Beer vs Malt Liquor: What’s The Difference?

If you’re anything like me, then you’ve essentially forgotten that malt liquor exists. The older I get, the harder it is to see memories of malt liquor through rose-tinted lenses. Sure, malt liquor was once an easy (and affordable) way to have a few drinks with friends.

But now I only remember the bad parts.

The taste. The smell. The disgusting warm liquid in the bottom half of the glass bottle because it’s near impossible to keep that much liquid cold for long.

Well, the other day someone said the word “40” and I was brought right back. And here we are.

So, what’s the difference between beer and malt liquor, and why is beer so much better in every single way (except price)? The answer lies in…everything.

What is Malt Liquor?

I feel like I’m always bringing up the square-rectangle thing in this blog. All IPAs are pale ales, but not all pale ales are IPAs. All Pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are Pilsners.

Well, all malt liquor is beer, but not all beer is malt liquor.

Yes, malt liquor is a type of beer in the most literal terms. It has all the same ingredients as beer (yeast, water, hops, and malted barley) plus a few others like sugar, corn, and other good stuff that makes malt liquor cheap and boozy.

What really separates malt liquor from beer is that malt liquor is made with ABV in mind first, then pretty much everything else second. I would argue that beer (and I hope this is true) is made with flavor in mind first, then ABV later. But this is just one of the big differences between malt liquor and beer as a whole.

Beer vs Malt Liquor: Main Differences

Ok, let’s break down the main differences between malt liquor and non-malt liquor beer.


Beer can be brewed in different ways yielding different results. For example, as I mentioned in the beer ingredients article, a brewer would normally top-ferment to create an ale and bottom-ferment to brew a lager. Malt liquor can only be bottom-fermented.

The use and proportion of ingredients also varies. While some beer uses corn and sugar to change the brew, malt liquor almost demands both. Malt liquor also uses enzymes and other adjuncts to boost booze levels over 9000. Some of these delicious alcohols, specifically fusel alcohols, can smell like fuel. Yum!

Another variation is that malt liquor barely uses hops, which is why malt liquor is so much sweeter than pretty much every other type of beer. While hoppy doesn’t always mean bitter, bitterness in beer does come from hops.


Malt liquor tends to hover in the 5-6% ABV range whereas beer is in the 4-12% ABV range. Ya, not so helpful, I know. The difference is that the focus of creating malt liquor is to make it boozy over anything else.

While malt liquor is designed to be boozy, there are plenty of beers that come with much higher ABVs than malt liquor. I’m sure you’ve had one if you visited a craft brewery at any point in the past decade.


One benefit of not paying attention to anything in malt liquor other than the ABV is that malt liquor is cheap to make. This is great for poor college students, but unfortunately it makes a decently-alcoholic beverage incredibly accessible. 

Beer, on the other hand, is getting more expensive. I don’t think anyone reading this is going to turn away from craft beer and start buying malt liquor strictly because of price, but it’s important to point out that malt liquor, due to its simple brewing method and cheap products, is not that expensive. 


Malt liquor is devoid of anything that I would call “flavor.” Refined cicerones would probably be able to point out the ethanol, corn, and malt flavors, blended perfectly to create a largely undrinkable drink.

Beer is flavor. Beer can taste like anything, bringing in gorgeous floral notes that pair with a hint of sourness, or matching the crispness of Vienna malts with hops to create a clean brew. Beer can be sweet, sour, dry, bitter, jammy, juicy, crisp, clean…like literally anything. If beer is the Mona Lisa then malt liquor is a finger painting. If beer is a fine steak then malt liquor is leftover hot dogs. Beer and malt liquor are now operating in different universes.

Beer vs Malt Liquor: Which Is Better?

Beer is better than malt liquor.

Thomas Short
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