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Malt beverage is an American term for both alcohol-containing and non-alcoholic fermented beverages, in which the primary ingredient is the grain, or seed, of the barley plant, which has been allowed to sprout in a traditional way called "malting" slightly before it is processed. By far the most predominant malt beverage is beer (naturally fermented barley sugars flavored with hops), of which there are two main styles: ale and lager. A very low alcohol level beverage brewed in this fashion is technically identical to "non-alcoholic beer." Such a beverage may be prepared by using a slightly altered brewing process which yields very little alcohol (technically less than 0.5% by volume). These are called Low-alcohol beers or "near beers".
The term "malt beverage" may be used by trade associations of groups of beer wholesalers (e.g. Tennessee Malt Beverage Association) for the sake of a professional image by using brewing craft related terms, for political or legal reasons, or to avoid potential negative connotations that may be associated with beer in a region. Additionally, the term malt beverage is applied to many other flavored drinks prepared from malted grains to which natural or artificial flavors (and sometimes colors) have been added to make them taste and appear similar to wines, fruits, colas, natural ciders, or other beverages. This subcategory has been called "malternative," as in Smirnoff Ice (US & French version), or "maltini," as in 3SUM, which also has energy components like caffeine. Marketing of such products in the United States has increased rapidly in recent years.
In most jurisdictions, these products are regulated in a way identical to beer, which allows a retailer with a beer license to sell a seemingly wider product line. This also generally avoids the steeper taxes and stricter regulations associated with distilled spirits.