What is malt liquor?
That’s a question that a lot of malt liquor drinkers do not seem to know the actual answer to, and with good reason. The term “malt liquor” has been used in a variety of ways and has multiple definitions or uses. I will touch on all of this, but let’s begin with the definition of “malt”:
1. Grain, usually barley, that has been allowed to sprout, used chiefly in brewing and distilling.
2. An alcoholic beverage, such as beer or ale, brewed from malt.
In our little world, we use “malts” as a slang term for malt liquor, but as you can see the term “malt” does not in itself always refer specifically to malt liquor. So let’s see where the term “malt liquor” originated. As per Wikipedia:
The term “malt liquor” is documented in England in 1690 as a general term encompassing both lager and ale. The first mention of the term in North America appears in a patent issued by the Canadian government on July 6, 1842, to one G. Riley for “an improved method of brewing ale, beer, porter, and other malt liquors.”
So 100+ years ago the term “malt liquor” was basically synonymous with “beer”. Let’s now move on to learn what “malt liquor” means in today’s world.
One of the most common questions I hear is, “What’s the difference between beer and malt liquor?” It’s like asking what the difference is between pasta and spaghetti. Malt liquor IS beer, just like spaghetti is pasta. It’s one of the 70+ different styles of beer.
Beer can be broken down into 2 types: lagers and ales. Lager is beer brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast, whereas ale is beer brewed with top-fermenting yeast. Each type of beer (lager & ale) has many different styles. Some styles of lager (or bottom-fermented beer) include pilsner, bock, oktoberfest, schwarzbier, and our favorite – malt liquor. Some styles of ale (or top-fermented beer) include IPA, lambic, pale ale, porter, stout and wheat.
What differentiates malt liquor from other styles of lager? Well, to put it bluntly, the malt liquor that we all know and love is cheap, sweet, and strong. The basic American style of malt liquor is brewed using inexpensive ingredients (usually corn) with more sugar in the fermentation, which is what gives it a higher alcohol content than other cheap go-to lagers like Bud Light, Old Milwaukee, or Schlitz. Beers like those tend to carry an alcohol-by-volume (ABV) of 3.5 – 5.0%, whereas malt liquors range from 5.5% – 12% ABV (the higher end of this scale are known as high gravities, or HGs).
High gravity malt liquor usually is labeled as such once you hit the 7% ABV and higher range. “High gravity” is not a style of beer, it’s an adjective to be used to describe a beer. There are both high gravity malt liquors and high gravity craft beers. “High gravity” refers to a beer’s increased specific gravity. As per Wikipedia:
Alcohol is produced by yeast consuming sugars and other carbohydrates in the boiled and cooled mixture (called “wort”). To determine the ABV for a batch of beer, the “original gravity” (OG) is measured after the wort has been cooled and before the yeast has been “pitched”. After pitching the yeast, it consumes the sugars and produces alcohol and CO2 as byproducts. Different strains of yeast have different alcohol tolerances and will die before consuming all of the sugar, where others may continue to produce alcohol to much higher levels. When the yeast has completed its work the specific gravity is measured again. This number becomes the “final gravity” (FG). The FG will be lower than the OG, and the greater the difference the more alcohol has been produced. A calculation is perfomed comparing the OG to the FG to determine the actual ABV that was produced.
So a beer with a high (specific) gravity has a high alcohol content.
Now I’ve told you what malt liquor actually is. In the beginning of the article I mentioned that the term “malt liquor” has been used in a variety of ways, which has not always been to proclaim the style of beer in the bottle. You can thank the government for that. Seriously. When you get the government involved in things that they are not experts in, misinformation and confusion can sometimes be the result. What I’m talking about are various laws and taxes that have forced some breweries to label their product as a “malt liquor” or an “ale” when in fact it’s neither of those things. In recent history, there was a law in Texas (which has since been repealed) that stated any beer over 4% alcohol-by-weight (ABW) had to be labeled as an “ale” on the label. “Ale” is often used synonymously with “beer”, and in this case “ale” is supposed to mean a “strong beer”, rather than a top-fermented beer.
