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What are these Hard Seltzers and Why Have they Driven the Market this Summer?

I have definitely been caught drinking all different kinds of hard seltzers this summer...I had to know what the craze was! What are these drinks, exactly, that we’re sipping on?

Photo from The Take Out

My first thought, like everyone else, was that these drinks must be made with some sort of neutral spirit. Neutral spirits are usually made from a form of carbohydrate whether it be corn, potatoes, barley, flour, grapes etc. that have been distilled to a point of about 95% alcohol and then bottled at 40% (or 80 proof). Neutral Spirits also are pure alcohol, they do not have any flavoring agents i.e. oak, spices, herbs, citrus, and much more. And just like I first did, most people believe that these seltzers are made with these distilled spirits.

Some are, but most are not. And here’s why!

Many of these seltzers, hard teas etc. are made with something called Malt Liquor. Malt Liquor is a fermented grain, not distilled, so it does not reach the same level of alcohol content as a neutral spirit. Rather than distilled, the grain is simply brewed.

Okay, so what's the difference between fermented/brewed and distilled beverages? Fermented beverages are made with sugar-based products (i.e. carbohydrates) and yeast. At high temperatures, the yeast eats the sugar and that chemical reaction produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Through fermentation you can’t make the alcohol content as high as distillation simply because the process involves lower temperatures and different tools. Therefore, malt liquor-based seltzers will be roughly around 4.5% alcohol.

Brewery Fermentation Tanks

Distillation is taking the process a step further. Using a Pot Still, which is a giant boiler with some copper tubes for different elements, we can take the fermented product and boil it even further, to the point where it turns from a liquid to a gas. This happens in the first chamber. As the fermented product boils, all the non-alcohol elements (water, and excess yeasts) are drained out leaving you with a pure alcohol gas that is roughly 95% alcohol. As it makes its way through the tubes into the second chamber, it then cools down and liquefies. That’s how you get your distilled spirit.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Well, why don’t these seltzer companies just distill their products to increase alcohol?”

There are a few reasons that come to my mind:

  1. Laws and Regulations: Laws and regulations for distilled products are much more restrictive than those for fermented products. More alcohol by volume, more responsibility!

  2. It’s Expensive: It costs a lot more and takes a lot longer when trying to process licenses and permits for distilled products than fermented ones. Plenty of bars can only serve beer and wine because licenses are very expensive. Just to give you an idea; a license to sell wine and beer at a bar or restaurant (fermented beverages) in California costs roughly $3,000, where as a liquor license (any type of alcoholic beverage that has been legalized) can cost closer to $250,000.

  3. “Well it’s only 4.5% per can, I think I can have a second…third…fourth?!”: With these lower alcohol percentages, you’ll want to buy more. And of course, with more sales comes more revenue.

Okay, now let’s circle back. Why a malt liquor base then?

We know that Malt Liquor is a neutral flavored brewed beverage made with slightly higher sugar content to make a beverage that is slightly higher in alcohol than beer. Often, especially in today’s market, these malt liquors are made with corn as their base. Why corn? Because corn is gluten free! Another market to tap into.

Image from Mind Body Green; Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Water

Malt Liquor also, being a neutral flavored brew is an easy option when making a low-calorie drink. Malt Liquor is not nearly as strong in alcoholic flavor as vodka or brandy--which has almost 8 times the amount of alcohol in a single ounce pour has malt liquor--therefore it is easy to mask with even just sugar free, flavored, seltzer water.

So you get a gluten free drink, that is low calorie, flavorful, and contains alcohol. It makes a lot of sense as to why it flies off the shelves!

I have yet to decide on a favorite seltzer, but I'll be sure to let you all know my top choices once they're found.



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