Malt Liquor: American Nostalgia, Extracted

Since adjunct lagers are cool again, it may be time to give American malt liquor a fresh look. Lean and strong, this adjunct-laden product of the post-Prohibition era has the power to evoke simpler times.

Annie Johnson Jan 22, 2024 - 9 min read

Malt Liquor: American Nostalgia, Extracted Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/

I like all beer styles, but there are some for which I have a particular fondness—the ones that evoke fun and flavorful memories from my past travels, my college days, or good times with friends.

For me, one of those favorites is a good old-fashioned malt liquor.

When I was a kid, it was the favored type of beer of Mr. Patterson, my friend’s dad. Mr. Patterson was a kind man, tall and gentle in his pale U.S. Air Force jumpsuit. I had no idea what he did in the military—I was only 10—but he did teach his son and me how to fish. Many weekends we would ramble up to the local lake and fish for rainbow trout. Mr. Patterson always brought his little cooler packed full of sandwiches, soda pop … and one tall, shiny can with a charging blue bull on the label.

I remember being out on the edge of the hot lake when Mr. Pat would pop the top, take a few big gulps, and tell us kids that there were few things in this world better than fishing and cold beer.


Years later, away at college and out on a beer run, I happened upon one of those tall, shiny silver cans with that familiar blue bull on the label. I picked up a sixer, but the beer was not what I expected—it wasn’t light but rather a rich, golden color, crisp, and it packed a punch. And I liked it.

Fast-forward 15 years: Amid my homebrewing experiments, I decided to re-create this brew for which I have such fond memories. My usual reference, the BJCP style guidelines, had no information about malt liquor besides a brief reference under Specialty Beer. So, I continued my research, including many taste tests. After sampling multiple brands, I realized that not all malt liquors are created equal—some are overly alcoholic, green apple–flavored headache bombs.

However, do not despair: There are good ones out there. Even better, you can brew one yourself, producing a fantastic (and sneaky-strong) beer that suits your own taste.

About Malt Liquor

From the start, modern malt liquor was an industrial product aimed at the mass market. While the phrase “malt liquor” was occasionally used in previous centuries to describe beer, it didn’t appear as we know it today—strong, and laden with body-lightening adjuncts—until after Prohibition in the United States. A few Midwestern breweries, including Grand Valley in Michigan, Gluek in Minnesota, and Goetz in Missouri, were among the first to develop and market these strong beers.


A 1948 U.S. patent granted to Alvin Gluek describes his goal: “a very thin malt liquor of relatively high alcoholic content, brewed and fermented wholly from cereal products and having a very pleasing, dry distinctive taste not akin to beer, ale, malt, porter, stout, or other fermented beverages commonly brewed from cereal products.” The patent goes on to lay out what is basically a recipe for a 7 percent ABV beer, including 2,600 pounds (1,180 kg) of corn grits and/or rice to only 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of malt.

The idea was to use various tricks to increase attenuation for a beer with less malt, lighter body, and more of an alcoholic kick—light, dry, and sparkling, with a Champagne-like familiarity. One of the early brands was Country Club, originally brewed by Goetz in St. Joseph, Missouri. Pabst owns the brand now, but you can still find Country Club on the back shelves of coolers in cheap liquor marts around the country.

Given the rising interest in American adjunct lagers, it only makes sense that malt liquor should get a fresh look from small-scale brewers.

Brewing Your Own Malt Liquor

When the goal is high attenuation and higher alcohol, we have various tricks to get there. These include lower mash temperatures, body-lightening adjuncts such as rice, and the use of enzymes. Since we’re aiming for a dry beer, there are some similarities here with brut IPA, which typically gets an enzyme called glucoamylase (aka amyloglucosidase) to break down the complex sugars derived from malt. Adding some to the mash will make more of those sugars available to the yeast, leading to a drier finish, lighter body, and higher ABV.


Hop flavor is virtually nonexistent. A pro brewer friend once told me that the hop addition for malt liquor consists of waving a single hop cone over the kettle. (I’ve interpreted that to be somewhere in the 8–12 IBU range.) The flavor is mostly cereal-like from the copious adjuncts, yet relatively mild for its strength. The mouthfeel is also light, and the head retention of commercial examples tends to be fleeting—though we can hope for better. The color is usually a pale straw.

Especially given that not much is sacred when it comes to malt liquor—it’s a 40-ounce bottle of industrial tricks—I’d argue that the style lends itself well to extract brewing. Malt will be less than half of our fermentables anyway, as we can lean into some easy-to-use adjuncts—and we’ll need plenty of them.

Let’s start with rice syrup and extra-light malt extract; I prefer liquid malt extract, so I can add everything to the kettle at once. Steeping some flaked corn is also a nice touch for a little complexity—and I do mean a little. The cereal taste is part of the profile, but for a classic malt liquor, we’re not looking for especially strong flavors in any direction.

The same goes for hops—we use a light hand here. They can be anything you’d find in a typical lager, but for authenticity Cluster is a nice choice here. It has a clean bittering profile that will help to balance some of the alcohol.


About the enzyme: Glucoamylase is often available at homebrew shops and from brewery suppliers. You might see it under the trade name Ultra-Ferm, sold by White Labs in packages as small as 10 milliliters (or as much as 10 liters for commercial breweries). I add this at the start of fermentation when I pitch the yeast. You yeast bandits who like to harvest and re-pitch might want to skip it this time; the enzymes can carry over to the next batch. In this case I like to pitch dry yeast because it’s inexpensive and makes it easy to get the cell count I want.

You can ferment in the high 50s to low 60s Fahrenheit (14–17°C), and that should also ensure diacetyl cleanup. This isn’t a refined Czech or German lager; a long lagering phase isn’t necessary. After fermentation and some short lagering for clarity, it’s best to carbonate this beer on the higher side—about 2.8 volumes of CO2. What you want is something like a Belgian ale, with a bite and crisp carbonic punch. Serve it very cold.

While not necessary to serve this beer bottled in a rolled-up brown paper bag, there is some perverse fun to it. At a recent get-together, I served this beer to a few of my old college friends—no 40-ounce screw-top bottles, but bombers worked just fine (especially given the high ABV).

My Olde Patterson 0600—that was the hour at which we would hear a distant reveille and load up to go fishing—was a hit, and it made me wonder what Mr. Patterson would’ve thought of it. Would this beer be good enough for an early Saturday fishing expedition? I’d like to think so.

Annie Johnson is an experienced R&D brewer, IT specialist, and national beer judge. Her awards include 2013 American Homebrewer of the Year honors.