Hard seltzer came upon us suddenly.
It materialized out of nowhere at a Fourth of July barbecue. In a cooler on a fishing trip. At the concession stand of a townball park. We don’t recall asking for it, and yet there it appeared in some faint shade of berry or lime, conjured into our hand like a pale, fizzy ghost.
It tastes like water, mostly. There’s some fruit flavor, some sugar, a little malty burn. Hold on, did we drink that already? It’s gone. Wait—there’s another one in our hand. Where did—ooh, pineapple this time!
Hard seltzer has become an undeniable force in our drinking culture. Its top brands are growing by triple digits. It’s become shorthand in our memes. Whether a passing fad or here to stay—there are compelling arguments on both sides—it’s here for now in a big way.
But do they taste any good? And even, what are they supposed to taste like to begin with?
It’s strange because seltzer is more often described by what it lacks: fewer calories, less sugar, fewer carbs, a “lighter” feeling than the palate-punishing, gut-busting craft beer. But for everything that it lacks, what should it have? Fruit sweetness or a dry, refreshing snap? Complexity or neutrality? What even is this beverage?
To begin with, hard seltzer is the latest iteration of the Flavored Malt Beverage (FMB) category, a class of products that has swung wildly with tastes and trends throughout the years. It’s the same lineage that runs from Zima to Sparks, through Four Loko, Smirnoff Ice, and Palm Breeze. Now, with the candy-sweet Mike’s Hard on the wane, the category has swung to the ascetic end—a clear, lightly flavored, “cleaner” FMB for the 21st century.
Like its forebears, hard seltzer generally derives its alcohol from fermented sugar, malted grains, and other adjuncts like rice. They are dosed with flavor (natural or otherwise), rigorously filtered and clarified, and carbonated. There are some minor variations on the theme: a tiny number make seltzer with fruit-derived alcohol, some have a natural haze or color from real fruit juice.
What’s new for the FMB category is a striking alliance with a health-conscious crowd—seltzers enjoy legendary status from Crossfitters to Ironwomen. Brands tout their “all-natural” ingredients, gluten-free, or even sugar-free status. And there’s no doubt these beverages benefit from a subliminal association to their namesake product. It’s only the tiniest leap in flavor from La Croix to a hard seltzer—surely, we rationalize, they must be the healthy alternative to beer that regular seltzer is to soda. (But just how fermented corn sugar has been able to posit itself as healthy is a conundrum for a different article.)
Also new for this latest FMB darling is its striking popularity with men. Whereas the malt beverages of the past were often pigeonholed as girly, the current seltzer market has almost no gender gap, with a near 50-50 split between male and female buyers—something that craft beer in general has still been unable to attain.
The Taste Test
We collected 70 flavors of seltzer sold under 16 different seltzer brands (seven of these brands are made by independent breweries in Minnesota and Wisconsin.) This array represents the most likely offerings one will encounter at the average Twin Cities liquor store.
Several breweries make a seltzer at their taproom that they don’t package for retail. But seltzer has come of age as a retail powerhouse—we thought it fitting with the spirit of the tasting to only pit the canned local seltzers against their national competition, just as they are on the shelf. (This also controls for the issue of carbonation, a factor that would be muddied if we judged growler-pours against canned versions.)
It might be completely beside the point to judge a category of beverages on their flavor when it’s clear that consumers aren’t primarily motivated by it (as we intuit they are with wine and craft beer.) Indeed, we smirked at the pomposity of pouring these seltzers into glasses for tasting: has anyone ever drank one not from the can?
Tasting through 70 seltzers confirms a rift among brands in their approach—some are as mild as Perrier, others are so sweet they verge on Fanta. Is it okay if they’re a little sweet? When does restrained become under-flavored? With no rules for what constitutes a “good” seltzer, we admit this tasting is flying blind to some extent.
But as with all things, balance is key. A good seltzer shouldn’t be too sweet, or too flat, or too mild. It is primarily one that lives up to the flavor promise made on the can (at least in some part), and makes you want to drink a second, third, and fourth without blinking an eye. And we certainly found a few of those.
