Don’t ask me why, but apparently 2017 is the year malt liquor went craft. Perhaps breweries have ran out of styles to make a splash with. (“You know what would be better than making another NE IPA? A malt liquor!”) Maybe craft beer has jumped the shark. This is still a style that counts Steel Reserve Alloy Series Hard Pineapple 211 as a top 50 beer in the style on RateBeer. Despite all of this, for whatever reason at least two Michigan breweries have released fairly high profile malt liquors in the past year.
The German Hobo, an 11.9% ABV collaboration between Old Nation and Dark Horse, at least makes sense due to the belief that Clix Malt Liquor, brewed by Grand Valley Brewing Company in Ionia, Michigan, 1937, was the first malt liquor brewed in the United States. DKML, a barrel-aged malt liquor from Founders, almost immediately makes one wonder if the Fonz has strapped himself onto two skis fashioned out of 40s and is hurtling towards a ramp that leads only to impending doom. (What’s next, pastry malt liquors?)
Despite the perplexing nature of this trend, I’m always one to volunteer to potentially sacrifice my taste buds when something out of the ordinary pops up. (Hard root beer blind tasting, anyone?) So that’s how I found myself unironically (okay, perhaps a bit ironically) sipping two malt liquors on a Saturday afternoon. For science.
Old Nation x Dark Horse The German Hobo
Let’s get this out of the way first. This is loads better than any malt liquor I have ironically consumed in the past. Now, does that mean this was necessary? I’m still not sure there.
There is at least some history backing up the reasoning behind this beer. And I bet if they had labelled it an English barleywine, reviews would be higher. At the end of the day it’s a really strong beer that isn’t particularly complex and won’t blow you out of the water, but it’s also not bad or even mediocre by any means.
Caramel and hot alcohol heat dominate the nose, although after it had warmed significantly I caught what seemed to be a distinct note of cinnamon apple cereal. German Noble hops were used but there’s really no evidence of them in the aroma or the taste. The taste is entirely malt driven. There are obviously enough hops in there (58 IBU) that it balances the malt enough to not make this too sweet. At the same time the only evidence of said hops is this balancing act.
Here’s the deal, I would drink this again. And if I ever found myself in a situation where Edward 40 Hands was to be played, I’d be petitioning for the exception to just strap five of these to my hands instead. Is that a ringing endorsement? Not really. But as much as I have tried to undersell this beer, it’s not one you should avoid.
When I saw the news that one of the beers in the new Barrel Aged Series from Founders would be a malt liquor, I did a double take. Then I immediately wondered if craft beer had reached the point that it was just making a mockery of itself. But I also knew I would have to try the beer.
The first striking thing about DKML is that it’s lighter in color than the German Hobo, despite spending some time in oak. And for a 14.2% ABV beer it retains a surprisingly large amount of head. Bourbon dominates the aroma, with distinct sweet vanilla notes at the forefront. It may be dry-hopped but there’s little evidence of that. Sipping it reveals massive doses of bourbon and vanilla, with a cornbread sweetness flowing in the background. The finish is quite short and lacks much complexity.
This certainly exceeds expectations. The relative blank slate of the base malt liquor gives the bourbon barrel plenty of room to shine. It does end up making it a rather one note beer and not one I would want to be tasked with downing eighty ounces of. Still the barrel-aging gives it a slight harshness that actually makes it more in line with the malt liquors it imitates.
These are fine beers. Do I foresee craft malt liquor becoming a thing beyond this year. Doubtful. Judging by the four packs of DKML I still see sitting on liquor store shelves, even barrel-aging a malt liquor hasn’t been enough to make it fly. With all the bickering about corporate buyouts and independence, maybe craft beer was due for a couple of beers that don’t really take themselves too seriously.