When you hear the words “malt liquor” what immediately comes to mind? College parties? The day before payday? A wicked hangover? Garish labels bearing snakes, tigers and bears? Snoop Dogg? All of the above? Probably, but there’s an even bigger question that comes to mind: What is malt liquor?
Not a style unto itself, malt liquor is probably best considered a product category. Sounds sexy, right? There’s a reason—a few, actually—that malt liquor, unlike virtually every other arbitrary permutation of beer in existence, hasn’t made its way into the craft beer demimonde. For one, it’s explicitly a commodity, and craft producers never tire of dogging on “commodity beers”—even though many of them are now working furiously to bring their dressed-up versions to market such as 15-packs of craft light lager.
Malt liquor is made for two things: Strength and value. But how is it made? Well, that depends. Interestingly, if we were to take the traditional definition of malt liquor, there’s nothing there to exclude it from the Annals of Craft: A malt-based beverage including some amount of adjuncts, fermented to moderate-to-high strength. A huge number of craft beer brands fit that description, in part because the traditional definition of malt liquor defined it against “regular” beer, that is, macro light lagers below 5% ABV. If you’ve ever seen the term “High Gravity” employed in malt liquor marketing, it’s simply meant to connote strength: “Gravity” is a measurement (roughly) of a beer’s fermentable sugars and potential ultimate alcoholic strength. With malt liquor, usually a fair amount of those fermentable sugars are derived from adjuncts. Adjuncts are, as we’ve discussed before, any source of fermentable sugar in beer which is not malted barley: Rice, corn and dextrose (corn sugar, in brewing parlance) are all adjuncts often used in macro lager brewing, particularly in malt liquor. Adjuncts tend to be cheaper than malt, and allow a brewer to increase alcoholic strength while keeping costs low. Adjuncts like dextrose are also much more highly fermentable than some malt-derived sugars, meaning that they add fermentable sugars (and thus more alcohol) without adding residual body or sweetness that would reduce the drinkability of your malt liquor. To make the beer even lighter-bodied and stronger, extra enzymes are added during fermentation to break down any long-chain starches the yeast otherwise wouldn’t be able to metabolize into alcohol. So again, malt liquor is, generally speaking, a strong beer (6% ABV and higher) made with adjuncts, often with extra enzymes added to boost fermentability and (in theory, at least), drinkability. Everything else is just marketing.
And what marketing it is. The history of malt liquor's marketing has precluded it from being rehabilitated by the increasingly omnivorous and desensitized world of craft beer, which is really too bad, because much of it is pretty amazing—the parts that aren’t disturbing, at least. In “A Story Without Heroes: The Cautionary Tale of Malt Liquor,” Kihm Winship locates the origins of malt liquor as a luxury tipple aimed at affluent white suburbanites. Soon enough though, breweries sought ways to communicate alcoholic strength without running afoul of regulations which forbade doing just that, and thereafter malt liquor labels often featured images of “strong” and “powerful” animals: Bucking broncos, leaping tigers, cobras coiled and just about to strike. As malt liquor advertising was changing tenor, breweries also became aware that an outsized proportion of their malt liquor sales were to African American consumers—as Winship notes, “Nobody knew why” black Americans drank more malt liquor than their white consumer counterparts, “they just did.” Advertisements featuring Redd Foxx, Billie Dee Williams and Wilt Chamberlain soon followed. Dave Infante charts the instantiation of malt liquor in early 90s hip-hop, which garnered huge sales for the malt liquor brewers and no small amount of controversy, to boot.
Malt liquor undeniably has a fascinating cultural history—but what does it taste like? It has a reputation for being rank and unpalatable, a reputation that’s certainly been earned by some products but is probably also attributable to both its price and product positioning (low cost, big volume packages such as the 40-oz.) and its association in the minds of middle class drinkers with urban poverty. When thinking about the flavors and aromas of malt liquor, let’s consider it in context: Many malt liquor brands are merely “amped up,” or simply repackaged, versions of the American macro lagers these brewers were already otherwise producing, and bear many qualitative similarities to the lower-alcohol, more mainstream brands. When tasting malt liquor, you may notice a green apple or latex paint-like aroma: Acetaldehyde is a yeast byproduct present in all beer, but considered an off flavor in noticeable amounts. It’s also extremely common in American light lager and, yes, malt liquor. In higher gravity malt liquors, one may also detect a chemical or solvent-like quality; fusel alcohols can be harsh, spicy or hot. Unlike ethanol, which is largely aroma- and flavorless, these “higher alcohols” are noticeable, unpleasant, and can be indicative of a quick, hot fermented beer made with cheap (e.g., non-malt) materials. Fusel alcohols also contribute—anecdotally, at least—to the intensity of one’s hangover, as anyone who’s imbibed malt liquor to excess may attest.
So what about craft malt liquor? Is that a thing? Depends on who you ask. Taking the Brewer’s Association definition of craft comes from “small,” “independent” breweries using mostly “traditional ingredients” (e.g. malted barley, though evidently Peeps are okay). A lot of popular malt liquor brands come from large, international breweries that clearly fall outside the bounds of the BA definition (King Cobra = Budweiser, Olde English = MillerCoors, Colt 45 = Pabst). But some others come from regional breweries that the BA would seemingly only be able to exclude on a technicality or sense of decorum (Wild Cat is brewed by Pittsburgh Brewing Co.). Many craft breweries have made their own “malt liquor,” typically as a joke or throwback—such as Sun King’s Colt 444—but these are usually limited releases or one-off novelties. Founders’ DKML, a barrel-aged corn-based high gravity ale, purports to be “the first malt liquor worthy of a glass,” which hearkens back, perhaps, to malt liquor’s roots as a more refined beer for the country club set. In the end, though, it’s all marketing. And it works every time.