It’s difficult to describe the magic of malta. For me, a drink of malta can shift the mood of a day. For many, including my father, the taste of malta instantly teleports them to their childhood—to hot, equatorial days and a cold bottle of sweet and smooth relief from the heat.
While there are many brands and versions of malta, the basics of the drink are consistent. It is a lightly carbonated, non-alcoholic malt beverage brewed from barley, hops, and water. The drink is similar to beer in appearance, smell, and flavor, but has a unique flavor of its own. It is often consumed cold, straight from the bottle—but is also poured on ice or even mixed with condensed milk.
Malta is admittedly a tough drink the first time you try it, particularly if you are young. This isn’t because it tastes bad, rather because it tastes unique. It forces your palate to figure things out on the spot.
It’s sweet, but not like candy. It’s a natural, unrefined, molasses-like sweetness, a sugar as old as the ground and the trees, a flavor quickly disappearing from 21st-century food. The sweetness is paired with a slight bitterness, enough to notice but not enough to distract the drinker. Malta has a thicker consistency than other drinks, taking that extra moment to pour out of the bottle and often leaving the drinker feeling full. This has led to a joke that drinking malta is like eating a sandwich in a bottle. Once you’ve had it a few times, you’ll see why the malt drink has become a staple in the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America.
Malta is produced by a vast range of food and beverage companies today, including Goya Foods, known for products like adobo and sazón. Goya, founded by Spanish-Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City, is one of the drink’s biggest brands in North America and the version most easily found from state to state. They are, however, far from the only ones in the game.
Cervecera de Puerto Rico, formerly known as Cervecería India, produces the hugely popular Malta India and is based out of Puerto Rico. Malta India tops the charts of popularity due to its great flavor along with being based in one of malta’s greatest homelands, pairing with beloved dishes like pasteles, tostones, and mofongo.
The beverage has also become integral outside of the Caribbean. Take Caracas, Venezuela, for example, home to the headquarters of Empresas Polar. Like Goya, Polar makes a long list of products, but Maltin Polar is one of their most popular. Polar and its products are so core to the Venezuelan identity that CEO Lorenzo Mendoza is often teased as a potential candidate for president. Other malta-makers include the likes of Pony, Hatuey, El Sol, and Corona. Different brands produce different drinks, though the differences can often be nuanced. In reality, the biggest difference between brands is rarely huge changes of flavor, but rather the memories the drinker has with one label over another.
Malta, for all its iconic presence elsewhere in the world, is hard to find in the Upper Midwest. Different grocery stores carry different amounts of the drink, almost always Goya; some don’t carry it at all. The stores that do carry are a mix of big chains with access to a wide range of product or specialized markets trying to expand customers’ minds, and often place their stash in some corner of a “global foods” section. The supply in my Wisconsin hometown was small enough that we came to appreciate that we were the only family in the area interested in it.
One of the few reliable local outposts for malta in the Twin Cities area is El Burrito Mercado, the Mexican market and restaurant located on Cesar Chavez Street in St. Paul. It’s also one of the only places in Minnesota where I’ve happened upon not just 6-packs of Malta Goya, but 10- and 12-packs of the otherwise rare beverage.
As malta becomes little more than a featured player in the dark corners of more adventurous grocery stores—only receiving a spotlight in the Latino markets of the larger cities—one of the great beverages of Latino and Caribbean cuisine is being allowed to disappear from what we define as “our” food. Malta is a perfect partner for Venezuelan arepas and cachapas, or Cuban ropa vieja and papitas, pairing with savory or sweet dishes throughout the day. The ever-so-slightly hoppy flavor can make an arepa con jamón y queso a perfect meal.
If you haven’t had malta in a while (or ever), go find some. It is a bottled connection to the roots of many nations, something more traditional than the neon assortment of pops and drinks that populate the fridges and aisles of America. Reconnect with those roots.