Malt Liquor vs Beer – Difference Between Malt and Beer

by Dane Wilson | Last Updated: January 26, 2022

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Have you ever gone out drinking with your friends and saw malt liquor on the menu? There is no doubt that you have tried beer at least once, but what about malt liquor? Since beer is made using malt, you might think these two beverages are related. While there are many similarities between malt liquor and beer, the differences are much more noticeable.

It’s time to shake hands with beer’s less sophisticated cousin, malt liquor.

What is Malt Liquor?

You may have consumed a malt liquor before and never realized it, as it has been around since at least the 1600s. Malt liquor is, believe it or not, a type of beer (a lager, to be exact) that has a higher amount of alcohol in it. In order to get that amount of alcohol, more sugar is added to the mix. This often comes in the form of sugar, rice, or corn alongside malted barley.

Malted liquor is either light brown or amber and has a strong smell. In the US, malt liquor is sold in “forties,” or containers that hold 40 ounces. Some of the most affordable—but decently flavored—malt liquors include:

  • Mickey’s – produced by Miller Brewing Co., this malt liquor as an ABV of 5.6% and a light flavor.
  • St. Ides – does this sound familiar? If you’ve listened to hip hop music, you’ve heard a reference to this brand. It’s a high gravity brew made by Pabst Brewing Company and packs in 8.2% ABV.
  • Olde English 800 – another well-known brand of malt liquor, Olde English 800 comes in at 7.5% ABV and has a decent flavor along with a fruity scent.
  • Colt 45 – grainy, tart, and just the right amount of sweetness, Colt 45 is a throwback to simpler times. It contains 5.6% ABV.
  • Steel Reserve 211 – coming in at 8.1% ABV, this malt liquor has a malty flavor and low price tag, making it a favorite for those who want to get a little tipsy for as cheap as possible.

Interested in the history of malt liquor? It’s honestly fascinating! Here’s a video to prove it:

What is Beer?

Beer is more popular than malt liquor and has been around for thousands of years. Like malt liquor, beer uses malted grains, such as barley, wheat, rice, and corn to make the base of the brew. Hops and other flavorings can also be incorporated into the recipe. Then those sugars are fermented into alcohol.

There are also many styles of beer out there—not just ales and lagers.

Differences Between Malt and Beer

You’ve learned a bit about both alcohol beverages. Let’s see what truly sets them apart.

The Brewing Process

How malt liquor and beer are brewed is the most defining difference between the two beverages. Malt liquor and beer might use many of the same ingredients, but the methods behind the brewing? You might see some dissimilarities.

Making Beer

Beer can be brewed with top or bottom fermentation. This generally refers to where the yeast goes once added to the boiled wort. The kind of fermentation depends on the beer style.

The fundamental ingredients for beer include water, yeast, hops, and barley. When brewing up a beer, what matters most is the quality of the wort and hops. You must transform the starch into wort, which is then converted into beer during fermentation involving yeast.

While that’s the simplified version, the main thing is that fermentation can be done top or bottom.

Making Malt Liquor

Malt liquor doesn’t require hops—ever. All you need is yeast, water, and barley to start making malt liquor. Manufacturers also add in fermentable sugar to increase the amount of alcohol.

The sugar usually comes from dextrose, which is derived from starches like rice and corn. Malt liquor is also brewed like a lager and requires a lower temperature.

Why is Beer More Expensive Than Malt Liquor?

One of the major reasons people compare malt liquor vs beer is because of the price. Malt liquor comes in a bigger bottle but is cheaper than a 12 oz bottle of beer. In fact, most brands go for around $5. That’s a significant difference from what you pay for a single bottle of craft beer or a 6-pack.

But why is malt liquor so cheap? First reason: no hops. Since manufacturers dump in sugar to flavor malt liquor, they don’t need to worry about buying expensive strains of hops to make new brews. Secondly, malt liquor was produced during a time in US history when people didn’t like beer. It was to be a cheaper beer alternative with more alcohol.

Who could say no?

Flavor of Malt Liquor vs Beer

Being that there are so many kinds of beer out there and a limitless amount of ingredients, you can’t really pit malt liquor vs beer when it comes to flavor. Yet, the absence of hops in malt liquor makes it much sweeter than your average beer. Adding hops to beer imbues the beverage with a touch (or a whole lot) of bitterness, depending on the hops added and how many.

