The explosion of the microbrewing industry in America has led to a corresponding increase in beer lingo. When Anheuser Busch, Coors, and Miller were even more dominant in the American beer market than they are now, most people weren’t aware of terms like India Pale Ale, Hefeweizen, or Oatmeal Stout (that are often the favorites of beer of the month club memberships and small pubs), let alone able to tell the difference. We’ll dive into the definition of these and more styles later on, but for now, let’s start from the top. First, what exactly is beer? Second, what about things like “malt liquor” and “ice beer?” Do those even count as beer? Let’s take a look.
Beer – The Basics
Beer is the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, and in many countries it’s still the most popular alcoholic beverage. Given its prevalence, it can be surprisingly difficult to define what exactly beer is. Strictly speaking, beer is nothing more than water, some form of grain (traditionally barley), hops, and yeast. The well-known Bavarian purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot dates to the late 15th century and rules out any ingredients aside from the above. In fact, because the role of yeast was unknown at the time, even yeast was technically forbidden!
Today, the definition of beer is a bit more flexible, with ingredients like fruits or vegetables commonly used to add interesting flavors to beer. The grain component of beer can change from style to style too, with grains like wheat or rye often used to create distinct styles of beer. So why are some beer-like beverages referred to as “ice beer” or “malt liquor?”
Many of us know malt liquor as the clear, golden beverage that comes in 40-ounce glass bottles (“forties”) and have names like Olde English or Country Club. Typically malt liquors are beers that are brewed with the aim of producing a higher alcohol content. Because of the higher alcohol content, many U.S. jurisdictions require the beverage to be labeled as “malt liquor” rather than simply as beer. Because different states have different regulations, there’s no hard and fast rule, but many brews that have an alcohol content higher than 5 or 6 percent are labeled as malt liquor. Malt liquors also commonly include cheap “adjuncts” like corn or rice; these ingredients allow the producer to sell the beverage at a low price point, and also contribute to the higher alcohol content. Malt liquors are generally considered to be lower-quality beers, but some high-quality brews use the label “malt liquor” and can be quite interesting.
Ice beer is an unique style of beer. Traditionally rooted in the German eisbock, ice beer is simply a beer (traditionally a German bock) that has been partially frozen. Because water freezes at a higher temperature than alcohol, freezing a beer allows brewers to remove ice from the beer, thereby reducing the water content and concentrating the flavor and level of alcohol. Ice beers can have a much higher alcohol content than more typical beers.
Most Americans are aware of ice beer due to the ice beer trend of the 1990s. You may recall that Miller and Anheuser Busch both introduced ice beers during the 90s. While not generally regarded by connoisseurs as high-quality brews, the ice beers produced by America’s biggest brewers are popular with college students for their higher alcohol content.
If you’re like the many Americans who are growing more and more interested in micro-brewed beers, you’ll probably want to pass up malt liquor and ice beers; instead, try some of the interesting styles we mentioned earlier: whether you go for an India Pale Ale or a Hefeweizen, you’ll be getting a higher-quality, more flavorful, more complex, and more interesting beer!