What is a Malt Liquor? + A Brief History Defending Its Honor

American malt liquor often gets a bad rap as "sleazy," "bottom shelf," or somehow exclusively for drunkards because of the inexpensive adjuncts added to the malted barley to get a higher ABV in the finished beer. Let us not forget that malt liquor is brewed with much the same ingredients and processes of strong American-style lagers, in fact, if you're ever enjoyed an HG (High Gravity) Lager, you're essentially drinking malt liquor. Legally, the term "malt liquor" includes any alcoholic beverage containing malted barley with 5% or more ABV. In some states beer must fall below a certain ABV, and beer that exceeds the given mark is then labeled as "malt liquor."

What makes a malt liquor?

In order to achieve that higher ABV, malt liquors often contain corn, rice, or dextrose to boost the amount of fermentable sugars in the wort, which boosts the final alcohol concentration. Though the first documented mention of malt liquor occurred in 1690 in England, American Malt Liquor did not emerge until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The Depression was making beer a challenge for brewers, because there was not enough metal for bottle caps or cans, and not enough malt to make beer. The solution for brewers in the years following, such as Clarence "Click" Koerber of Grand Valley Brewing and the brewers at Goetz Brewing, was to use more sugar to raise the alcohol content of their lager.

Forties + Brown Bags

American malt liquor is commonly sold in 40 fluid ounce bottles, instead of the standard 12 fluid ounce bottle of most beers. Forties (as they are colloquially called) are often regarded as being sold exclusively in a thin brown bag. For a time it was popular opinion that concealing the label of an alcoholic beverage would make one less likely to get charged with drinking in public. However, law enforcement is more than wise to the attempted consumption of open containers in public, and a thin brown bag does not serve as real protection from being charged. If anything, the brown bag is intended for discreetly and safely transporting alcohol home.

Craft Beer Makeover

Malt liquor is sometimes discounted as the drink of choice for indigent alcoholics and college fraternity types, but even this beer style has received a fancy reboot by popular craft beer breweries. Dogfish Head has a "Liquor de Malt," Elysian Brewing calls theirs "AK-47," and Four Peaks sells "ML209" – all of which highlight unique adaptations of the standard adjuncts for higher ABV. The most comprehensive explanation ever given for why malt liquor continues to have a loyal following was provided by Thrillist author, Dave Infante, when he said, "if you make something strong, put it in a big bottle, and sell it for cheap, someone is gonna drink the damn thing." Right you are, Dave.

Typical Color:

Straw to Pale Amber

IBU Range:


Typical Alcohol Range:


Enjoy at Temperature:

32-39 F

Food Pairing:

Heartier/Red meat, Spicy food – for example: Spicy Grilled Shrimp


Mug or Pilsner Glass

Examples of Malt Liquor:

Mickey's Dogfish Head Brewery "Liquor de Malt" Elysian Brewing "AK-47" similar to: Spaten "Optimator"

Mr. Beer Refills/Recipes:

Brown Bag Special (Partial Mash)