The sugar added lends a fruitier tone to malt liquor. The carbonation level is also higher (because of the sugar), so you might feel very bloated after drinking malt liquor as opposed to beer.

Needless to say, you won’t be able to tornado chug a forty of malt liquor.

Malt Liquor vs Beer: Alcohol Level

Another difference between beer and malt liquor is the amount of alcohol. Malt liquor has a noticeably higher amount of alcohol per serving. In fact, a 12 oz can of malt liquor will have 40% more alcohol than a standard serving of beer. A 40 oz bottle has 4.7 times as much alcohol as a standard alcoholic drink.

Compare that to beer. While there are beers made with excessive amounts of alcohol, most brands are between 4-6% ABV. If you decide to drink the same amount of malt liquor as you normally would beer, you may be astounded by how intoxicated you’ll be.

If you plan on trying malt liquor, it’s recommended that you drink one less serving than you normally would with beer.

Which Is Healthier?

One of the things you have to consider when choosing between malt liquor and beer is the health benefits. Yes, both contain alcohol! Consume in moderation, friends. That said, drinking a forty of malt liquor is going to have some consequences that a single can of beer wouldn’t. Namely, calories.

A single 1184 g (40 oz) serving of malt liquor contains around 475 calories. If you decide to drink the whole thing, you could end up gaining weight from the sugar. Considering splitting that 40 oz bottle up into several servings. Malt liquor also contains a good amount of magnesium, potassium, sodium, and calcium.

Now let’s consider beer. A single serving of regular beer is generally 150-160 calories. You also get some calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and folate. While drinking a lot of alcohol can counteract these micronutrients, beer does make portion control easier than when pouring from a forty.

Malt Liquor vs Beer – Difference Between Malt and Beer_sound brewery

Beer also contains hops, unlike malt liquor, giving you an extra antioxidant kick.

Either way, as long as you drink sensibly, you should be okay enjoying beer and malt liquor. Do keep in mind that malt liquor quickly adds up and will cause your blood-alcohol levels to rise much faster than beer.

Get Your Malt Fix

Now that you know the differences between malt liquor and beer, you can go into the liquor aisle with more confidence. Both contain alcohol and are made with similar ingredients, though the fermentation process, price, and flavor is different. But if you’re looking for an inexpensive drink to try, why not pick up some malt liquor?


FAQs: Malt Liquor Vs Beer

What is malt alcohol?

Malt alcohol, also known as malt liquor, is a mass market beer with a high alcohol by volume (ABV). Malt alcohol is popular in North America and is made with malted barley. Popular brand names include Colt 45, Olde English 800, and Steel Reserve.

Is malt liquor stronger than beer?

Yes, malt liquor is stronger than beer. While the flavor of malt liquor is far less bitter than beer, it contains a lot more alcohol. A single serving of malt liquor typically has around 5.6% ABV, but there are brands with so much as 8.1% ABV. While this might not seem like a large increase from beer (averaging at 4-6% ABV), the effect is noticeable when you drink a lot of malt liquor. As with all alcohol drinks, consume both beer and malt liquor in moderation.

Why is malt liquor so cheap?

Malt liquor is cheap because it doesn’t contain hops and uses dextrose as a sugar source. Hops can be expensive, especially when using noble hops or rarer strains. Malt liquor was also made to be a cheap yet boozier alternative to beer, and it has remained that way.

Is there a difference between malt liquor and beer?

Yes, there are differences between malt liquor and beer. First, malt liquor does not contain any hops. While malt liquor is technically a lager beer, it requires more sugar to brew and ends up with a greater amount of alcohol by volume. Malt liquor is also sweeter and smoother than beer.

Who drinks malt liquor?

Due to the high ABV and low price tag, many impoverished communities prefer malt liquor over beer. A 90-day study found that a large portion of malt liquor drinkers are unemployed, male, and African-American. This may be a reason why malt liquor brands are often described in hip hop music and culture. Hispanic Americans also tend to drink malt beverages and malt liquor, as well as beer.