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Drinking Habits

What Is Seltzer? How Is It Different From Beer?

Published:
June 19, 2024
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16 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 19, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Seltzer and Beer Are Not the Same

  • Hard seltzers are popular alcoholic drinks that contain alcohol and carbonated water. Seltzers differ from beers in that they contain fewer calories and carbs and less alcohol.
  • We can avoid the detrimental effects of hard seltzer by consuming them in moderation — and understanding that  the perception of them as “healthier” is more about marketing than reality.

  • Drinking too many hard seltzers? Reframe uses neuroscience to help us understand our alcohol habits so we can quit or cut back on alcohol.

You’ve probably seen the advertisements for hard seltzers featuring poolside partygoers cracking open cold cans of effervescent seltzer — the perfect beverage for those seeking a blend of indulgence and refreshment! And they’re healthy for us, too! So savvy marketers would have you believe, but in truth, there’s a downside to this bubbly drink.

With these seltzers taking over the market long dominated by beer, now is a good time to take a closer look at hard seltzer, the alcohol in it, how it compares to beer, and whether the marketing claims hold water.

What Is a Hard Seltzer?

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Club soda, sparkling water, seltzer, tonic water — what’s what? The difference is in the ingredients and processes used to make them. Let’s start with hard seltzer. It begins as seltzer water, the simplest version of sparkling water. Seltzer water is made by carbonating plain water with carbon dioxide. Often, flavors are added using fruit essences or oils. Popular seltzer waters include LaCroix and Spindrift. 

No alcohol in seltzer? No, the only seltzers that contain alcohol are those known as “hard seltzers,” which are typically flavored. Popular brands like these can be found in grocery and convenience stores throughout the U.S.  

  • White Claw
  • Truly
  • Topo Chico
  • High Noon
  • Vizzy 

Beer companies also jumped on the hard seltzer bandwagon and came out with such offerings as Michelob Ultra Seltzer. But is seltzer beer? Keep reading to find out

What Kind of Alcohol Is in Hard Seltzer?

Seltzer is not the same type of alcoholic drink as beer, wine, or liquor. There are few different alcohol types that can be made into hard seltzers, including fermented canesugar, malted barley, or grain neutral spirits that range in alcohol by volume (ABV). Let’s review them.

  • Fermented canesugar. Sugar-brews, or fermented canesugar alcohol, is produced by fermenting sugar from cane. The advantages of sugar-brews are that they are gluten free, low calorie, colorless, and have a neutral flavor. They usually contain ABV of 12%-14%.
  • Malted barley. Malted barley is partially germinated cereal grains that get dried in a malting process. This process involves soaking the grains in water and then drying them in hot air, which begins to break down complex sugars so the malt can be fermented. The final product is malt liquor, which can be added to seltzer to make a hard seltzer. The ABV of malt liquor is 16%-18%.
  • Grain neutral spirits. Grain neutral spirits are made from a fermented mash of grains such as corn, wheat, rye, or barley that are then distilled. Distillation is the process of heating a liquid to create a vapor and then condensing it back to a liquid. Distilled spirits have a high concentration of alcohol — 95% ABV.

Hard seltzers are known for their “clean” and not-too-sweet taste. The types of alcohol listed above all have a neutral flavor that can be mixed with other flavors and seltzer water to make a hard seltzer. Most seltzers have an ABV between 4% and 6%, which is reached by diluting the base alcohol with seltzer water. A can of White Claw or Truly is 5% ABV, and a Topo Chico is around 4.7%.

If you saw “malted barley” and thought about malt liquor or beer, you’re not alone. These alcohol types, however, are not the same.

Malt Liquor vs. Beer

Beer, seltzer, and liquor all have their unique characteristics. Beer and hard seltzer differ in their ingredients, flavors, alcohol content, and nutrition. So how do we differentiate between malt liquor and beer? Or a malt beverage and beer? 

Malt liquor and beer are similar but not the same. Malt liquor is brewed with barley and other grains and tends to have a higher ABV than beer, whereas beer is produced with barley and hops and has a lower ABV.

What about a malt beverage vs. beer? A “malt beverage” is also made with a malted barley base, but it often has flavors added. Twisted Tea is an example of a malt beverage, and some hard seltzers are, too, if they are made with a malted barley base rather than cane sugar for example. The lines between malt beverages, beers, and seltzers can get blurry, but the most important thing to know is they have similar ingredients and similar effects on the body.

Now, let’s focus on hard seltzer and how it differs from beer.

Hard Seltzer vs. Beer

Let’s go a little more in depth and talk about beer vs. seltzer.  

Ingredients 

  • Hard seltzer. The basic ingredients of hard seltzer are alcohol, flavors, and seltzer water. As we learned above, the base alcohol can come from sugar-brews, malted barley, or diluted hard spirits.
  • Beer. Malted barley, hops, yeast, and water are the primary ingredients of beer. The hops of beer — a unique ingredient — comes from flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant. 


