagline "the neXt generation in malt liquor", along with a photograph of young men in the upper right corner make it hard to believe that this ad was allowed to run, no doubt in "Gen X" oriented magazines.
Will this rare and controversial bottle of Phat Boy malt liquor ever be consumed? We will have to see. If I were to open this bottle, it would have to be in the company of other eager beer geeks who would want to sample a rare gem of the dark side of the beer world. I am sure that a Phat Boy would not fly amongst other beers offered during a gathering of geeks such as the RateBeer Summer Gatherings, so we would have to collect a number of us beer geeks who are serious about sampling and rating such an rare offering. No doubt that you may never get another chance to try the legendary Phat Boy.
Hopefully in the near future I will be able to write a follow up to this article, documenting the Phat Boy tasting. All that is required is a large enough contingent of RateBeer folks who are serious about sampling this beast.