40s are quite the anomaly: they are consumed by both dark-alley dwellers and frat boys alike.
But the 40 ounces of cheap booze (count ’em, that’s well over a liter of drunk juice) don’t really serve much purpose outside of getting intoxicated – quickly. Perhaps the shared admiration between men sleeping in dumpsters and college students is not so farfetched.
Even though the 40 is a traditionally urban symbol, some suburban beer distributors are beginning to sell these novelties. The 40 is available most readily in impoverished neighborhoods due to its extremely low price and the fact that locals want to get more bang for their buckj. Typically, a 40 in Philadelphia goes for anywhere between $2 and $4.
At an unmonikered deli in West Philadelphia at 52nd and Spruce streets, a local man sleeping on the front step was happy to converse for the price of one of these malty treats.
“Yeah, you know, I get whatever’s cheap, you know? I gotta get f—ed up sometimes, you know? I like Piel’s, it’s two bucks,” said the man, who only identified himself as “B.”
Linh, a 17-year-old Vietnamese girl who isn’t even old enough to distribute alcohol, works because her family depends on alcohol sales to survive.
“I don’t work all the time, but when I work [at night] usually 8 hours, I sell maybe 100 [40s]. Then there are the cans. Maybe 20 or 30 six-packs, and a few loose ones,” she said.
Chen, a young man working at Broad Deli at Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue by the Temple campus, told similar tales.
“On Friday, we sell maybe 15 cases,” he said. That translates to 180 40s.
Both store workers said that while their stores are advertised as delicatessens, neither have ever sold more than five or 10 sandwiches in a day.
So, why the mass appeal of 40s? How has such low-quality booze made such an impact on urban alcohol sales? Well, it sure isn’t the taste.
“Yeah, you know, they’re cheap and they taste pretty bad. But after a while, you kind of get used to the taste and it’s just awesome to have a 40 with you at a party.
It’s a whole lot better than waiting around with a little cup to drink some watered down stuff out of a keg. Holding on to a 40 is just so satisfying,” said a sophomore female Temple student, who asked to remain anonymous.
“My favorite 40s are the ones that are really just regular beer, like Miller, but in a bigger bottle. I don’t like malt liquor most of the time,” she said. “Also, I can buy them way easier than liquor or cases of beer at a [distributor]. I can walk into most delis and I never get carded.”
The accessibility of 40s is certainly another reason they appeal to the younger crowd. When asked about carding, Linh said “[it’s] just too dangerous to card people sometimes. Kids have thrown things at the glass, angry that I card them. You know, it’s scary a lot of the time working here. I just let them have their way. No one tells around here.”
40s may be easy to buy, but choosing one can be an overwhelming ordeal. For the 40 enthusiast, there are upwards of 600 known 40s.
Granted, some of these are imports and are not readily available, but in most delis and food stores that sell 40s, there is an abundance to choose from.
The most popular brand at Broad Deli is Hurricane, a malt liquor that goes for $2.50 a bottle.
Malt liquor is beer with other ingredients, namely sugar and corn, added to the mix of malt, which, when fermented, gives the beer a greater ‘kick.’ The end result: you drink less and get more inebriated.
Originally created in the late 1930s, malt liquor is still a staple of any stingy alcoholic’s rotation of drinks. Since the stuff was so cheap, manufacturers started making it in larger quantities, similar to the way cigarette companies began marketing larger.
The varieties seem endless. All kinds of names – King Cobra, Colt 45, Olde English 800, Silver Thunder, Hurricane, Private Stock, Country Club, Coqui 900 and Piel’s – appear on deli refrigerator shelves. All of these vary slightly in alcohol content, usually between 5 percent and 8 percent, and malt/hop content, which results in different tastes.
Any carbonated-alcoholic-beverage enthusiast can discern the taste of malt liquor from that of ordinary beer. However, many popular beers are available in 40-ounce bottles but are not traditionally considered part of the mystical spectrum of 40s, because they aren’t malt liquor.
One recent brand of “high-gravity,” or extra potent, malt liquor called “Four O” boldly advertises an alcohol content of 10%. That rivals many table wines.
“Sure, they may be fun to drink, but really I just like to get drunk fast and easy. I like having it to bring around with me, so I don’t always need another beer,” says Kevin ‘Pants,’ a West Philly 40 aficionado.
Despite their mobility, Kevin admits “I can never finish it, though. There’s always that gross a– end left that gets all warm and icky. I always have to leave that around somewhere. There’s nothing worse than bad beer that’s gone bad.”
Julian Root can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.