Malt Liquor vs. Beer

If you’ve ever picked up a 40 oz. of malt liquor from the store, then you might have wondered to yourself, “what’s the difference between this and beer?” Sure, the bottles are typically bigger, and malt liquor is usually cheaper, but why? 

Price isn’t its only attractive feature. Many people prefer malt liquor due to its sweeter taste and more potent effects. Malt liquor has become so popular that many of America’s microbreweries have begun producing their own version of the product. 

Is a microbrewed malt liquor worth buying? Can malt liquor ever taste better than beer? We’ll be answering all these questions in our side-by-side malt liquor vs. beer analysis. Read on to understand the difference between these two beverages.  

What is Beer?


We all know what traditional beer is, but a formal definition will help us define it distinctly. Beer is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages ever produced and the third most popular drink globally, only behind water and tea. Most modern beer comes from barley, but you can also make it from wheat and corn.

Beer dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, where the famous Code of Hammurabi mentioned its production. Today, this alcoholic drink comes in many varieties and styles, including ale, lager, pilsner, stout, and many more. 

The main differences between types of beer are the alcohol content and consistency. They’re also differentiated based on their country of origin, levels of yeast/malt, and the brewing process. Most beer ranges from 4% to 6% alcohol. 

What is Malt Liquor?

Malt Liquor

Malt liquor is technically beer with a higher alcohol volume. By definition and legally speaking, the term pertains to any alcohol made from malted barley with more than 5% alcohol by volume (ABV). The beer type it resembles the most is an American-style lager. 

Malt liquor has been consumed since the 1600s when it was brewed in England and covered both beer and ale. It first appeared in North America in 1842 when the Canadian government issued a patent for it. 

The first malt liquor beverage brewed in the United States was Clix, founded in 1948. Today’s most popular brands of malt liquor are Colt 45, Schlitz, King Cobra, and Olde English 800. Malt liquor is usually between 6% to 9% alcohol. 

Brewing Process

The most significant difference between malt liquor and most kinds of beer is the brewing method. As a lager, Malt Liquor is brewed like any other lager, undertaking a bottom-fermentation process. Different beers can be brewed via top or bottom fermentation. 

How to Make Beer

To understand the difference between top and bottom fermentation, we need to learn how beer is generally brewed. Whenever people brew beer, the process involves transforming the starch source (usually barley) into a liquid called “wort.” 

The wort is then converted into beer through a fermentation process caused by yeast. First, the starch is “mashed” with hot water for one to two hours, causing the starch to ferment and turn to sugar. After that, the wort is filtered out and boiled in another container. 

The brewer adds hops during this process to add flavor and smell to the beer. The yeast that brewers choose for the brewing process determines whether the beer is top or bottom-fermented. 

The beer is top-fermented if the yeast rises to the top of the container during the brewing process. If it sinks to the bottom, then it is bottom-fermenting yeast. 

How to Make Malt Liquor

If you want to brew beer, you need a mixture of barley, hops, yeast, and plain water. For malt liquor, you need all of these ingredients except hops. Instead of hops, manufacturers of malt liquor will add additional fermentable sugars to drive up the alcohol content. 

Usually, this sugar comes from dextrose, cereal grains link corn and rice, or a special enzyme. The process removes some of the richer flavors from a beer and makes malt liquor slightly sweeter than a traditional lager. It’s also brewed at a lower temperature than most beers. 

Malt Liquor Vs. Beer Infographic

Differences Between Malt Liquor and Beer

Now that we’ve established the differences in their brewing techniques let’s look at some of the other significant differences between malt liquor and beer. 


To categorize all beers on flavor alone is almost impossible. There is a vast range of possible flavors based on the variety, where it’s brewed, and which ingredients are used in the finished product. However, there is a distinct difference in flavor when compared to malt liquor. 

The hops are what give beer its bitter and wholesome taste. Beer companies will advertise their expertise in including hops and finding the proper beer-to-hop ratio. The more hops a brewery includes will make the beer even more bitter and darker. 

Since malt liquor doesn’t contain hops, most of its flavor comes from the added sugar content. It makes the malt liquor taste much sweeter and also provides some fruity undertones. The extra sugar also makes malt liquor much more carbonated than your average beer. 

Most people will feel more bloated or full after a glass of malt liquor than beer, possibly because of the high carbonation levels. The fizziness also makes malt liquor harder to drink quickly or “chug” than a beer that’s the same size. 


One of the major marketing advantages of malt liquor is its cheaper price. You can go to just about any gas station or convenience store and get a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor for under $5. That’s a significant decrease compared to the $7 to $10 you’d pay for a six-pack of regular beer. 

Most people reason that malt liquor is much cheaper for two reasons: brewing process and customer base. Due to all the added sugars, it’s much cheaper to brew malt liquor. You also don’t have to worry about the additional expense of buying hops. 

The second reason is related to why malt liquor was introduced in the first place. Malt liquor became popular in the US economy when the beer industry was losing customers to wine and other spirits. 

Malt liquor was introduced as a cheap beer alternative to increase consumption by lower-income individuals. The bargain doesn’t just stop at the lower price. Malt liquor also has more alcohol than beer, so you’re getting more bang for your buck. 


There are a few ways to tell the difference between beer and malt liquor based solely on what you see. 

First, avoid the mistake of looking for a light color brew. Many people believe that ales are dark and lagers are light, but the color has more to do with the brewer’s base malt. The color of malt liquor will typically range from a pale yellow to a light golden brown, but many beers also come in these colors. 

The color of your beer will tell you a lot about how it was brewed. If your beer is a darker brown, the brewer probably roasted the malts for a longer period. Water temperature and pH levels can also make the beers darker if they are running high. 

Darker beers can also mean they had limited filtering. Some brewers will leave their beers unfiltered. An unfiltered beer will be much more cloudy and also taste heavier. 

Alcohol Level

Another huge difference is that malt liquor has a higher percentage of alcohol and comes in larger containers than most beers. 12-ounce cans of malt liquor will have 40% more alcohol than the average bottle of beer. A 40-ounce container of malt liquor has 4.7 times as much alcohol as a standard drink. 

Because of the higher alcohol level, you’re likely to get drunk faster when consuming malt liquor. If you want to be safe when drinking malt liquor, we recommend drinking one less 12-ounce drink than you would if you were drinking beer. 


Due to its higher alcohol content, the average malt liquor consumer ingests about 80% more alcohol per drink than the average beer drinker. 

The larger containers and higher alcohol consumption mean that you are multiplying your risks when choosing this cousin of beer. It will result in high blood-alcohol levels, a greater chance for alcohol poisoning, and more alcohol-related problems. 

Malt liquor consumption is most popular in impoverished communities with a minority population. A 90-day study of malt liquor consumption found a customer base that was 35% unemployed, 72% male, and 88% African-American.   

The study also revealed that malt liquor drinkers were more likely to be homeless, receive public assistance, be unemployed, be daily drinkers, be smokers, and drink with friends of the same sex. 


Overall, the main difference between malt liquor and beer is that one is cheaper and more potent. As you can see, beer is also much older than malt liquor and introduces hops during the brewing process. All malt liquor is a type of beer, but all beer is not malt liquor. 

As a lager, malt liquor is typically lighter in color. It also has a sweeter taste than most beer and is more carbonated. The most common packaging for malt liquor is a 40-ounce container, and it usually costs around $5 per bottle unless you are looking into homebrewing

Whether you like beer or malt liquor is entirely up to you and depends on your taste. Beer offers more variety and complex flavors, but malt liquor gets the job done quickly and inexpensively. Whichever you choose, remember to drink responsibly. 

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