What's the Difference Between Beer and Malt Liquor?

What's the Difference Between Beer and Malt Liquor?


Malt Liquor vs Beer - What’s the Difference?

Whenever I’m comparing two things (in this case, malt liquor vs beer) I think it’s always best to first state the definition of the two things we’re discussing. For beer I’m going to reference the German Reinheitsgebot (rine·hites·geh·bot) otherwise known as the 1516 Bavarian Law, which stated that beer could only contain 3 ingredients: water, barley, and hops (yeast was present in the beer, and the brewers knew, roughly, what it was, but they considered it more as a process of brewing instead of being an ingredient). Now we have our rough definition of what beer is. Malted grain, that is yeast-fermented and ‘spiced’ with hops. Easy! If you want to read up a little more on the history of beer go give this blog post a read!

So Then What’s Malt Liquor?

We’ve got our definition for beer and since this is malt liquor vs beer that means malt liquor is next . . . so what exactly is malt liquor? For beer it is best to go back in history and reference the German Reinheitsgebot. For malt liquor I’m going to go for a different approach and reference something a little more current, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (which definitely isn’t as fun to say as Reinheitsgebot) states that malt liquor is - “a malt beverage must be made from a base that is 25% malt and must contain at least 7.5 pounds of hops per 100 barrels of finished product”. So we’re using malt, hops, and yeast . . . doesn’t that mean that malt liquor is beer? Well, unfortunately yes.

Is It Just Two Words for the Same Thing?

Most state laws say something along the lines of, “Malt liquor is any malt-based beverage that is fermented and above 5% ABV (alcohol content wise - that's fairly low in the craft beer world), and anything below that is considered to be a beer”. So in the eyes of the law most craft beers are actually going to legally be considered malt liquors. This is where I say we ditch the law and focus more on what I’m going to be calling the ‘spirit of the drink’. For something to be considered malt liquor and follow the spirit of the drink I think that it needs to hit a few key points.

Malt liquor is in my eyes…

  1. Higher ABV - In terms of alcohol content, Malt Liquor should be somewhere between 5.5%-12% ABV
  2. Minimal Hops - You don’t want any of that hoppiness getting in your way when you're drinking malt liquor
  3. Lager Yeast - It’s possible to make a malt liquor using an ale yeast strain, but it should be a lager. Lager yeast? What's that? Well I'm glad you asked. 
  4. Light - While high in abv, malt liquor should be light. Basically an American lager with higher alcohol content
  5. Size - Malt liquor should come in a 40 oz bottle.

Why is Beer called Malt Liquor?

If you break down malt liquor and think about what “malt” and “liquor” are, it starts to make sense why beer is technically malt liquor. We have to ditch the conception we have about malt liquor and about beer and think about them as neutral terms. So breaking down malt liquor into two terms we get: 

Malt: Barley, Wheat, Rye, Corn, Rice, etc... etc.  

Liquor: This is a bit more confusing.

Liquor as we know it is simply, ”A fermented and distilled beverage”. Beer is not distilled, beer is only fermented. In this case, the usage of “liquor” dates back to the 16th century when liquor meant, “an intoxicating alcoholic drink". That nomenclature has stuck around hence why beer can be called malt liquor, even though the process for making liquor and beer is different. 

Do I wish we had two distinct words for them? Yes and no. Yes, because malt liquor is definitely it’s own thing separate from beer, with its own culture and purpose. No because, I don’t think we should be putting barriers up around anything. If a brewery wants to bump up the alcohol content and make a 12% American lager and serve it in 40 ounce bottles, they should be able to (will I drink it? Probably not. But, I bet someone out there will drink it and love it). It’s more important to follow the ‘spirit of the drink’ on this and not pay much attention to what legal definitions we have that define these things. Malt liquor vs beer? No need for such fierce competition, every drink deserves it's own special place.