Editorial Dept.'s picture

Hard Seltzer Style Definitions & Judging Guidelines (2022)

The Beer Connoisseur's criteria for the critical evaluation and editorial review of commercial hard seltzer products by the publication's panel of judges for its Official Review.

These guidelines are written specifically to be used for The Beer Connoisseur's Official Review. These guidelines may not be copied or used without express written permission by its authorized manager(s).
© 2022 The Beer Connoisseur® All rights reserved.


HARD SELTZER GENERAL OVERVIEW


Hard Seltzer Styles

  • Fruit Seltzer
  • Fruit and Spice Seltzer
  • Spice, Herb or Vegetable Seltzer
  • Specialty Seltzer

Common characteristics applicable to all hard seltzer styles.

Water – Since water is the principal component of seltzer, its quality should be assessed; primarily checking for off-aromas or -flavors from poor filtration. Chlorine, chloramines, sulfur compounds, chemical, metallic or musty notes may indicate poor (or no) filtration and/or poor sanitation practices.

Carbonation – A seltzer is generally sparkling but may be pétillant. Sparkling seltzers do not have an overly effervescent character, instead they range from mouth-filling to an impression similar to carbonated beverages such as sodas or mineral water. Pétillant seltzers are lightly sparkling and can have a moderate yet still perceptible carbonation level. As the name would suggest, a seltzer should not be flat and the carbonic bite should never be unpleasant in the mouth.

Flavoring – Seltzer flavorings may include almost anything, including artificial flavors, fruits, herbs, spices, vegetables, essential oils and extracts of any type. Any use of oak or other wood conditioning should be balanced and complementary to the flavors used. The quality of the flavoring(s) and the integration with the base seltzer are the most important aspect of the evaluation.

Sweetness – A seltzer can fall into the following sweetness categories: dry, semi-sweet or sweet. Sweetness merely indicates the amount of sugar present in the seltzer. Sweet seltzers should not be unpleasantly sweet, and dry seltzers should not be overly dry. Also note that carbonation level can affect the overall sweetness level of a seltzer.

Strength – A seltzer may be categorized as light, standard or strong. Strength indicates the alcohol content of the seltzer. Alcohol may come from fermentation of sugars or added distilled spirits but should be completely neutral in character. Stronger seltzers can have a greater alcohol flavor and heat than weaker seltzers. Stronger examples may have hard-to-discern strength levels, but a harsh, hot or strongly evident alcohol flavor is usually undesirable.


Overall Hard Seltzer Description

Appearance: Cloudy to bright clarity may be present. Crystal clear, reflective examples are highly desirable, although in seltzers with extensive fruit additions, haze or opacity is not a fault. Heavily carbonated examples often have a short-lasting head that may reflect the color of the seltzer. Some aspects of bubbles or head formation are variable.

Aroma: The intensity of the aroma will change based on the intensity of flavorings. Stronger or sweeter seltzers may have more aroma than other examples. The aromatics should primarily reflect the flavoring(s) of the seltzer and should provide a pleasant, clean character. Complexity of aroma is a positive attribute. Harsh, artificial or chemical-like aromatics should not be present. Oxidation in the aroma is a huge flaw and may appear as a rotted fruit-like character. Alcohol aromatics may be present, but overly hot or overpowering overtones are a flaw. The bouquet should generally be enjoyable and inviting.

Flavor: The intensity of the flavor will change based upon the overall sweetness and strength of the seltzer. Stronger, sweeter seltzers will feature stronger flavors than drier, weaker versions and may resemble a cocktail or mixed drink without the signature spirit (e.g., whiskey, rum, etc.). The sweetness level will vary: dry seltzers will have little to no sweetness, semi-sweet seltzers will have a balanced sweetness and sweet seltzers will have evident to obvious sweetness. In no case should the sweetness be syrupy, unpleasant or soda-like. Seltzers with a strong fruit presence should highlight the fruit without resembling a fruit soda. Artificial, chemical or harsh flavors should be viewed as flaws. For the aftertaste, shorter finishes that invite another sip are generally most desirable. Complexity of flavor is a positive attribute. Alcohol flavors may be present, but overly hot or overpowering overtones are a flaw. Oxidation in the flavor is a huge flaw and may appear as a rotted fruit-like character.

