Does Malt Liquor Deserve Another Shot?

Any 40 ounce gas station staple once heralded as the drink to "get your jimmy thicker" has a tough reputation to shake. But does malt liquor—the official, cheap, boozy fix at college dorms for decades—really deserve its lowly status while craft beer, wine, and spirits bask in the glory of innovation and upper shelf space? Like any misunderstood product, malt liquor is undervalued and actually worth revisiting. Don't believe us? Here's why it's time to give the forty a closer look and maybe even a second swig.

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What Is Malt Liquor?

Malt liquor and cheap, oversized bottles don’t always go hand-in-hand. While the two have their joint history and rewatchable Billy Dee Williams ads, malt liquor is simply beer. Typically ranging from six to nine percent ABV or even higher, malt liquor incorporates adjunct grains like corn or rice to boost fermentable sugars, resulting in a stronger brew.

Brewers start by mashing malted barley and grains with hot water to extract fermentable sugars. This produces wort, which is then boiled with hops to add bitterness and flavor while sterilizing the liquid. After boiling, brewers introduce yeast for fermentation, which converts sugars into alcohol. Following fermentation, the beer undergoes conditioning to refine flavors and clarity, before being bottled and bound for bodegas, supermarkets, and liquor stores.

Compared to traditional beer, malt liquor is sweeter with a slightly thicker mouthfeel, often sold in large 40 ounce bottles or cans; hence, "the forty"—an easy way to mass-market cheap, high-ABV beer that gets you tipsy without breaking any laws. Its low price tag and status effectively left malt liquor in the dust as an emerging craft beer scene took off, exploring more niche flavors like citrus-like hops or caramelized barley.

What's Next for Malt Liquor?

To this day, malt liquor is still waiting for a second look. But now that premium beer brands, from New Belgium to Sierra Nevada, aren’t shy about high ABVs or oversized cans in the Colt 45 and Mickey’s range, that time may be drawing near. Even craft brewers are embracing malt and the culture of the forty-ounce, like Barrel Brothers Brewing, Silver City Brewery, and Hi-Wire Brewing.

Grind City Brewing is a Memphis-based brewery whose founders, Hopper Seely and Tyler Nelson, are self-described experts at making and consuming malt liquor. The two brewers found success after releasing their top-shelf premium malt liquor, Tiger Tail—a tried-and-true malt liquor without pomp or frills.

“If you were to talk malt liquor with a craft beer person five years ago, there wouldn’t have even been a conversation,” says Seely. “That attitude has always rubbed me the wrong way. If we’re getting pretentious about beer, we're alienating people."

Light, smooth, and mellow, Tiger Tail is aged with toasted American oak chips to give it a distinct smoky sweetness before it’s canned for the shelves—and another round of evolving beer attitudes.

“We tried to expand on what malt liquor can be,” says Nelson, who notes that there are only four ingredients in beer. "Malt is one of the main ones, and there’s a ton of versatility there," he adds. "Malt liquor has always been frowned upon, but if you were to bottle it and call it an imperial IPA, no one would bat an eye.”

As tastes evolve, breweries like Grind City see ebbs and flows with customer interests. While Tiger Tail’s popularity is currently outshined by their pilsner, Poppy’s Pils, a new (and improved) malt liquor phase appears to be well underway.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a malt liquor revolution yet, but there are a lot of breweries now doing exciting things with malt,” says Seely, “And that’s starting to catch on with the younger generation.”

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