Friday 13 March 2020

WTF is Hard Seltzer?

Asking the important question
“WTF is Hard Seltzer?” asks the wittily-labelled can, before answering its own question: Alcoholic Fizzy Water.

The other thing to know is that it’s also the latest drinks craze to hit the US, where ‘hard’ is a euphemism for alcoholic. It’s so fashionable there that even beer rating site Untappd, which once allowed nothing but beer, cider and mead, now also permits you to list Hard Seltzers (alongside a few other oddities such as alcoholic Kombucha, which is fermented tea).

When first I came across the idea, I assumed it was the latest iteration of what in Britain and much of the rest of the world we call alcopops, and which the Americans of course call hard soda. That’s the likes of WKD and Hooper’s Hooch – sticky concoctions that concealed their alcohol content under a wave of sweetness, and came to be regarded by many as a Bad Thing that encouraged kids to get drunk.

Brick's Raspberry Hard Seltzer
Having at last tried a couple of London-brewed examples though, I can say I was only partly right. There’s a growing number of modern Craft Soda brands designed to be not quite as sweet as the average fizzy pop and more inventive in flavour, and some Hard Seltzers – such as Brick Brewery’s bright red Raspberry Hard Seltzer – are very much in that mould. Still a bit sticky-sweet, and with the 4% ABV well hidden, but properly fruity and tangy. Millennial hard soda, you could say.

However, when I opened the can of 5% “alcoholic aqua” gifted to me by London Fields Brewery at Brew//LDN the other week, it was very different. Yes, there’s dextrose (sugar) on the ingredients list, but that’s highly fermentable as the light and dry texture shows. Then there’s guava puree and red grape skins for flavour and colour – in this case that’s a blush-pink, and a dry and intriguing mix of tropical fruit and wine lees.

What a revelation – and definitely not an alcopop or likely to appeal to kids! Clearly, Hard Seltzer is something a creative brewer can have a bit of fun with. Indeed, London Fields admits in its promo material that its brewers "genuinely had no clue what hard seltzer was suppose to taste like" so they just had a play. Good on them.

My problem is that I've no idea yet which way the majority of Hard Seltzers swing, but given that many flavoured waters are actually sweetened too, I suspect they'll be the same. Sure, for non-beer drinkers the right one can be lighter than cider and a lot more quaffable than wine. I’m still not convinced though that they have a place on a beer website, and at least Ratebeer still agrees with me – for now, anyway.

What do you think – are you willing to give this stuff a try, and does it belong alongside beer and cider?  


  1. I've only had the one - Summer Cooler by Salt Brewery - and enjoyed it up to a point, although I haven't felt the urge to try another as yet. I guess if the right flavours are used, it could be something light and refreshing on a hot day, as an alternative to a cold, crisp, flavourless lager or fizzy apple.

    As to rating sites, they probably have as much right to be there as those flavoured 'ciders' which are not made using fermented apples; and, if they're brewed akin to beer, but using sugar syrup instead of wort as a starting point, then I have no problem with that.

    1. Yes, the right flavours can make a decent alternative to macro lagers or ciders. The temptation to simply make an alcoholic fizzy pop must be strong though!

      And those ciders are a right pain. It's pretty much impossible to discover to what extent the apple juice is actually fermented, or is simply added to a fermented liquor later.

  2. Aren't these to some extent occupying the market niche in the US that fruit cider does in the UK?

    The 4.0% ABV suggests that, like fruit cider, they are taxed as "made wine".

    1. Taxed as made-wine? Now that's interesting... I suppose technically they are wines - or what else would be the description for the fermented sugar-water that goes to make rum, say?

      But yes, all of these drinks - fruit 'cider', alcopops, hard seltzer, hard soda - occupy much the same market niche. I guess the difference is you can make hard seltzer on a regular brewkit, unlike cider. You wouldn't even need the mashtun I suppose, though it might make sense to use it to heat your sugar-water and flavourings.

    2. "Made wine" is a category in UK alcohol duty that basically covers anything that isn't beer, cider, wine or spirits, and essentially is cooked up in a factory. It includes alcopops and "fruit ciders", which are effectively alcopops anyway.

      There's a big duty step above 4.0% ABV, which is why most of these products, such as Strongbow Dark Fruits, come in at that strength.

    3. Thanks - I knew about the category, though not the 4% 'jump'. I wonder how London Fields deals with its 5% version - claim it as beer as it's fermented in a brewkit perhaps?