Flavors


  • Hard seltzer. Hard seltzers have a light and crisp taste compared to beer. Seltzers tend to come in fruits or other natural flavors and are often referred to as refreshing with a slight sweet taste and hint of alcohol flavor. 
  • Beer. Beer is available in a wide range of flavors that come from the particular malt, hops, yeast, and other ingredients added during the brewing phase. Beer is known for its bitterness, which it gets from the hops. Beers range from heavy to light, and the flavors can change dramatically, from bitter to sweet, malty to fruity, and more.


Alcohol Content


  • Hard seltzer. The alcohol content of hard seltzer is usually lower than most beers, especially craft beers. The alcohol content of hard seltzers typically average 4.6% ABV.
  • Beer. The ABV of light beers tends to be between 4% and 5%, while regular beers have an ABV of 5%–6%. Craft beers range from 6% to 10%, and the strongest beers can reach ABVs of 15% or higher. 


Nutrition 


  • Hard seltzer. Most seltzers are light in calories, low in sugars, and low in carbohydrates. On average, seltzers have 2 grams of sugar, 2 grams of carbs, and 100 calories in a 12-ounce can. A majority of seltzers are gluten free.

  • Beer. Because there are so many different types of beer, their nutritional contents vary. Compared to seltzers, beer tends to have more calories and carbohydrates, but a comparable or lower sugar content. Calories in popular beers range from 100 to 350 with craft beers on the upper end and light beers on the lower. Beer has more carbohydrates than seltzer with a range of about 10-15 grams in a 12-ounce serving.
Facts at a Glance, Hard Seltzer vs. Beer

Though both are popular drinks, choosing between beer and hard seltzer often comes down to personal preference, dietary concerns, and the occasion. Beer offers a wide variety of flavors and styles, while hard seltzers provide a lighter option for those who prefer that.

Is Hard Seltzer Healthy?

One the marketing claims about hard seltzer is that it’s the healthiest form of alcohol. Some seltzer brands even tout their health benefits from added antioxidants and vitamin C. But are hard seltzers actually a healthy choice? 

In short, no! Even though hard seltzers are low-calorie, low-sugar, and infused with antioxidants or vitamin C, they are still not healthy because they contain alcohol, which is hazardous to our health. Alcohol causes a host of health problems, including weight gain, liver damage, brain changes, impaired immune system, and negative mental health impacts. Therefore, any added health benefits of hard seltzer are outweighed by the harmful effects of alcohol. 

Compared to other alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, or spirits, hard seltzer may be a better alternative. Compared to other alcoholic beverages, hard seltzers have fewer calories, less sugar, fewer carbs, lower ABV amounts, and they’re gluten free. However, being the “healthier” or safer option doesn’t mean we should drink more of it. As with any alcoholic beverage, It’s important to consume hard seltzers in moderation.

Why Are Hard Seltzers So Popular? 

Since 2019, hard seltzer sales have been on the rise. So why are they growing in popularity? Let’s go through some of the reasons hard seltzers are a huge hit. 

  • Health-conscious. In an effort to appeal to health-conscious consumers, advertising agencies have pushed hard seltzer as a good-for-you beer alternative. In reality, their alcohol content counteracts many of these claims.
  • Convenient. Hard seltzers are mostly sold in cans, which make them a perfect drink to take to a party, picnic, beach, pool, or other outdoor/indoor activities.
  • Versatile and customizable. Brands of seltzers offer a wide variety of flavors, and most customers can find something they’ll like. Hard seltzers can easily be mixed with other ingredients like fruit juices or spirits to make custom cocktails. 
  • Promotable. Various cultural influences — social media, wellness, and mindfulness, in addition to gluten-free diets — are contributing to the rise in hard seltzers’ popularity, especially among younger generations.
  • Accessible. Seltzers are available at grocery stores, liquor stores, convenience stores, and most restaurants and bars. The widespread availability of hard seltzers make them accessible to consumers across a range of demographics and geographic locations. 

Overall, the combination of the health-conscious marketing, variety of flavors, conveniences, and powerful marketing strategies contribute to the rapid growth in popularity of hard seltzers. 

The Bottom Line

Seltzers may be healthier alternatives to other alcoholic beverages, but they should not be considered a health beverage. As with any alcoholic drink, it’s best to consume hard seltzer in moderation. 

Summary FAQs

1. Is seltzer just vodka soda?


Not all seltzers contain vodka as their alcohol source. Some use sugar brews or malt brews as their base. Even the seltzers with vodka are diluted to a lower ABV, and they usually have other flavors added.

2. Are seltzers better for you than beer?


Seltzers have fewer calories, fewer carbs, and lower alcohol levels, which can make them “healthier” than beer. This doesn’t mean that they are “healthy,” however, as they still contain alcohol, and we should still consume them in moderation.

3. Is seltzer alcohol?


Not all seltzers have alcohol, but hard seltzers are seltzer water mixed with alcohol. 

4. Can seltzer be non alcoholic?


Yes, there are non-alcoholic versions of seltzers with popular brands such as LaCroix. 

5. What is considered a malt drink?


A malt drink is a fermented beverage that is made from malted barley. 

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