Malt Liquor: The Definition of a Cheap Buzz

Style Profile by | Jan 2011 | Issue #48

“Minimal taste profile, minimal hopping, lacking in hop bouquet and threshold hop levels…”
–Fred Eckhardt, The Essentials of Beer Style, 1989, describing the style characteristics of malt liquor.

“Get your girl in the mood quicker, get your jimmy thicker, with St. Ides malt liquor.”
–Ice Cube, St. Ides Commercial, 1994, describing the style characteristics of malt liquor.

And there you have it: the grand dichotomy of beer. To some it’s all about the flavor, but to others it’s nothing more than a … um, a stiff drink. No other style manifests this distinction better than malt liquor.

Outside of a couple curiosities produced by craft brewers, not a single malt liquor earns a grade over “C” at Most earn epithets worthy of terrorist baby killers. Even among those who are fond of the stuff, there is little praise for any quality beyond its cheap facility for denting one’s cerebral cortex. Even those who decry neo-Prohibition find it hard to come to its defense when Bible-thumpers protest the sale of so-called “liquid crack” in inner-city neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, no beer style is so crassly adored as malt liquor. The Irish might’ve written odes to their beloved black Stout, and Germany has made lager a religion. But in America, malt liquor—even as it is inevitably packaged in a brown paper bag—is an instantly identifiable cultural icon.

It is a totem of hip-hop and a punch line on The Simpsons. An entire generation grew up believing, as Billy Dee Williams told us, that Colt 45 “works every time.”  You didn’t hear the Ramones singing about Hefeweizen, though they once shilled for their favorite 40 (“Gimme, gimme, gimme my Steel Reserve”). And the Wayans brothers never made a comedy called Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Pilsner in the Hood.

Curiously, and despite its dismissal as a serious beer, malt liquor is actually judged every year at the Great American Beer Festival in a category euphemistically called “American-Style Specialty Lager.” Yes, the same awards ceremony that has honored the likes of Hennepin Farmhouse Saison has handed out medals to Hurricane, Red Bull, Mickey’s and OE 800. (Presumably, the winners received high marks, per the style criteria, for their “sweet-fruity esters and complex alcohols.”)

Craft beer, this is not.

The mash is a high-gravity wonder of barley malt, corn grits and dextrose (corn sugar) or fructose (corn syrup). Enzymes are added to fully convert the corn into fermentable sugar, then a special yeast strain is employed to efficiently boost the alcohol. It is the very definition of a cheap buzz.

Yet, there is a certain fascination with malt liquor among some craft brewers. Dogfish Head famously packages its Liquor de Malt in a brown paper bag while The Pain Relievaz (brewers Sam Calagione and Bryan Selders) rap about “Pinchin’ Pennies.” Seattle’s Elysian Brewing told the Wall Street Journal that its top-selling t-shirt is for AK-47, a malt liquor. And Rogue knows what guys want, packaging potent bottles of Dad’s Little Helper malt liquor for Father’s Day.

There’s a fun, healthy sense of irony at work here. But it misses the point because the small brewers’ versions of malt liquor actually taste good and, I’m obliged to report, won’t make your jimmy any thicker.

Aroma: Corn and alcohol, no malt or hops
Flavor: Dry, corny and boozy
IBU: 12–23
ABV: 6.5–8.5 percent
Examples: Steel Reserve 211, Colt 45, Olde English 800, Mickey’s, Rogue Dad’s Little Helper, Dogfish Head Liquor de Malt, St. Ides, Schlitz Malt Liquor, Haffenreffer Private Stock, Molson XXX, Elysian AK-47