The Alcohol That Puts The Twist In Twisted Tea

Twisted Tea — or "Twea" as it's lovingly called by college students everywhere — is a sweet tea that has a spike of alcohol. But unlike other adult beverages such as hard seltzers, the type of alcohol that Twisted Tea is made with is a little bit mysterious. The cans and bottles don't give away much about the type used, but it turns out that the hard iced tea is made using a malt base, just like beer.

Although the exact formulation isn't public knowledge, Twisted Tea can be classified as a malt beverage. This means that it most likely starts with a brewed, grain-based alcohol as its foundation, to which the tea and other ingredients are added. There are a number of flavors of the hard tea, ranging from raspberry to peach to pineapple, so the extra add-ins during the brewing process likely will depend on what the final flavor is destined to be.

What does it mean to be a malt beverage?

The term "malt beverage" is common in the realm of flavored alcoholic drinks, but what does it actually mean? A malt beverage is one that is made through the process of fermentation, specifically of malted barley and hops. Most beers are classified as malted, but some are made with sorghum or molasses instead of barley.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, creating a malted beverage takes four main steps. First is the purchase of malted grain. To become malted, grain is first soaked in water, then is allowed to germinate for around a week. Next, the grain is heated in a kiln and dried to stop germination. At this point, the grain usually goes to breweries who grind it down to make malt flour. Breweries use the flour in a lengthy fermentation process to create the alcohol that ultimately puts that twist in Twisted Tea.

Smirnoff Ice is another good example of a drink whose alcohol content comes from the process of fermenting malt flour despite the fact that many think it's liquor-based. In other countries, Smirnoff Ice can be spiked with grain alcohol, but in the U.S., its classic form is not. Mike's Hard Lemonade is also malt-based, but their beverages undergo a filtration process that they claim removes most, if not all, of the gluten that exists because of the malt — although there's some debate about whether or not it's safe for those who are gluten-free.

What else is there to know about malt beverages?

Besides Twisted Tea, malt-based flavored alcoholic beverages are sold in a number of varieties. Generally, malt-based beverages and beers have an alcohol content between 4-6%. In the summer of 2023, Twisted Tea actually did a test launch of Twisted Tea Extreme, a high-ABV twist on the classic that has an alcohol content of 8% (in contrast to the usual 5%). Malted drinks can also be made without alcohol for those who don't want their drinks to be a little spiked. 

Unlike their hard seltzer counterparts that have a similar ABV, these beverages aren't always carbonated. Additionally, they have significantly more calories and sugar than most seltzers. Twisted Tea, for example, has 23 grams of sugar in one serving, versus the tea-flavored Truly Hard Seltzers that only have 1 gram.  

One big (and maybe surprising) thing to keep in mind with malt-based drinks is that they are not gluten-free. The barley used to create the malt flour contains gluten, and because the drinks are fermented and not distilled, the gluten remains in the final product. The fact that your favorite craft beer is not gluten-free is well-known, but with drinks like Twisted Tea, it might not be as obvious. If you want similar vibes but want to be sure it's sans gluten, delicious hard ciders like Angry Orchard could be the solution.