The Who, How, and Why of Hard Seltzers in Brewing

The Who, How, and Why of Hard Seltzers in Brewing

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

In most instances, I ignore trends on social media. In recent months it’s been the Naturdays is Life craze, and now a new one has picked steam – the White Claw Hard Seltzer phenomenon. Apparently everyone is craving this stuff. If they could prove there were cases of it in Area 51, there might really be a raid.

The sales of hard/spiked seltzers have taken off in the last year. Dollar sales growth was up 196% in 2018, making it a more than $500 million product by the middle of this year. Compare that to the growth of beer in sales for 2018, just over 0.7% and you see how seltzer is definitely becoming a thing. Now, a different question might be why it’s White Claw that is wearing the crown in this new kingdom, but we can discuss that later.

Let’s take a look at the hard seltzer craze and see if we can deduce its appeal. First, what’s a hard seltzer and how is it different from other carbonated waters:

Sparkling Waters. There are several different types of water with bubbles, but only one of them is so simple to be seltzer. Club soda is bubbly water with some minerals added, like sodium bicarbonate, sodium citrate, maybe a bit of sodium chloride (table salt). Sparkling mineral water is club soda with a lot more minerals, and these minerals are picked up naturally as the water passes through bedrock; therefore, mineral water from different places will taste differently. Finally there is tonic water, which has quinine in it. It started as a “tonic” to prevent malaria, but was bitter, so they added sugar and flavor. People got used to it and then actually started to like it. In contrast, seltzer is easier to explain than these examples.

Not all bubbly waters are the same. image credit:

Seltzer and Hard Seltzer. Regular seltzer is a carbonated water product – it’s nothing more than water that has been force carbonated, as such, it has no calories and is tasteless. This is a bit bland, so seltzer water products are often flavored and sometimes sweetened. That being said, hard seltzer is something quite different – it’s still carbonated water, but now it has alcohol in it.

You can achieve hard seltzer in a couple of ways, you can brew some malt or sugar and then ferment it to make a beer like product, or you can just spike some seltzer with vodka or other spirit. The blending method is simple to do at home, but brewers can’t produce hard seltzers this way, it would be against the law. For breweries to produce hard seltzer, they must brew it.

Flavored Malt Beverages. Hard seltzers from breweries can be made in a couple of ways, but one is much more popular than the other. One, brewers can use something called neutral malt base (NMB – not to be confused with pale malts such as two row that are considered neutral base malts) to brew up a wort and then ferment it – very similar to beer. However, the NMB has been treated to strip it of its flavors, colors and odors, so it produces a clear wort. Add some fruit, natural flavor, or chemical flavor and some carbonation and you have one type of flavored malt beverage, the others being things like Zima (more sugar), hard colas, some hard lemonades, etc.

Method 1a for producing a hard seltzer is to brew a regular wort (probably using pale malts) and then strip it of all flavor, aroma, and color through carbon filtration, reverse osmosis, or similar method. Then the wort is fermented, carbonated, and flavored with natural or artificial flavors.

Zima was one of the first “malternatives,” put out first in 193 by Coors. They brought it back for about an hour in 2017. image credit: Washington Post

The second way to make a hard seltzer is to stay away from malt and just use sugar, water and yeast. This ferments to a hard seltzer, and then you add whatever flavorings you wish. It’s interesting that both methods fall under the heading of beer, and can be made by breweries, but only the first is considered a FMB. By government definitions, a FMB must be made from at least 25% malt, contain 7.5 lbs of hops/100 barrels of finished product, and 51% of the alcohol in the drink must come from malt.

Two of these conditions can’t be fulfilled by the fermented sugar version of hard seltzer, but on the other hand, fermented sugar drinks can be labeled gluten-free. You can’t get rid of all the gluten in a malt beverage, so the best they can be labeled is gluten-reduced.

History. Even though FMBs started in the 1990s, the first commercial hard seltzer came on the market in just 2012. It was called Spiked Seltzer as an alternative to heavier and more caloric alcoholic drinks. It didn’t take too long and AB InBev’s market research arm decided that this was going to be a thing and they bought up the company. It was rebranded as Bon & Viv Hard Seltzer.

The growth of the market was slow at first, but picked up steam when Mark Anthony Brands (the makers of Mike’s Hard Lemonade) started the White Claw brand in 2016, and then late last year Oskar Blues introduced their Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Waters. About this same time, several other larger breweries started their own brands. Boston Beer Company has been fortunate that their Truly brand of hard sparkling waters has picked up some of the sales slack felt by their Sam Adams brand.

There are national brands of hard seltzers, but look for the smaller, more limited products. image credit: Thrillist

Non-traditional brewers like Henry’s Hard Soda and Smirnoff have introduced products, and smaller breweries have gotten in on the deal, like LiftBridge Brewing, Wachusett Brewing, Fulton Brewing, Boulevard Brewing, Perrin Brewing, and Fair State Brewing. Finally, Sprecher Brewing announced they will be producing a hard seltzer in glass bottles rather than cans, using Ardagh Group–Glass, based in Fishers, IN. For some reason, Natural Light and PBR have entered the field too, as has Four Loko who makes a hard seltzer that goes off at a whopping 14% ABV.

