A Look At Malt Liquor

Posted on September 1st, 2009

Malt Liquor

Today we’re going to take a look at a style of beer often overlooked by many in the craft beer world, but is still consumed widely by American beer drinkers. I’m talking of course about malt liquor, that pale yellow beer at your local liquor store that comes in 40 oz. bottles instead of the usual 12 oz. ones.

The history of malt liquor dates back to 1939 when Grand Valley Brewing Co. in Ionia, Michigan introduced the first malt liquor to the market, Clix. Since then it has slowly rose in prominence in American culture. The first successful malt liquor was Country Club, which gained a following in the 1950’s with middle class whites. In the late 70’s and early 80’s malt liquor began to be heavily marketed towards African-Americans, and became quite popular due to its high alcohol content (7-9% Alc./volume) and low price, (usually under $5 for a 40oz.) It was also around that time that malt liquor was first marketed in the now famous 40 oz. bottles. Although ‘forties’ are often synonymous with malt liquor that was not always the case. In the 1950’s malt liquor was often available only in 7 and 8 oz bottles, because of the added strength of the beer. It was a simple marketing decision to sell the stuff in forties as demographic research showed African-Americans tended to prefer larger containers. Nowadays malt liquor isn’t the only thing available in 40oz. bottles. Some standard light lagers such as Miller High Life are  available in these oversized bottles as well.

Clix, the verx first malt liquor

Clix, the very first malt liquor in 1939

By the 90’s malt liquor and forties became strongly associated with hip-hop and rap culture as it was frequently name checked in songs and featured in music videos.  It wasn’t long before white college students began purchasing the stuff, hoping to emulate their favorite musicians and take advantage of malt liquor’s dirt cheap price and strong alcohol content. By the end of the decade college students’ love of forties spawned new drinking game most commonly known as “Edward Forty Hands,” a name inspired by the 1990 movie “Edward Scissorhands.” This game forces participants to tape a 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor to each hand and consume all 80 oz. before doing anything else, including visit the rest room.The college kids who take part in this sophomoric enterprise are probably not thinking much about the quality of the beer they’re consuming, which might be  good thing as malt liquor is made with a high amount of artificial adjuncts and additives to raise the alcoholic volume while lowering the cost, and the taste.

What defines malt liquor  can be a bit hard to narrow down. Various US states define ‘malt liquor’ various ways; sometimes it can be any beer over 5%, while in others it’s the inclusion of additives such as dextrose. Some states have even banned the sale of malt liquor all together and while Florida does permit the sale of it, 40 oz. bottles are banned, so 32 oz. ones are used in stead. Regardless of how it’s defined any malt liquor can be counted on to be very lightly hopped with a stale aroma of corn and rice and a somewhat sweet and viscous mouthfeel.

Given its reputation it’s not surprising craft breweries haven’t produced many malt liquors. The notable exception is Dogfish Head, who debuted ‘Liquor De Malt‘ a few years ago, a malt liquor which comes in its own brown paper bag. The beer has since been discontinued, so it remains to be seen if any craft more malt liquors will emerge from the craft beer scene.

What do you think about malt liquor? Are they just for the college crowd or do they have more to offer? Next time you try one let us know what you think about it by tweeting your beer and adding the ‘#mybeer’ hashtag.

  • bp

    Ha, thanks for taking my suggestion. If I was forced to drink another 40 I'd go with St. Ides and perhaps transform it into a brass monkey.

  • choochburger

    “The college kids who take part in this sophomoric enterprise are probably not thinking much about the quality of the beer they’re consuming…”

    Obviously not! Come on, Edward 40 hands is hilarious and a ton of fun for all ages! I know many post-grad professionals that will still indulge in a good game of eddy 40 hands. Haha. And when they do, as with most drinking games, they certainly don't waste good brews on it! Great post!

    Btw, When I do get down with malt liquor, my 40 of choice is Private Stock.

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  • mikequintal

    This brewery makes a craft beer 40

  • mikequintal

    This brewery makes a craft beer 40