This led to brands like Natural Ice (aka “Natty Ice”), which is a pale lager/American adjunct lager, to be labeled as an “ale” due to it’s alcohol content of 5.9% ABV. And if you were paying attention above, you know that lagers aren’t ales – they’re two completely different types of beer, or fermentation processes (top vs bottom). Also, if you’ve been reading closely, you’ll notice the ABW referenced in the TX law and wonder how that equates to ABV. ABW and ABV are just two different ways of measuring the alcohol content in a beer, and there’s a simple formula that can be used to tell you what the ABV is of something labeled in ABW: ABW x 1.25 = ABV. So in regards to the Texas law of anything stronger than 4.0% ABW being labeled as an ale, that’s equivalent to anything stronger than 5.0% ABV (4.0 ABW x 1.25 = 5.0 ABV).
Another example of this is Mickey’s Ice, which is a malt liquor and most definitely a lager, however it’s labeled as an “Ice Brewed Ale”. Ice brewing involves lowering the temperature of a batch of beer until ice crystals form. Since alcohol has a much lower freezing point (-114 °C; -173.2 °F) than water and doesn’t form crystals, when the ice is filtered off, the alcohol concentration increases. I contacted MillerCoors directly about this brand, since the label says “Ice-Brewed Ale” in all states, and this was their response:
Mickey’s Ice is an American Lager style beer, more specifically, a malt liquor. However, certain states such as Texas requires any alcohol beverage over 5% be labeled Ale, therefor, the word “ale” has to be included in the label.
Similar to the confusion caused by the TX state government forcing brewers to label their lagers as ales, many brewers are at times also forced to label their product as a “malt liquor” simply due to its alcohol content. For example, a typical legal definition is Colorado’s Rev. Stat. ss. 12-47-103(19), which provides that:
“Malt Liquors” includes beer and shall be construed to mean any beverage obtained by the alcoholic fermentation of any infusion or decoction of barley, malt, hops or any other similar products, or any combination thereof, in water containing more than three and two-tenths percent of alcohol by weight [4% ABV].
Similarly, many international beers that contain a high alcohol content either have to or choose to label themselves as a “malt liquor” when being distributed in the American market. This could be due to laws regarding their alcohol content or even for tax reasons. Take, for instance, Löwenbräu Original, which is a dortmunder/helles lager style of beer, but has “Malt Liquor” printed in the corner of the label on the bottle that’s imported to the U.S. (coincidentally, Löwenbräu did also produce a lesser known but actual malt liquor in 40oz bottles for the American market as well). Another example of imported “malt liquor” is Carlsberg Elephant, which is a strong pale lager/imperial pilsner. In Denmark, you won’t find this labeled as “malt liquor”, only here in America. Obviously, these brands and most other “imported malt liquors” are not actually malt liquor. They have more in common with Heineken than they do Olde English 800.
In recent years, flavored malt beverages (also known as “alcopops”) have slowly been taking over shelf space that was once reserved for 40s and malt liquor. Many malt liquor drinkers believe that these “flavored malts” are actually malt liquors with flavoring added. Malt liquor brands like Colt 45 and Steel Reserve 211 add to this misconception by producing both malt liquors and flavored malt beverages (Blast & Blk Berry, respectively). However, flavored malt beverages are not malt liquor. As per Wikipedia:
…alcopops often start out as un-hopped beers, depending on the state in which they are sold. Much of the malt (and alcohol) is removed (leaving mostly water), with subsequent addition of alcohol (usually vodka or grain alcohol), sugar, coloring and flavoring. Such drinks are legally classified as beers in virtually all states and can therefore be sold in outlets that do not or cannot carry spirit-based drinks.
In most jurisdictions, these products are regulated in a way identical to beer, which allows a retailer with a beer license to sell a seemingly wider product line. This also generally avoids the steeper taxes and stricter regulations associated with distilled spirits.
