Why is high alcohol beer no longer labeled as "Malt Liquor"?

Dumb historical/legal question. Back in the day, as I recall it anyway, there were three categories - 3.2 beer, beer, and malt liquor. 3.2 beer was for certain states where certain sales were limited to 3.2 ABV. Beer was beer, but if it had ABV above some amount, you couldn’t call it beer and had to call it malt liquor, and there were major ML brands like Colt .45, Schlitz Malt Liquor, etc.

Now, you have various craft beers with huge ABV that are all still labeled “beer” or “ale” and not “malt liquor.”

So I must be wrong about something - was the “malt liquor” thing back then just a convention and not a legal requirement? Did the law change? Is that barrel-aged imperial stout of today actually labeled as “malt liquor” somewhere in the fine print I’m not noticing?

What’s the story, beer labeling experts?


Most of the rules about how beer can be labeled have become looser in the last couple decades. Rules are also state-dependent. Until several years ago, in Oregon, beer that was over 6.5% ABV had to be labeled as “Ale” or “Lager” or “Malt Beverage”. The rule has been changed so that anything under 17% can be labeled however. We generally will label everything as a Lager or an Ale rather than beer because it’s more descriptive and limits any possible labeling issues in other states.

Malt Liquor is generally a higher gravity beer with a high than normal percentage of adjuncts (corn and/or rice) and added sugar or dextrose. It began life as a premium product, but quickly was down-graded to a product mostly marketed to working-class people.

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