Can Craft Beer Companies Rescue Malt Liquor’s Reputation?

As the brewmaster at Virginia Beer Company in Williamsburg, Va., Jonathan Newman has created about 400 different beers, from smoked porters to a sour ale that mimics lemon meringue pie. This summer, he tackled his toughest brewing challenge yet: malt liquor, a budget beer that’s normally mass-produced and known for its alcohol content, not its memorable taste.

“I couldn’t call an old brewing friend and be like, how do you make a malt liquor?” Mr. Newman said. Instead, he conducted research with rigor befitting a college undergrad, drinking several malt liquors and finding himself “shocked at how much I liked Colt 45.”

But how to make a version that would impress craft-beer fans? Malt liquor, a lager, with an alcohol level from 5.5 percent to 8 percent or higher, can be boozy and bland. (A standard lager has about 5 percent alcohol per volume, or A.B.V.) So Mr. Newman developed a brew that was crisp and aromatic, with a 7.5 percent A.B.V.

In August, when the brewery released its malt liquor, 39 Words, Mr. Newman joined a growing number of craft brewers determined to mend the style’s reputation by creating malt liquors worth contemplating, not chugging.

“Malt liquor is seen as a cheap gas-station beer,” said Mr. Newman, whose brewery charges $16 for a four-pack of 19.2-ounce cans. “But it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Kevin Davey, the brewmaster at Wayfinder Beer in Portland, Ore., based the recipe for his Cold I.P.A. on malt liquor, while increasing the beer’s hoppiness.Credit…Celeste Noche for The New York Times

Malt liquor is a loaded subject in American brewing. Long maligned as a quick and inexpensive means of getting drunk that was marketed heavily to Black and Hispanic men, it occupies an “intersection with race, class and poverty,” said Rich Bloomfield, a founder and the chief executive of the Black-owned Funkytown Brewery in Chicago.

Mr. Bloomfield drank malt liquor in college, but it “seemed like it was something that you’re supposed to grow out of,” he said, adding that Funkytown, which focuses on more crowd-pleasing beers like pale ale and red ale, probably wouldn’t brew a malt liquor these days as it tries to build its audience.

Historically, “malt liquor was a cul-de-sac” that didn’t lead consumers to better versions, said J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, the founder and principal of Crafted for All, which promotes equity and inclusion in craft beverage industries.

Unit sales of malt liquor have fallen about 26 percent over the last three years in the United States, according to the market research firm NielsenIQ. In 2021, Molson Coors Beverage Company, one of the top producers of malt liquors, retired several malt liquor brands, including Steel Reserve 211, Olde English HG 8000 and Magnum.

But if malt liquor is a “sleepy” category, it’s also ripe for innovation, said Lester Jones, the chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association. “Can you make a craft malt liquor? Of course you can.”

This fall, Off Color Brewing in Chicago released a malt liquor called Beer for Dealing With Your Family. “I was like, what if I make something really strong that gets everyone drunk?” said David Bleitner, a founder.Credit…Off Color Brewing

In August, Barrel Brothers Brewing, in Windsor, Calif., released Admiral Malt Liquor, a 9 percent A.B.V. beer made with heritage grain. A month earlier, Samuel Adams and Narragansett Beer introduced Good Luck Malt Liquor, a toasty 7 percent A.B.V. lager brewed with local grains and amber maize from Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass. Off Color Brewing in Chicago and Wayfinder Beer in Portland, Ore., have also begun making malt liquors.

These beers appeal to people who may not like aggressively hopped or bitter I.P.A.s, said Lee Lord, the head brewer at Narragansett. “Malt liquor thumbs its nose at taking craft beer too seriously.”

Malt liquor originally conveyed a different meaning in America. Before Prohibition, the federal government used the term as a blanket designation for taxing and licensing all beers, said Maureen Ogle, a historian and the author of “Ambitious Brew: A History of American Beer.” “They were lumped together as malt liquors.”

But the descriptor gained new meaning in the late 1930s and early ’40s, when several Midwestern breweries developed high-alcohol lagers and marketed them as malt liquor.

By the 1950s, upmarket versions like Country Club appeared, appealing to the booming middle class. Mickey’s, University Club and Colt 45 were introduced in the early ’60s to help stem flagging beer consumption and to compete with cocktail culture. Schlitz Malt Liquor was even advertised as “bold enough to serve ‘on the rocks.’”

Through the 1970s and ’80s, marketers increasingly courted malt liquor’s growing audience of Black and Hispanic consumers through pointed advertisements, most memorably the TV commercials starring the actor Billy Dee Williams and proclaiming that Colt 45 “works every time.”

In the 1990s, the McKenzie River Corporation hired Ice Cube, Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan and other seminal hip-hop artists to rap about its St. Ides malt liquor in catchy ads, drawing criticism and even action by the New York State attorney general, who said they suggested the beer increased male sexual prowess.

Some see the new efforts to elevate malt liquor as akin to the way businesses or consumers take unfashionable products — like Converse sneakers, or Pabst Blue Ribbon beer — and make them hip again.

Chris Maestro is the founder of the vinyl-focused craft beer bar BierWax, which has locations in Brooklyn and Queens. As a Black man in the beer business, he said the lingering lowbrow image of malt liquor made him hesitant to serve one of the new brews. He said he’d want to be sure that its production wasn’t an attempt by predominantly white-owned craft breweries to appropriate “a cultural benchmark for an era in hip-hop.”

Christopher Gandsy, the owner of DaleView Brewery in Flatbush, Brooklyn, used New York State grains to create James Earl, a malt liquor named after his uncle.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Christopher Gandsy has a different outlook on malt liquor. The owner of DaleView Brewery, in the predominantly Black and Caribbean neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn, he first became aware of malt liquor at family gatherings. At his brewery, Mr. Gandsy pays homage to his past with James Earl, labeled a “craft malt likka,” and named for an uncle who enjoys malt liquor.

When it was released in September, DaleView served the 9 percent A.B.V. beer, made with New York State malt, in wine glasses. By bringing malt liquor into the craft beer world, he hopes to draw new fans into the fold. “I can give customers a different experience and change the misnomer of malt liquor,” said Mr. Gandsy, who also aged James Earl in rye whiskey barrel for a Christmastime release.

Altering cultural perceptions takes time and effort, but malt liquor would not be the alcohol industry’s first flavorful rehabilitation. Craft-cocktail bars have embraced the vodka they used to shun, and American wine is no longer associated with jug and fortified wines.

Mr. Gandsy of DaleView is bullish on malt liquor. James Earl became one of the brewery’s best sellers, and Mr. Gandsy plans to make more. “It could become our flagship beer,” he said. “You never know.”

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