Suds with Sophie: Is Hard Seltzer Really Beer?

If you’ve paid any attention to the media or glanced inside public recycling bins during the past few years, you’re undoubtedly familiar with hard seltzers. They’re difficult to escape these days with new brands appearing every month or so. You may also have noticed that a lot of these new hard seltzers are made by craft breweries, so the question becomes, what the heck are these things?

The general idea is familiar. Carbonated water has not only been around for a while, but it has grown in popularity with loads of new brands appearing, especially in the late 2010s. I’m only a recent convert to carbonated-water drinks such as LaCroix and Spindrift. These beverages usually have light – or not so light – fruit flavors, so in this way, the jump to making these refreshing summertime drinks alcoholic wasn’t very big.

One of the questions I often get regarding hard seltzers is about the alcohol. Canned cocktails containing real liquor have been on the market for a while now, so many people (like me) assumed that these hard seltzers must contain some sort of liquor to make them alcoholic. Although they do not contain liquor, they do contain a type of alcohol that’s very familiar to beer drinkers because hard seltzers are made through almost the same process.

Ah! Now you understand why I’m talking about hard seltzers in a beer column.

This also explains why almost every major brewery and a ton of small breweries have started putting out their own hard seltzer. To understand this better, let’s go back to the brewing process.

The steps of brewing include milling the malted grain in order to expose the starches within the kernels. The malted grain is then combined with hot water to transform these starches into sugars. These sugars are later metabolized by yeast to make ethanol, carbon dioxide and other compounds.

For hard seltzer, the malted grain is (usually) skipped and straight cane sugar is used instead. But all you health-conscious hard-seltzer drinkers out there should not worry! Cane sugar is very easily fermentable by yeast and almost entirely transforms into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This makes hard seltzers a low-sugar option that’s also usually gluten free, low calorie and low carb.

What you should be more concerned about health wise is which additives are being used to flavor hard seltzers. Although some are lightly flavored, others use lots of sugary syrups and artificial flavorings. If you’re really concerned about your health, remember that none of these are actually good for you – they’re just more healthful than some other alcohol alternatives.

Many of you have tried – or are at least familiar with – White Claw, but there are so many varieties on the shelves that I recommend trying different brands. My favorite comes from the Wisconsin brewery Untitled Art – particularly its Florida Seltzer line. I like to call these the S. Pellegrino of hard seltzers for their more juicy body. 

I’ve been stocking these at the Bad Moravian for a few months now, and I’ve seen them in many places around the county. The best selection I’ve seen – for takeaway only – is at Good Leaf Greenhouse, a plant shop (and so much more) located behind Bearded Heart in Baileys Harbor.

Wherever you go, hard seltzers are there, so why not try some of these light, refreshing bevvies this summer to see what you think?