For $7.99 per six-pack at Safeway, a bottled brew called Smirnoff Ice Triple Black promises a "crisp, clean bite." Its label also swears Triple Black is a "premium malt beverage"--in other words, its alcohol comes from the same source as the booze in Guinness Draught.

Serious beer people say that's ridiculous--that Triple Black and its clear, flavored cousins called "malternatives" have as much in common with an honest hefeweizen as a Gardenburger does with a Painted Hills steak.

"They may begin life, in some murky soup, as beerlike creatures," says Jim Parker of the microbrew alliance Oregon Brewers Guild. "By the time they hit the market, any relation to beer has gone bye-bye."

The feds agree. National tests two years ago revealed many malternatives--sorority-girl-sweet brews often marketed under hard-liquor brand names--derive most of their alcohol from distilled spirits rather than fermented malt. That means they're more like watered-down hooch than the Bud tallboys they resemble in alcohol content.

Of course, to Jack and Jill Partybeast, where the kick comes from makes little difference. But in Oregon, the feds' malternative findings touched off a war over who can sell the heavily marketed drinks. With a key deadline looming at the end of the year, a lawsuit filed by a liquor-store owner last month and a lobbying battle underway, the issue's coming to a rich, foamy head.

Despite the Oregon Liquor Control Commission's highly publicized move to open state-run liquor outlets inside some supermarkets (see "Beer, Eggs, Booze?" WW, Aug. 25, 2004), Oregon grocery stores normally can't sell the hard stuff. (Likewise, you can't buy beer at an OLCC store.) Though the feds stopped short of reclassifying malternatives for taxation purposes, the tests seemed to prove the bevvies met the definition of booze, not beer, and thus belonged in liquor stores.

And, in fact, that's where they seem to be headed. Last year, legislators passed a law stating that come New Year's Day 2005, any quaff that falls short of Oregon's definition of beer (or wine) faces exile to liquor stores. That decision came after a slugfest pitting beer and wine partisans, who want to see these fruity competitors exiled, against grocers and distilleries, who want to see "alco-pops" stay on supermarket shelves.

Some malternatives--like Mike's Hard Lemonade and Anheuser-Busch's Bacardi Silver brand--have been reformulated to meet beer definitions. (OLCC will release a list of approved reformulations as early as next week. To make the grade, drinks must derive less than half a percent of their alcohol from distilled spirits.) But others have not changed and could be yanked.

Industry insiders and lobbyists say that prospect has sparked a concerted campaign aimed at scuttling the deadline, spearheaded by distillery multinational Diageo.

"They're calling everybody they can possibly think of, and they're having their friends call, too," says Paul Romain, influential lobbyist for Oregon's beer and wine industries. "They're calling the governor's office, they're calling state legislators. And the people who feel differently are doing some of the same things."

The push failed to sway the OLCC, which declared last month that it had no option but to enforce the New Year's deadline. If the deadline stands up, drinkers may be forced to seek out some popular malternative brands at liquor stores. And because the state sets the price of distilled spirits, they'll probably pay more.

Liquor-store owner Robert Larry argues none of this mess would have happened if the OLCC hadn't been hoodwinked by manufacturers in the first place. Larry's store, on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, is currently shuttered as he wages a multifaceted spat with the state liquor board. His latest salvo is a suit filed Aug. 12, charging OLCC with breach of contract over malternatives.

"You shouldn't be able to buy an alco-pop at Fred Meyer," says Larry, whose lawsuit doesn't specify how much he thinks the issue cost him in lost sales. "These products should have been sold by agents all along." No court date has yet been set in the case.

"They may begin life as beer-like creatures, but by the time they hit the market, any relation has gone bye-bye."

--Jim Parker, Oregon Brewers Guild