What’s the difference between beer and malt liquor?


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Dear Straight Dope: I am a man who, after a long day at work, likes to kick back with a 40 oz. malt liquor and relax. I seem to, however, catch flack from people I know due to their general distaste for malt liquor … the same people who enjoy an occasional beer. I feel that there really is no difference between these two type of beverages, except for alcohol content and, of course, the much lower price tag. I think they are just being snobby and, in the process, paying a lot more money for the same product with less alcohol. Is there really a difference between beer and malt liquor in either the brewing process or ingredients? I think that it is purely a matter of perception. If people drank malt liquor out of crystal champagne glasses instead of brown paper bags, this country would be dotted with trendy malt liquor brew-pubs and malt liquor cigar bars. Then who would be the fool? Todd D.

SDStaff Jillgat replies:

40oz, Todd? You sure you’re catching flack from your friends because of the kind of beer you’re drinking or for the fact that you’re roaring drunk most of the time?

I like this supposed quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

First, with all this interest in beer variety and microbreweries, I have no idea why malt liquor gets such a bad rap. It may be just a cultural thing, as you alluded to. But there are more differences between malt liquor and most other kinds of beer than just the alcohol content, and even that varies between malt liquors. First, for comparison, your average American beer has between 3.6 – 3.8 percent alcohol by weight. “Light” beers have much less, and heavier European beers contain about 5% alcohol.

Camo 5X Malt Liquor (it comes in a camouflage bottle, so don’t put it down on the ground — it’s hard enough to find your beer after you’ve had a few) contains 8% alcohol by weight. St. Ides Malt Liquor (as promoted by Ice Cube, the rap star: this is from his rap tune on a St. Ides commercial — I am not making this up — “It’ll make your jimmy thicker and get your woman in the mood quicker”) is 7.3% alcohol. Some of the others, like Colt 45 and Mickeys (my house brand) have less than 5.6% alcohol.

Beers are either “top fermented” or “bottom fermented.” Porters, ales, and stouts are top fermented and malt liquor is bottom fermented, which means the wort (the resulting brew of malt, prepared cereals like corn or rice, hops and water) is fermented by yeast of the bottom fermentation type (i.e. yeast which settles to the bottom of the fermenting tanks). Top fermenting yeast does the opposite. Malt liquor is made from a wort containing a high percentage of fermentable sugars which makes it slightly sweeter and a bit spicy in flavor and also raises the alcohol content.

This is kind of cute. From the letters of Joseph Clarke, general treasurer of the Rhode Island colony, sometime around 1775:

Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors:

“You are first to have ready the following Implements, a mash Vat, to put your malt in; a Vessel under this to receive the Wort in; a Copper to boil in; a Rudder to stir your malt with, and Vessels to cool your Liquor in; First then fill your Copper with water, take then 6 Bushels of Malt and put into your mash Vat, leaving about a Peck to sprinkle over the Liquor when in, Let your water simper, and be in the next degree of boiling but not boil; lay it on upon the Malt well ground, and when you have laid on such a quantity as you can draw off a Barrel of Wort, stir the malt well together with your Rudder; and then sprinkle the remaining Peck of Malt over all covering it up with Cloths to keep the heat in; for three hours; only when it have stood an hour and half draw off a pail full or two; and lay it on again to clear your tap hole. This done the next Business is to boil a Copper of Water, to scald your other Vessels with; always taking care to have a Copper of Liquor hot to lay on, upon the malt when you draw off the first Wort, and this will be for small Beer. The three hours now expired; let go (as the Term is) which is let the first wort run off, putting into the Vessel which receives it a pound of Hops; when all drawn off lay on the hot Liquor for your small Beer, clean out your Copper and put the wort, Hops and all into the Copper and boil it for two hours; strain it then off thro: a Sieve into your Vessels to cool it; and put your small Beer into Copper and the same hops that come out of the first Beer and boil it an hour. When both are almost cool add Yeast to them; to set it to work, breaking the head in every time it rises; till it works itself clear and tun in; Bung it up with Clay and keep it in your Cellar, in three months you may bottle the strong Beer, the other in a weeks time will be fit to drink.”

But you were asking why malt liquor is considered lowbrow when it’s cheaper and more alcoholic than beer. Todd, I don’t want to cast aspersions here, but for most people, to ask the question is to answer it. If you’ve got a bud whose idea of quality in alcoholic beverages is (1) it’s cheap! and (2) it’ll get you drunk faster! … well, you may cherish this person, but he or she will probably not be the first person you’d think of to take to the palace to meet the queen, you know what I’m saying?

SDStaff Jillgat, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.