Furthermore, according to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB):
Flavored malt beverages are brewery products that differ from traditional malt beverages such as beer, ale, lager, porter, stout, or malt liquor in several respects. Flavored malt beverages exhibit little or no traditional beer or malt beverage character. Their flavor is derived primarily from added flavors rather than from malt and other materials used in fermentation. At the same time, flavored malt beverages are marketed in traditional beer-type bottles and cans and distributed to the alcohol beverage market through beer and malt beverage wholesalers, and their alcohol content is similar to other malt beverages in the 4-6% alcohol by volume range.
Although flavored malt beverages are produced at breweries, their method of production differs significantly from the production of other malt beverages and beer. In producing flavored malt beverages, brewers brew a fermented base of beer from malt and other brewing materials. Brewers then treat this base using a variety of processes in order to remove malt beverage character from the base. For example, they remove the color, bitterness, and taste generally associated with beer, ale, porter, stout, and other malt beverages. This leaves a base product to which brewers add various flavors, which typically contain distilled spirits, to achieve the desired taste profile and alcohol level.
While the alcohol content of flavored malt beverages is similar to that of most traditional malt beverages, the alcohol in many of them is derived primarily from the distilled spirits component of the added flavors rather than from fermentation. (70 Fed. Reg. 194 et seq. (January 3, 2005)
That final paragraph sums it up nicely: flavored malt beverages derive their alcohol content from having distilled spirits added to them, not from fermentation like beer (malt liquor). So please, know your malts and stop calling Four Loko, Colt Blast and the such “malt liquor”. Flavored malt beverages ≠ malt liquor. Flavored malt beverages are not even really beer! It’d be like taking a human embryo and altering its DNA to create some sort of mutant, and calling the resulting creature a Homo sapien. Flavored malt beverages are the mutant hybrids of the beer world.
Lastly, there’s a lot of false information spreading primarily amongst the YouTube Drinking Community (YTDC), in which it is believed or preached that it’s only malt liquor if the label says it’s malt liquor. If you’ve made it this far into the article, then you now should understand that this is not true. Do you really think that when Steel Reserve 211 Triple Export shortened the description on the top of their 40oz labels from “Triple Export Malt Liquor” to simply “Triple Export” that all of a sudden it was no longer a malt liquor? Furthermore, who really believes that when Hurricane High Gravity (HHG) updated their label to the current design, which now includes the words “Malt Liquor” in a script below the brand’s name, that they changed it from a high gravity lager to a malt liquor? Need I remind you that “high gravity” is a descriptive word and not a style of beer unto itself, and that malt liquor is a style of lager? What if I told you in Texas the old 40oz label for HHG said “High Gravity Ale”? Hopefully by now you would understand that state laws forced the brewers to mislabel their lager as an “ale” due to its alcohol content, rather than truly believing they were selling HHG lagers in all states except TX where they got to drink a special batch of HHG ale. Furthermore, if you have a 40oz labeled as a high gravity lager, it’s a malt liquor with a high alcohol content, whether or not it says “malt liquor” on the label. That could be seen as redundant since “high gravity lager” rolls of the tongue easier, and malt liquors are a type of lager. However, if you have a 12oz bottle of VooDoo Vator High Gravity Lager, then take a closer look at the label, because that’s actually a high gravity doppelbock, which is another style of lager.
Many in the YTDC know that this misinformation (“it’s only malt liquor if it says malt liquor on the label”) is not actually true, but like to encourage it as a matter of pride. They want their malt liquors to always say “Malt Liquor” on the label. If a malt liquor brand doesn’t say “malt liquor” but instead calls itself a “high gravity lager”, then some feel they shouldn’t be treated with the same respect as the malt liquors that do have “Malt Liquor” printed on their labels. However, I say to those people, it is time to support ALL malt liquor, before more are discontinued. 2013 was a rough year for malt liquor with several brands going the way of the dinosaurs. Let’s end it on a high note by buying, drinking, and enjoying as much malt liquor as possible… and just saying NO to flavored malt beverages!