It’s a well-kept Vegas secret—unless you follow Esquire magazine, which in March placed it among “Nine of the Worst Beers on Earth.” And even if you are aware of Camo malt liquor, you still might have a tough time finding it. (I and fellow beer connoisseur Adam Bucci scoured Lee’s, Sinclair, Terrible’s and Total Wine before finding Camo Black Ice at a 7-Eleven at Tropicana and Maryland Parkway.)
In a way, all this is just fine with Bob Williams III, the CEO and president of Las Vegas-based Camo Brewing Company, who’s been distributing his niche product since 1998. “I prefer it being under the radar,” he admits. All brands of Camo—Silver Ice, Black Extra, etc.—are produced at City Brewing Company in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Williams distributes 70,000 barrels of the stuff annually across 25 states—without an advertising budget, unless you count the “static clings” stuck on the windows of your AMPM’s beer refrigerator.
Williams admits he’s never tried pleasing critics. He produces a cheap product for people who want a strong taste and a quick buzz. (Black Extra clocks in at 12.2 percent alcohol and costs just over a dollar per 24-ounce can.) “It’s got twice the barley malt and grain of normal malt liquors, and the brewing process takes longer,” Williams says. “It’s a unique category that appeals to college students and the ethnic market. It’s definitely skewed toward the male market.”
Malt liquor, he adds, is “only about 3 percent of the beer-drinking market, but those who drink Camo love the taste of it ... I’m up against the big boys, Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors … and I’m 26th in sales in the country.” Not too shabby for a guy who’d rather stay under the radar.
So how does it taste? I’ve been around the beer block, and this is definitely not one of my favorites, but then again, I’ve never been a huge fan of malt liquors. Those who remember their Mickey’s Big Mouth days will certainly find much to reminisce about thanks to Camo’s alcohol kick. And you beer snobs out there, go ahead and mock its existence—more free advertising.