Malt liquor an iconic American classic
"Minimal taste profile, minimal hopping, lacking in hop bouquet and threshold hop levels ..." — Fred Eckhardt, The Essentials of Beer Style, 1989, describing the style characteristics of malt liquor.
"Get your girl in the mood quicker, get your jimmy thicker, with St. Ides malt liquor." — Ice Cube, Mix Tape, 1994, describing the style characteristics of malt liquor.
And there you have it: the grand dichotomy of beer. To some, it's all about the flavor, to others it's nothing more than ... um, a stiff drink.
No other style manifests the distinction better than malt liquor.
Outside of a few curiosities produced by craft brewers, not a single malt liquor earns better than a low-average grade from reviewers at BeerAdvocate.com. Most are tagged with epithets worthy of terrorist baby killers. Those who are actually fond of the stuff offer little praise for any quality beyond its cheap facility for denting one's cerebral cortex.
Notably, even those who decry the neo-Prohibitionists of the Nanny State rarely raise a peep when Bible-thumpers lobby for laws to prevent the sale of so-called "liquid crack" in inner-city neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, no beer style is so crassly adored as malt liquor.
The Irish might've written odes to their beloved black stout, and Germany has made lager a religion. But in America, malt liquor — even as it is inevitably packaged in a brown paper bag — is an instantly identifiable cultural icon.
Back in the '80s, kids mimicked Billy Dee Williams' smooth Colt 45 slogan: "... works every time!" The Ramones joined in with a one-chord ode ("Gimme, gimme, gimme my Steel Reserve"), and Sublime followed with its debut album, "40 oz. to Freedom."
Comics have leaned on it as a punch line in everything from "The Simpsons" to the Wayan brothers' parody, "Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood." A while back, Conan O'Brien mocked up spoof bottles of Spongebob Squarepants Malt Liquor.
More recently, have you notice that some hipsters have given up their beloved Pabst Blue Ribbon in favor of 40-ounce bottles of Mickey's?
Curiously, and despite its dismissal as a serious beer, malt liquor is actually judged every year at the Great American Beer Festival in a category that is euphemistically called "American-style specialty lager."
Yes, the same awards ceremony that has honored something so delicately esoteric as Hennepin Farmhouse Saison has also handed out medals to the chug-a-lug likes of Hurricane, Red Bull and OE 800.
Presumably, the winners received high marks under the style's bogus criteria for their "sweet-fruity esters and complex alcohols."
Craft beer, this is not.
The mash is a science lab wonder of barley malt, corn grits and dextrose (corn sugar) or fructose (corn syrup), spiked with an enzyme called alpha amylase to fully convert the corn into fermentable sugar, then boosted with a special yeast to maximize the alcohol.
It is the very definition of a cheap buzz.
Yet, there is a certain fascination with malt liquor among some craft brewers.
Delaware's Dogfish Head notoriously packages its bottle-conditioned Liquor de Malt in a hand-stamped brown paper bag. (To underscore the joke, the brewery's founder recorded a rap video tribute.)
Elysian Brewing in Seattle told the Wall Street Journal that its top-selling T-shirt is for AK-47, a malt liquor. And Rogue Ales knows what guys really want on Father's Day, offering a seasonal release of Dad's Little Helper Malt Liquor.
There's a fun, healthy sense of irony at work here. But it misses its target because the small brewers' versions of malt liquor actually taste good and, I'm obliged to report, won't make your jimmy any thicker.