Malt liquor is no longer just for paper bags.
Malt liquor is no longer just for paper bags.
Jonathan Shikes

Denver Craft Brewers Hope to Move Malt Liquor Off the Bottom Shelf

Perhaps, kind sirs and madams, you are not aware of the award-winning histories of St. Ides Malt Liquor, Olde English 800 and King Cobra. Indeed, said beverages, often mocked for their high-alcohol "bottom-shelf" reputations at liquor stores, have a glorious record of bronze, silver and gold at the Great American Beer Festival.

St. Ides has seven GABF medals in its hardware closet, while Mickey's and Olde English 800 have six apiece (the most recent for Mickey's was in 2012). Schlitz, King Cobra and Colt can also claim victories at GABF.

Surprised? If you are, it's because, for the past four decades, malt liquor has been associated with cheap, forty-ounce bottles of sugary dreck. More appropriately served wrapped in a paper bag than in proper glassware, malt liquor is also higher in alcohol than most of the mass-produced American beers like Coors, Miller and Budweiser. So, in the poetic words of Ice Cube — one of two dozen or so big-name rappers who made St. Ides commercials in the early and mid-1990s — "It'll make your jimmy thicker, and get your woman in the mood quicker."

But for a few Colorado craft brewers, for whom no style is sacred, malt liquors have been fertile ground recently for a little fun and some hipster cachet.

"It started off with a joke between me and Nick Tedeschi," says Bryan Selders, former brewmaster at the Post Brewing in Lafayette. The two were talking about how certain beer styles don't make sense. Imperial pilsners, for example, aren't really pilsners if their alcohol content is twice as high as the standard for the style. "What they really are is malt liquors," Selders explains. "So we decided to call an apple an apple and just class it up a bit."

The Post now brews and bottles Happy Times Hop Bursted Malt Liquor, a 6.8 percent ABV beer made with 2-row barley malt, flaked maize and Pekko hops. "We're taking malt liquor from the bottom shelf to the top shelf," says Selders, who left the Post this month to return to his previous employer, Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewing, which also makes a malt liquor, called Liquor de Malt. "And, no, it's not offered with a paper bag."

Get cold-cocked by Tivoli's Jet Malt Liquor.
Get cold-cocked by Tivoli's Jet Malt Liquor.
Tivoli Brewing

Bess Dougherty and Dieter Foerstner, the former head brewers for Wynkoop Brewing and Tivoli Brewing respectively, have also made a craft malt liquor, which they debuted at Collaboration Fest last year. "We had both been wanting to do one for a while and figured we would take the opportunity to test out a recipe he had been working on," says Dougherty, now the head brewer at the Grateful Gnome, which opens this summer. "It's a style that hasn't really been explored by craft, and I was intrigued [to see] if it could be done in a crafty way and made well."

Traditionally, malt liquor was distinguished from other kinds of beer by higher alcohol content (8 to 10 percent versus to 4 to 5 percent), a sweeter taste and the inclusion of corn, cheap sugars or other adjuncts in addition to malted barley. In addition, hops are mostly non-existent in malt liquors, or are just an afterthought.

To have some fun, however, Dougherty and Foerstner decided to use hops, and to "do it single-hop style because malt liquor is actually a pretty solid base for a single-hop beer," Dougherty says. "We went with Nelson...mostly to mess with beer snobs. We got a lot of the reaction we had hoped for, which was to cause conflicting feelings among the snobs who wanted to try it because of the Nelson hops but who were not happy about the idea of drinking a malt liquor. We were trying to challenge the serious attitudes of a lot of beer folks, ’cause at the end of the day, it's beer, and it was damn tasty — a neat way to show off hops in a non traditional style."

In fact, in the craft beer world, ABVs of 8 to 10 percent are fairly normal. So are beers with a variety of sugars and additives. So aside from the lack of hops and, perhaps, the quality of the ingredients, the only thing that really sets malt liquor apart from other beers is the marketing and culture around it.

Malt liquor was born in the late 1930s, when breweries, still recovering from Prohibition, decided to answer the call from some consumers who were complaining that beer just wasn't as strong as they'd remembered it. Originally, malt liquor was marketed to middle-class white drinkers as a substitute for champagne, according to a history of the beverage by Kihm Winship. In the 1960s, however, marketers suddenly realized that African-Americans were drinking more malt liquor than anyone else. So they began heavily targeting that audience.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, malt-liquor advertisers were criticized for targeting black consumers in poor neighborhoods, as well as Native Americans. But it was hard to argue with will all those pitchmen. Today, malt liquors only make up a tiny percent of the beer market, even if they are still sold in big bottles.

Which makes them perfect for a comeback.

Malt liquor and pie, oh my.
Malt liquor and pie, oh my.
Comrade Brewing

In its first year in business, Comrade Brewing made Eisenhower Malt Liquor, which was similar to the brewery's maibock recipe. "But 'malt liquor' doesn't have a positive connotation," says Comrade owner David Lin. "We renamed it American Strong Golden and it started picking up. Much like when you rename an ESB to Amber.

But Eisenhower was also "one of our most requested beers to bring back," Lin adds. So, earlier this month, Comrade brewed another version, called Apple Piesenhower, that has done much better.

Dougherty, who brewed one more single-hop malt liquor at Wynkoop — this one with El Dorado hops — along with a barrel-aged version before leaving the brewery in 2016, says she intends to continue the project once the Grateful Gnome opens this summer. "The style name in a craft-beer setting definitely can turn people off, unless they're like me and will drink all of the craft malt liquors" because they're "so good."

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