Yes, Craft Malt Liquor Is A Thing. And It's Having a Moment.

Hard to find and way better than the swill at your local minimart, craft malt liquor is developing a cult following.

Craft beer makers are experimenting with making higher-alcohol lagers, as high as 9.4 percent. (Photo: Maciej Serafinowicz)
Craft beer makers are experimenting with making higher-alcohol lagers, as high as 9.4 percent.

Yes, Virginia, there is craft malt liquor.  

But, if you want to get your Edward 40 Hands on some, you’re going to have to keep an eagle eye out for it. 

Over the years, several of the larger craft breweries have produced malt liquors. But almost always, the nectar of the poor-decision-making gods has come and gone quickly. In many cases, the brews were only ever offered at the breweries’ in-house taprooms.

Take, for example, New Belgium, which brewed a craft malt liquor to celebrate its 40,000th batch of beer. The idea started as a gag but the finished product, at 9.4 percent alcohol, was no joke.

“We wanted to keep things simple and deliver a beer with gusto,” says New Belgium head brewer Mike Cothran. “We had never made a 9 percent alcohol lager before, and lager yeast in general tends to be more difficult to make [into] higher alcohol brews.” For this reason, most malt liquors are somewhere between 6.5 percent and 8 percent, Cothran says.

“Traditionally, malt liquors are brewed with adjuncts like corn or sugar to bring up the alcohol at a lower price,” he adds. “This also helps the yeast to ferment at higher alcohol levels since adjuncts are often 100 percent fermentable. We did use a small amount of sugar, which is traditional for Belgian brewers, but the rest was all malt.” 

The final product was called Cobra Horse, which was the name of one of the brewers’ imaginary childhood band. It “actually turned out really good,” Cothran says. “It finished clean but had a more body than a regular domestic beer.” 

Cobra Horse was only available in a few Colorado bars and at the brewery. But Dog Fish Head’s crack at malt liquor, called Liquor De Malt, sold to the public in 40-ounce bottles that came in their own brown paper bags. Perfect for enjoying while sitting on a pile of your broken dreams and wondering where you went so wrong. 

Even smaller breweries, like Virginia’s Devils Backbone Brewing Company, are whipping up their own iterations of the traditionally-frowned-upon corner store booze option. And it’s clearly getting out of hand: Devils Backbone’s malt liquor, called Turbo Cougar, won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

Jim Weatherwax, the plant manager for Oskar Blues, says his company’s Kellner malt liquor offering “sold really well.” But he doesn’t see it becoming a regular item in the company’s lineup anytime soon. “I don’t know that it’s a fulltime sustainable type thing.”

Cothran, at New Belgium shares that sentiment. He jokes that he feels lucky he didn’t get fired for producing Cobra Horse. “Personally, I would love to brew it again, but I really don’t have any control over new brands,” he says. The division of the company that deals with which brews gets produced “does surprise us a lot and bring back fun older beers that we all loved. Maybe with a little push they would bring it back?”

Here’s hoping. After all, as Weatherwax says, “malt liquor is like a really, really high alcohol pilsner.” And that, Virginia, is something we can believe in.

Filed To: Wine, Beer, and SpiritsFood and Drink
Lead Photo: Maciej Serafinowicz
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