The Truth About Malt Liquor

By Chad Stracener | March 10, 2010 | 1 Comments |
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It's close to midnight and you're perusing the alcohol cooler at your local corner store when you notice a few single bottles and cans beside the usual six-packs and cases. They're big, they're cheap, and maybe a little scary. Pick one up and you'll quickly realize these aren't your typical light lagers: this is Malt Liquor

Despite the name, malt liquor is nothing more than a style of beer, similar to an American adjunct lager albeit usually much stronger. We don't discriminate at Beer Universe, so we thought we'd give you a insight into this beverage. Originally, malt liquor was used to describe any beer with a higher ABV than 5%, but in practice it is typically made using rice, corn and sugar, they are most noted for the ability to pack a strong punch for a relatively low cost. (The brown paper bag is optional.)

One thing you'll notice immediately is the size of the vessels. We're talking quantity over quality here, and it shows. Common nicknames for the behemoths are: "The big four-oh", "Tall boys", "The $6 twelve-pack", etc. The container comes in many varieties but the liquid inside usually retains several common characteristics:

  • Typically a clear gold color, similar in appearance to standard American macro lagers (though sometimes a bit darker)
  • Sweet corn and alcohol smell / flavor with little hop presence
  • Thin, "smooth" mouthfeel, and often somewhat flat
  • Unusually high alcohol content (7-9% ABV)

If this sounds good to you then there are some things you may want to consider before jumping in. Like everything, malt liquor has its share of ups and downs: It's strong, but it tastes terrible; It's cheap, but it tastes terrible; It comes in large containers, but it tastes...well, I think you get it. Regardless of what our friend Billy Dee Williams says, malt liquor has one major downside: it typically just doesn't taste that great. In an effort to add some validity to this article, I've sampled a few malt liquors and will provide some thoughts for each. As always, tastes vary and so may your experience, so while this can provide an idea of what to expect, your impressions may be drastically different. 


Camo 900 High Gravity Lager

This one clocks in at 9.0% abv, making it significantly stronger than your average American macro lager. The smell of alcohol is overwhelming and the flavor isn't much better. As lagers traditionally don't have a strong hop presence to help mask the alcohol, the high alcohol content is painfully apparent here. In fact, the booze was so overpowering it was difficult to pick up anything else.

Bottom Line: Avoid. While it will get you drunk, you may experience difficulty finishing it.


Steel Reserve 211

Another heavyweight, at 8.10% abv this tall silver can will certainly do the trick. This one has a bit more flavor than the Camo 900, but that may not be a good thing. Aside from the overwhelming alcohol, this one pretty much tastes like bittersweet corn. It's not something I'd recommend but I'd pick it over the Camo any day.

Bottom Line: More to enjoy here than the Camo, but not by much.


Colt 45

At only 6.10% abv this is the weakest malt liquor that I sampled, and possibly for that reason it was also the most enjoyable to me. With the notable lack of alcohol presence it's a significantly easier beer to drink, however the smell and taste will likely be unpleasant to most. It actually reminded me a lot of Corona, and I suspect that with the addition of a lime, in a blind taste test it may be difficult to distinguish the two. Smooth and lightly carbonated, this one retains the cloying sweetness associated with malt liquors, but is missing the overall harshness with it's lower alcohol content. Of the three I tasted, it's the easy winner.

Bottom Line: A large step up from the other two, but if it's in your budget I'd still look elsewhere.


In short, malt liquor is something that many craft beer enthusiasts will likely not enjoy. As a symptom of it's American lager roots, it lacks many of the complexities of quality microbrewed beer. The use of cheap ingredients and generally low (nonexistent) hop profile ensure that flavorwise, there typically isn't much going on here. Just the same, it does well enough for what it is, and the absurdly low price point means you will be free to try as many varieties as you can stand, so go out and try something new. Who knows? You may actually enjoy it.

1 Comment · The Truth About Malt Liquor

  • Hm. Malt liquor doesn't always mean cheap ingredients. The label "malt liquor" has more to do with liquor labeling requirements than anything else. Several German beers (that are excellent) have to have "malt liquor" on the label to comply with state labeling laws.

    Try Rogue's Dad's Little Helper and you might change your mind about what "malt liquor" is all about. :)

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