What Is Malt Liquor?

Famous for its high ABV and low price point, malt liquor is not your average beer. 

Synonymous with college parties, nasty hangovers, and '90s hip-hop, malt liquor is a little understood beverage with a fascinating history. Is it beer? How is it different from "regular" beer? And why is the alcohol by volume (ABV) so high? We're taking a deep dive into malt liquor to understand how it's made and how it differs from other malt-based beverages.

What Is Malt Liquor?

Malt liquor is a style of beer, in which adjuncts — like corn, rice, and sugar — are added to the malted barley to up the alcohol concentration without dramatically changing the taste.

Malt Liquor vs. Beer: What's the Difference?

So, if malt liquor is a type of beer, how does it get to be so much stronger than regular beer? Malt liquor and regular beer are both malt-based beverages, but they differ in how they are manufactured.

Malt Liquor vs. Beer: Fermentation

To make beer, the brewing process starts with grains, usually barley, which are heated, dried, and cracked to isolate the enzymes needed for brewing in a process known as malting. From here, the grains are mashed and steeped in hot water, causing the enzymes to activate and release sugar. The liquid you're left with is known as wort.

Next, the wort is boiled and hops and other spices are added to balance out the sugar. Finally, the wort is strained, filtered, and fermented with yeast for several weeks. The yeast works by converting the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide, giving the beer its alcohol content and carbonation.

Malt liquor uses the same ingredients (with the exception of hops) as beer, but brewers also add adjuncts like rice, corn, or sugar, giving malt liquor a much higher ABV.

Malt Liquor vs. Beer: ABV

Regular beer typically has an ABV of five percent or lower, while malt liquor's ABV is usually around six to nine percent, or even higher. This means that one bottle of malt liquor can have more than double the alcohol content of a standard beer.

Malt Liquor vs. Beer: Taste and Appearance

Hops (a cone-shape fruit) helps to balance out the sweetness of the sugar, giving beer its signature smooth, slightly bitter flavor.

Malt liquor is made with either a very low concentration of hops, or none at all. This, along with the sugar added to increase the ABV, means malt liquor is a lot sweeter and fruitier than regular beer. And it's fizzier than regular beer because there is more sugar, which the yeast breaks down into carbon dioxide. In terms of color, malt liquor can range from straw to pale amber in color, depending on how long the barley was roasted.

Malt Liquor vs. Beer: Price

In popular culture, malt liquor is often considered to be bottom-shelf, cheapest of the cheap alcohol (hence the association with college kids). And there is some truth to this if you look back on the history of malt liquor:

According to Drizly, beer began to lose popularity in America during the 1950s and '60s. In order to stay competitive with spirits, breweries created a high ABV beverage/liquor, but with the same fermentation process as beer. The drink was largely marketed to inner city neighborhoods, where it was received with massive success, likely thanks to its high ABV and low price point.

two beers in person's hands
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Popular Malt Liquor Drinks and Brands

Classic American malt liquor brands like Old English 800, Mickey's Fine Malt Liquor, St Ides, and Colt 45 took off in the 90s, when the drink was advertised by famous rappers including Ice Cube, among others. These are often sold in 40 fluid ounce bottles (a significant leap from the standard 12-ounce beer bottle), leading to their nickname "forties."

The popularity of forties has taken a sharp decline since the late 90s, but flavored malt beverages like Smirnoff Ice, RITAS Lima-A-Rita, and Mike's Hard Lemonade, have grown in popularity as alternatives to beer and traditional malt liquor.


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