As attacks continue against malt liquors, G. Heileman Brewing Co. yesterday began marketing a lower-alcohol beer and light beer under the Colt 45 brand name. The new product line, which went on sale yesterday, follows the introduction earlier this year of a mint-flavored variety of Colt 45 malt liquor.
All the products are made at Heileman's brewery in Halethorpe, which employs about 475 people.
"Here is a very strong brand," said Randy J. Smith, vice president and general counsel for Heileman, based in La Crosse, Wis. "Why would we want to restrict that just to malt liquors?"
Mr. Smith said Heileman's new entries, Colt 45 Beer and Colt 45 Light Beer, would be competing against such titans as Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
The mint-flavored malt beverage, called Cool Colt, arrived on shelves earlier this year with no introductory fanfare. It's packagedin aqua cans and bottles with aqua labels bearing the slogan "Taste the Cool."
"We have had initially good sales and repeat sales," Mr. Smith said, declining to give any figures.
The strongest sales have been in the Southeast, he said.
Malt liquors, the fastest-growing segment of the beer market, have been coming under increasing attack, with opponents charging that the higher alcohol content encourages alcohol abuse in the inner cities.
While regular beers are 3 percent to 5 percent alcohol, malt liquors range as high as 8 percent. Colt 45 is on the lower end, with an alcohol content of 4.5 percent. Critics have been particularly outspoken against 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, which pack more of a punch for about the same price as a quart of beer.
While total domestic beer sales have been sluggish in recent years -- dropping by about 1 percent, from a high of 190.2 million barrels in 1990 to 188.3 million barrels last year -- malt liquor sales havejumped by 24 percent in the last five years, to 6.7 million barrels, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, a bi-weekly trade newsletter.
Some black politicians feel Cool Colt continues a strategy of targeting a black audience.
"It's another train coming through getting people to step on board," said Del. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Baltimore, a critic of liquor advertising in the inner city. "It's reeling in people, getting them hooked."
Mr. Cumming speculated that the mint flavor might be more appealing to blacks who drink more soft drinks, proportionally, than the rest of the population.
"It's more dangerous to me as far as our young people are concerned," Mr. Cummings said.
Annapolis City Councilman Carl O. Snowden, another black official who has been active on liquor issues, also objected to Cool Colt.
"We need another malt liquor in this society like we need more handguns," he said.
He said that Cool Colt would have a particular appeal to blacks because of the prominence of the word "cool" in the black lexicon.
In addition, menthol cigarettes have a wider appeal among black smokers.
Of the 8.2 million black smokers, 21.5 percent smoke menthol-filtered cigarettes, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau Inc., a New York market research firm. In comparison, 8.8 percent of the 49.4 million white smokers favor menthol cigarettes.
But Mr. Smith said the company has not targeted any specific group. "I don't think there is any connection there," he said.
Mr. Smith said Cool Colt was designed to appeal to consumers in their 20s who are willing to experiment. Most of the advertising for the product has been on television and has featured both white and black actors, Mr. Smith said.
The company is also planning other varieties of Colt 45, which Mr. Smith declined to discuss.
Heileman is an veteran in the malt liquor wars.
In July 1991, the company came under attack for introducing PowerMaster, with a reported alcoholic content of 5.9 percent. Critics attacked the name PowerMaster, implying that it designated a strong intoxicant, and the alleged targeting of blacks. Former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello asked Heileman to abandon its PowerMaster sales campaign, saying it appeared the company was targeting minority consumers. After a few weeks, the beer was pulled from the shelves because the name ran afoul of a law prohibiting the promotion of a beer's strength on its label.
More recently, Heileman has come under attack for its television commercial for Colt 45 that features an earnest young black man talking about commitment and the need for education and then reaching for a Colt 45.