Mouthfeel: (Note: Carbonation, strength and sweetness levels, as well as flavoring ingredients, can all impact mouthfeel.) In terms of body, nearly all are in the light to medium-light range. A thin or watery body is common. Body moderately increases with stronger and/or sweeter seltzers but should never be too heavy. Significant sweetness (even in sweet seltzers) should not alter the body of the seltzer. Minor natural acidity is often perceptible (especially in fruit-based seltzers), which can help balance the sweetness. Low levels of astringency are occasionally present. The level of carbonation can vary but is generally high (see definitions below).

Overall Impression: A variable range of results can be present, but well-executed examples will have an agreeable balance between carbonation, flavors, sweetness, acidity and alcohol. Flavoring ingredients should be well balanced with the neutral ingredients and should lead to a refreshing, enjoyable beverage.

Ingredients: Seltzer is predominantly made from neutral alcohol, derived from fermentation and/or distillation, filtered, deoxygenated water and flavorings, both natural and artificial. Alcohol and water are both expected to provide a neutral base to support the flavoring(s). Water and alcohol filtration should remove any flavors, colors and aromas. Oak-aging is permissible in any category as an understated to perceptible augmentation without causing the seltzer to be judged as a Specialty Seltzer; disproportionate oak elements should be considered flaws.


General Hard Seltzer Statistics

ABV:   
light:          <4.5%   
standard:       4.5 – 7.5%     
strong:         >7.5%


Hard Seltzer Evaluation Information Requisites

Carbonation level: Sparkling or highly carbonated; Pétillant or lightly carbonated.
Strength level: Light; Standard; Strong.
Sweetness level: Dry; Semi-sweet; Sweet.
Flavorings: All flavorings used.

If no attributes are specified, reviewers should evaluate the seltzer as a dry to semi-sweet, sparkling, standard-strength seltzer and do their best to ascertain the flavorings used.


HARD SELTZER STYLES & DESCRIPTIONS


Fruit Seltzer

Overall Impression: The fruit(s) is/are distinct and integrated well into the overall balance of the seltzer. Varied fruits can result in vastly altered characteristics, so allow for considerable differences.

Aroma: A slight to clearly distinguishable fruit character should be present (expect dry versions to have lower aromatics than sweet versions). The fruit character should display expressive aromatics correlated to the specific fruit(s) used but allow for a wide range of fruit character and strength. As more fruits are used in a blend, the ability to perceive each fruit will diminish, but this should not count against the seltzer. The fruit character should be enjoyable and supportive, not synthetic, unrefined and/or unpleasantly overwhelming. Stronger and/or sweeter versions may have higher alcohol and sweetness levels present. Minor tartness may be found if normally found in the fruit used.

Appearance: The seltzer may take on a very wide range of colors depending on the variety of fruit used, but color is not required.

Flavor: Many aspects of fruit seltzer are variable: intensity may range from subtle to high, sweetness may range from none to high, finish may range from dry to sweet. However, it should not be soda-like in its presentation. Acidity will vary, although it should always be in balance with the seltzer base. Carbonic bite may make some seltzers seem drier than the declared sweetness might suggest. Flavors from the fruits used should be apparent and will range in intensity, but as more fruits are used in a blend, the ability to perceive each fruit will diminish and this should not count against the seltzer. The fruit character should not be artificial or inappropriately overpowering.

Mouthfeel: Natural acidity and/or tannins may be present, though unpleasant astringency and/or carbonation should not be.

 
Examples: White Claw (various flavors), Good Company (various flavors), Topo Chico Hard Seltzer (various flavors)

Fruit and Spice Seltzer

A Fruit and Spice Seltzer is a seltzer containing one or more fruits and one or more spices.

Overall Impression: The fruits and spices are both distinct and integrated well in the seltzer. Varied fruits and spices can result in vastly altered characteristics, so allow for considerable differences.