BOLO (Bauhaus Brew Labs): Cherry, Lime, Mango, Dragonfruit
Bon & Viv (AB InBev): Black Cherry Rosemary, Grapefruit, Lemon-Lime, Clementine Hibiscus, Cranberry, Pear Elderflower, Prickly Pear
Fulton: Grapefruit, Lemon-Lime, Berry, Blood Orange
Hard Water (Fair State Brewing Co-Op): Lemongrass Ginger Lemon, Hibiscus Orange Zest
HULA (Third Street Brewing): Mango Papaya, Pineapple Guava, Starfruit Dragonfruit
Lift Bridge: Voyageur’s Citrus, St. Croix Berries, Northwoods Juicebox
Natural Light (AB InBev): Catalina Lime Mixer, Aloha Beaches
Omission Hard Seltzer (AB InBev): Grapefruit, Lime, Blueberry Pomegranate Acai, Orange Twist
Pacer Low-Proof (AB InBev): Meyer Lemon Lavender, Melon Mint, Blood Orange
PRESS Premium Seltzer: Grapefruit Cardamom, Lime Lemongrass, Pomegranate Ginger, Blackberry Hibiscus, Pear Chamomile, Apple Cinnamon
SeekOut (2 Towns Ciderhouse): Key Lime + Mint, Cucumber Juniper, Raspberry Meyer Lemon, Pineapple + Passionfruit
Smirnoff Seltzer (Diageo): Berry Lemonade, Cranberry Lime, Raspberry Rosé, Piña Colada
Stray Forth (Ale Asylum): Blackberry Cucumber Enchant-Mint, Watermelon Kiwi Walkabout, Tangerine Passionfruit Safari, Guava Hibiscus Clairvoyance
Truly (Boston Beer Co.): Black Cherry, Grapefruit, Lime, Blueberry & Acai, Pomegranate, Mango, Rosé, Raspberry Lime, Wild Berry, Pineapple, Passionfruit
White Claw (Mark Anthony Brands): Black Cherry, Ruby Grapefruit, Lime, Mango, Raspberry
Wild Basin (Oskar Blues): Lemon Agave Hibiscus, Classic Lime, Cucumber Peach, Melon Basil
White Claw vs. Truly
Two brands represent the vast majority of the national hard seltzer market: White Claw (owned by Mark Anthony Brands, makers of Mike’s Hard Lemonade) and Truly (from the Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams and Angry Orchard). We hoped this tasting would settle our preference between the two, and it has. We proclaim Truly to be the better seltzer.
Head-to-head, White Claw won on black cherry, but Truly triumphed in grapefruit and raspberry, and both Lime and Mango, which made it to our best-in-show round along with Blueberry & Acai. Truly was commended for their more expressive aromas and purer flavors. Our tasters often noted a malty tingle to the finish of White Claw, of which most flavors were passable in general, if a little too anodyne overall.
Best of the Local Brands: Fulton
Of the seven brands from Minnesota and Wisconsin in the tasting, we found Fulton’s seltzers most to our liking. There’s no doubt to the soda-pop branding on its cans—they definitely skew on the sweeter side of the category (but aren’t as sweet as, say, Lift Bridge’s.) But each variety expresses some kind of fidelity to real fruit flavor. Blood Orange has a striking citrus note, and the Grapefruit (p.45) we could drink all summer long.
Our runner up for local brands was BOLO by Bauhaus Brew Labs—they all taste mild and clean, and their Black Cherry flavor is a stunner.
Cucumber: A natural ally for seltzer
Some of our favorite drier seltzers in the tasting struck a spa-water profile thanks to the addition of cucumber. Two made it to our final round: SeekOut Cucumber Juniper is very refreshing in a Hendrick’s-and-tonic kind of way and Wild Basin Cucumber Peach was wonderfully vegetal with just the right fleshy fruit to back it up.
Natty Light: Too Sweet or Just Right?
We had more fun with the Natural Light Catalina Lime Mixer than we care to admit. It’s way too sweet, but it’s also unabashed in a way that was pleasant after so many barely-flavored seltzers in this tasting. If you dug Naturdays this summer, their seltzer is in the same vein.
The Top Three
Third Place: Truly Hard Seltzer Pineapple, 5% ABV
Fresh pineapple aromas leap from the can. Some kind of vanilla/cream soda/coconut sweetness lurks behind a core of pineapple fruit flavor that tricks you into thinking it’s sweet. But the finish is clean and dry, and invites a return sip immediately.
(Find It: Truly “Tropical” Variety 12-packs and Pineapple six-packs.)
Runner Up: Fulton Hard Seltzer Grapefruit, 5% ABV
We’re calling this seltzer “Fresca-adjacent.” It pours the hazy off-white color of natural grapefruit juice and the aroma hits you right away with tons of fresh citrus. It tasted the most like real fruit of any seltzer in the running. Sweeter than most, but the whole package is balanced and refreshing.
(Find It: Fulton Hard Seltzer Variety 12-packs)
Best In Show: Omission Hard Seltzer Lime, 4% ABV
Determining the perfect seltzer is a folly, but we imagine this one is about as close as you can get. It has a mild aroma like white wine, easygoing lime fruit with just a hit of sweetness, a substantial body, and a crystal clean finish. There’s even a complexity about it as it warms. A really nice example of how neutrality in this category doesn’t have to mean boring.
(Find It: Omission Hard Seltzer Variety 12-packs.)