The hard seltzer craze has been one of the hottest summer trends of recent times, estimated to generate $2.5 billion in sales in the US this year, with no shortage of new seltzer brands jumping into the mix. But while more and more consumers are throwing back hard seltzers, what exactly are they drinking? What is hard seltzer? Of course hard seltzer is a mix of seltzer water and alcohol, but what kind of alcohol exactly?
The alcohol in a hard seltzer beverage varies by brand, but ultimately it is a fermented cane sugar with added fruit flavors. So what is fermented cane sugar? The “sugar-brew” alcohol base is produced by fermenting sugar from cane, beet, or corn (such as the case with White Claw). Sugar-brew is similar to a beer’s malt-base, which comes from fermented barley or grain. Fermented sugar is a low-cal, gluten free, colorless, neutral alcohol base, making it the perfect mix for trendy new beverages. Fermented sugar cane is also the main alcohol in Rum, as well as many other island liquors.
Is there Vodka in a Spiked Seltzer?
It’s easy to compare hard seltzers to a vodka soda, as they often taste very similar and have the same fizzy taste. Yet, there is no vodka or any liquor in hard seltzers. Because alcoholic seltzer is made from fermented sugar, it would be more appropriate to compare hard seltzers to beer, which has a similar alcohol content of around 5%. Our hard seltzer comparison guide takes a deep dive into top brands and their exact alcohol levels. There are some alcoholic beverages on the market that are like spiked seltzers, but are made with vodka versus malt liquor, and are more like a vodka soda than a hard seltzer.
How is Hard Seltzer Made?
The process of producing fermented sugar cane is complex and uses proprietary technology, so don’t get any ideas of creating your own hard seltzer brand anytime soon. To make it as non-scientific as possible, the process typically goes like this:
- Sugarcane stalks – super tall sword-shaped leaves – are crushed to extract their sugar juice
- The juice then gets collected from the extraction machine and heads to a fermentation tank, like those big metal vessels often seen at breweries
- Yeast is used to break down the juice during the fermentation process, a foaming process that produces heat and ethanol
- Ethanol, the only type of alcohol that can be consumed, is mixed with other ingredients to complete the alcoholic beverage
Sounds appetizing, right? Next time you go to grab an ice cold hard seltzer drink from the cooler, you can think about all the years of science research and innovation that went into perfecting that smooth “sugar-brew” based seltzer. Maybe you will even have a bigger appreciation for sugarcane plants, beets, and corn, not to mention all the farmers and laborers that are the back-bone of the alcoholic drink industry.
What Other Ingredients are in Hard Seltzers?
Okay – so we went over the alcohol base, but what else goes into making spiked seltzers? Well, the most obvious ingredient would be seltzer, which is simply carbonated water. Flat water would make a boring base, so carbon dioxide is used to give seltzer that addictive fizzle that everyone loves in a drink. Finally, fruit flavoring is added to bring it all together. The original White Claw used 4 main flavors: black cherry, ruby grapefruit, raspberry, and lemon lime. But since then, there has been an explosion of exotic new flavors from competing seltzer brands, such as mango, passion fruit, pineapple, peach, coconut, lemonade, pina colada, pomegranate, and many more.
Finishing the Gulp
Well there you have it – the next time you are at a party and someone questions out loud what’s in their White Claw (or any spiked seltzer), you can confidently answer fermented cane sugar, seltzer water and fruit juice.
While hard seltzer might seem like a new millennial-loving phenomenon, spiked seltzers have actually been around for almost a decade, created in 2013 by Nick Shields in Westport, CT, following the success of spiked lemonades. Have consumer beverage tastes changed that much in recent times? Who knows – but the hard seltzer market is here to stay, and will probably continue to expand, introducing new canned cocktails as younger consumers turn away from traditional beer and wine in droves. What brand will be the next White Claw? Only time will tell.