Aroma: A slight to clearly distinguishable fruit and spice character should be present (expect dry versions to have lower aromatics than sweet versions). The spice character should display expressive aromatics associated with the particular spices(s) used but allow for a wide range of spice character and strength. The spice character should be enjoyable and supportive, not synthetic, unrefined and/or unpleasantly overwhelming. Stronger and/or sweeter versions may have higher alcohol and sweetness levels present. Some spices may produce spicy or peppery phenolics.

Appearance: The color likely won’t be affected by spices, though exceptions exist for some flowers, petals, peppers and tea blends.

Flavor: Many aspects of fruit and spice seltzer are variable: intensity may range from subtle to high, sweetness may range from none to high, finish may range from dry to sweet. Particular spices will provide specific flavor characters (including bitter, astringent or spicy) in the seltzer, which should always be harmoniously balanced and blended with the seltzer base. Harsh or excessive spice character is a flaw. Distinct flavors from the fruits used should be apparent and will range in intensity. Seltzers containing more than one fruit or spice should be balanced overall between the ingredients used.

Mouthfeel: Some fruits and spices may contain tannins that add body and astringency, but never excessively so.

Comments: If done right, a fruit and spice blend may create a harmonious final product that improves upon its disparate elements. Judicious use of spices will likely create an engaging and inviting seltzer.

Examples: TRULY Watermelon Cucumber, TRULY Mango Chili, Flying Embers (Various flavors)


Spice, Herb or Vegetable Seltzer

A Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Seltzer contains one or more spices, herbs or vegetables. A blend of spices may give a character greater than the sum of its parts. The better examples of this style use spices subtly; when more than one spice is used, they are carefully selected so that they blend harmoniously.

Overall Impression: The spices, herbs or vegetables are distinct and integrated well in the seltzer. Different ingredients can result in vastly different characteristics, so allow for considerable differences.

Aroma: A subtle to distinctly identifiable spice character should be present (dry versions will tend to have lower aromatics than sweeter ones). The spice character should display aromatics associated with specific spices used but allow for a wide range of spice character and strength. The spice character should be enjoyable and supportive, not synthetic, unrefined and/or unpleasantly overwhelming. Stronger and/or sweeter versions may have elevated alcohol and sweetness levels present. Some spices may produce spicy/peppery notes.

Appearance: The color likely won’t be affected by spices, though exceptions exist for some flowers, petals, peppers and tea blends.

Flavor: The spice flavor intensity may vary from subtle to high; the fruit flavor intensity may vary from subtle to high; the sweetness may vary from none to high; and the finish may range from dry to sweet. Particular spices will provide specific flavor characters (including bitter, astringent or spicy) in the seltzer, which should always be harmoniously balanced and blended with the seltzer base. Harsh or excessive spice character is a flaw. Seltzers containing more than one spice, herb or vegetable should have a pleasant balance between the various fruits and spices.

Mouthfeel: Some herbs and spices may contain tannins that add body and astringency but never excessively so. Spicy (hot) spices and/or hot peppers/chilis might produce a warming or numbing feeling, but this character should never be over-the-top.

Example: Greenhouse Cucumber Basil


Specialty Seltzer

A Specialty Seltzer is a seltzer that does not fit into any other seltzer subcategory or a seltzer that combines multiple different subcategories. Any seltzer using additional or unusual ingredients, processes, or techniques would also be appropriate in this category. Any seltzer can fit in this category unless it fits into another preexisting seltzer category.

Specific special ingredients or the special nature of the seltzer must be noted upon submission.

Overall Impression: The ingredients are distinct and integrated well in the seltzer. Varied ingredients can result in vastly altered characteristics, so allow for considerable differences. No matter what ingredients are used, the final product should be identifiable as a water and alcohol-based carbonated beverage.

Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel: These should generally follow descriptions for other subcategories while noting that the specific characteristics may vary widely.

Examples: Jose Cuervo Playamar Tequila Seltzer Grapefruit, Karbach Ranch Water