Have you sipped a craft 40-ounce?

What are the chances you’ll buy a chilled 40-ounce of malt liquor in the future? At this point in your life, it’s probably slim. But, what if that malt liquor carried the stamp of your favorite craft brewery?

It would be misleading to say traditional malt liquor—I’m talking about the roided-out lager brewed with flaked corn and corn sugar—is a developing trend in the craft beer industry, but it’s certainly a happening: Dogfish Head, Snake River, Full Sail, Devils Backbone, Oskar Blues—these are names we all know, and breweries who’ve produced a malt liquor at one point in time.

Sometimes they’re packaged in brown paper bags, and I think that’s totally awesome.

For the most part, these throwback beers are a novelty, but that’s not to say brewers approach the process with any less intensity than, say, their IPA: One of Full Sail’s recent specialty Brewer’s Share releases was Big Daddy J’s Malt Liquor. The limited release clocked in at 8%-ABV and was thoughtfully hopped with the Hallertau Hersbrucker variety.

But, for a wild, reimagined approach to the convenience store style—and a possible glimpse into the style’s future in craft beer—look no further than Devils Backbone’s brewmaster Jason Oliver, who admits to having a “long and sordid history with malt liquors.” He’s not kidding: Oliver won Best of Show at the Chicago Real Ale Festival in 2000 with a malt liquor and has brewed three during his tenure at the GABF award-winning Virginia brewery. The first was Turbo Cougar Malt Liquor, a recipe that later evolved into their helles bock. The second, Brewhaha, was hopped with Warrior and Hop Union’s experimental HBC 342 hop variety. The third is Vision Quest, a southwest-themed version brewed with familiar pilsner malt and flaked corn, hopped with Warrior and Chinook, spiced with sage and fermented with blue Agave nectar. Forty ounces to (brewing) freedom, indeed.

“Despite the tongue-in-cheek brown bag references, I think malt liquors have a place in craft beer,” Oliver said. “The fact that these are hand-crafted, fresh and unpasteurized make them less a high-alcohol commodity and more a nice, strong lager that is not overly heavy. I approach brewing a malt liquor almost like I would a Belgian-inspired blond ale. The adjuncts of corn or sugar lightens the body and boosts the alcohol, keeping it light on the palate.”

One day, I might approach drinking a 40-ounce almost like I would a Belgian-inspired blond ale. Now, what are the chances you’ll buy a chilled 40-ounce of craft malt liquor in the future?

Posted on Tuesday, April 24th, 2012