Is Malt Liquor a Beer?

This subject is a tricky one. More than one definition of malt liquor exist, and so it could be said, in all honesty that malt liquor is beer. By another definition, however, it is most certainly not beer. Because of this ambiguity, the discussion is worth having.

What Is Malt Liquor?

Technically, malt liquor is any fermented beverage that uses malted barley as a base. By this definition, beer is absolutely malt liquor.

However, under most conventional circumstances, dating back to the earliest days of beer, thousands of years ago, beer is made primarily with the barley grain. In some regions, wheat and oats are also used in place of or in conjunction with barley. Wheat beers are often celebrated because the wheat is commonly not sprouted, or germinated, so it creates an entirely different flavor experience. Oat beers tend to be darker malts, like oatmeal stouts.

Then, in the 1600’s, brewers in Great Britain began experimenting with a much cheaper grain — corn.

Corn is not only cheap, but it is also easy to produce and contains a high sugar content — think of corn syrup.

For these reasons, brewers got it into their heads that beer made with a mixture of barley and corn would be an easy sell on the beer market.

They were, for the large part, wrong.

Despite the fact that this new “beer” was cheaper and had a higher alcohol content, thanks to all that extra sugar, most beer lovers disdained the flavor and aroma and opted for the beers they knew and loved.

Still, the idea stuck, and this new beer, now commonly referred to as malt liquor, has continued to sell in lower income areas ever since.

To make malt liquor, brewers will combine a mixture of barley malt and corn, toast the grains, grind them, and ferment them.

Often, brewers will also add extra sugar.

The extra sugars from the corn and the cane sugar or corn syrup drive up the alcohol beyond the typical 5% ABV, without making the beverage sweeter. Traditionally, there are also fewer hops in malt liquor.

In this sense, then, malt liquor is not beer.

Why Is Malt Liquor Not Beer?

The biggest difference between what we now call malt liquor and what we have also known as beer is the addition of corn and sugar to the fermenter.

Other differences include the fact that malt liquor is now commonly sold in larger containers.

In the 1980s and 1990s, rap musicians adopted the beverage as part of the Black community in the United States and began including various brands of malt liquor in their songs.

Mickey’s, Olde English 800, and Colt 45 are just a few of the common names of malt liquor sold in 40 ounce bottles, and referred to by rappers and other people in low-income communities as “40s.”

Today, malt liquor is widely recognized as almost exclusively the culture product of the Black and Hispanic communities of low-income neighborhoods.

Malt Liquor vs Barleywine

Interestingly, there are similarities between malt liquor and barleywine in that both have a higher alcohol content.

The primary difference is that barleywine is seen as an elevated beer while malt liquor is more commonly derided as low-class.

Barleywine is made with more barley rather than less, and it also includes extra hops, adding both sweetness and a balancing bitterness.

Barleywine has been around for much longer than malt liquor and is often associated with festivals and traditions, often selling at higher price points than many beers.

Malt Liquor Worth Trying

There really is no good answer to this question. Is there a malt liquor worth trying? Not really. If you’re looking for a cheap drink with a high ABV you’re probably better off looking for a lager with a higher ABV than reaching for a malt liquor.

Remember, the whole point of this beer/malt liquor is to provide a cheap high in a large volume.

That said, the most popular malt liquors seem to be Modelo Chelada, Famosa Lager, and Bud Ice Lager, in addition to the ones named above.

If you decide to take your chances, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

And if you’re looking to break into the high ABV malt liquor venue, always aim in the direction of more complexity, a la Barleywine, not less.


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