Just a couple of weeks ago a brewery in Arvada, CO made the leap from brewing beers to becoming a complete hard seltzer producer. This is a first in the country as far as I know – the sons of the original owners of Grand Lake Brewing took over when their mother and father decided to retire. They said they had their own ideas of how to proceed and will now make only FMBs. No breweries in Indiana have taken up the mantle of a hard seltzer brewing, either as an additional product or as their only product, but with a higher number of closings (nine already this year), there could be some space and equipment ready to start making seltzers.

Close to Indiana, Braxton Brewing in Covington, KY has brought out Vive City Hard Seltzers and they are doing very well. I talked to Aidan at Braxton Brewing who conveyed my questions to the production team. They decided that they didn’t want their methods out in the public, but I think we can make some guesses. The press release and stories surrounding the premiere of Vive talked about how they had to bring in new equipment and learn new techniques in order to produce the seltzers. I think this means that they are using a light wort and then filtering it to clear through carbon to produce to a clear, flavorless, odorless wort before fermentation. Starting with plain sugar and then fermenting wouldn’t require a purchase of alot of new equipment – it’s just a guess though.

UPDATE: (08/20/19) It has come to my attention that Central State Brewing did a batch of hard seltzer under the brand name of Bougie Water. This lemon lime seltzer goes off at 5%. It’s on tap at The Koelschip now and will be distributed to a small number of places. Central State tells me that this was really an one-off experiment and they don’t have plans at this time to do more with the brand.

The Rise in Popularity of the Hard Seltzer. LiftBridge would have brought out their brand earlier except that those skinny cans used so often for the hard seltzers are in such demand that their order was backed up for months. That alone is evidence that these drinks are growing rapidly in popularity. Pat Flynn of Indiana Beverage recently remarked that Northwest Indiana sales of seltzers is up 280% this year.

The social media mentions with intent to buy for hard seltzers have exploded. imgae credit: Forbes

Interestingly, Pat stated that this rise has been different than for many other types of beverages. Usually a new type of beverage will get a tryout in restaurants and bars to see if there is a market. If there is, then grocery stores and liquor stores will start to stock it. However, hard seltzers in NW Indiana started in groceries and liquors stores, and their popularity led to people asking bars and restaurants if they had them. This led to them penetrating more retail outlets.

But why have people taken to them so wildly? The reasons stated in articles are several. They are lower calorie – White Claw says that a 12 oz. serving is just 100 calories and only 2g of carbs. This is significantly less than most craft beers. At the same time, hard seltzers have decent ABV’s, from 4.5-6.5%. This combination allows people to drink more and not feel bloated, and caters to the more health conscious drinker.

Men will drink them, but women buy 70% of current seltzers; this opens up a bigger potential market for this product. They are good as mixers in cocktails, and if made via non-malt sugar fermentation, they are gluten-free. Most of all, they can be cheaper than craft beer, with 12 packs going for 14-16 dollars (about half the price of good beer). However, pint prices at taprooms and bars have been on par with beer, and may stay high until people realize that they can get it for less in package.

Why breweries choose to make hard seltzers. Being able to sell a lot of them is a big reason that breweries would start to make hard seltzer, but it isn’t the only reason. There are several grounds as to why it would make sense for a brewery to diversify into these drinks. 1) They use fewer ingredients and less expensive ingredients. Neutral malt base is a cheap malt product, and the amount of hops used is almost negligible. Plus, there are only a few flavorings added; they don’t throw in dozens of donuts, rare hops for dry hopping, or pounds of peanut butter.

Hard Seltzers are marketed as healthy alternatives to beer. image credit: Nutritious Life

2) Making a new product opens up new markets and populations, and can put them places they may not get to otherwise. 3) They can use more of their brewing capacity so as to use their brewery more efficiently. 4) Hard seltzers are taxed as a beer instead of a spirit, so more of the money will stay in house. 5) Add these all together, and for an industry with tight margins, this is another way to help keep the lights on.

Conclusion. It’s probably a personal bias toward beer coming through, but something about a craft brewery making seltzers rubs me the wrong way. The art, science, and creativity of craft beer being traded in for flavored water with some alcohol seems like a bit of a cop out. And because it does cost to get the equipment to do this, it means that some will be able to get in on the trend and some won’t. This might put those smaller breweries on even shakier ground as compared to their larger brethren. It reduces shelf space and tap numbers at a time when they are at a premium anyway.

However, I am not going to tell a brewery that finding a way to become more profitable is wrong. With craft beer growth slowing and more people abstaining or moving to spirits, finding a way to sell a product is just good business. Let’s just try to keep this all in perspective though, a hard seltzer is never going to be my choice over a well made yeast forward beer like a Belgian or even a hop driven IPA.

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