Winemakers, Craft Brewers and Big Beer Can’t Ignore Hard Seltzer | Wine Enthusiast
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Winemakers, Craft Brewers and Big Beer Can’t Ignore Hard Seltzer

When the idea first came up in a 2019 meeting at Maui Brewing Company, Owner/Founder Garrett Marrero was skeptical. A hard seltzer from the popular Hawaii-brewed brand rooted in tradition? It seemed like a stretch.

And yet, in late 2019, Maui Brewing Co. introduced Maui Hard Seltzer. The initial orders and robust sales over the subsequent months showed the brewer made the right move.

Craft brewers can’t ignore hard seltzer any more than the average consumer. From backyard cookouts to beach parties, bars and in-store displays, the fizzy drink has become nearly impossible to avoid.

According to Nielsen data, hard seltzers “contributed to nearly half (44.6%) of category growth dollars for Memorial Day this year and captured over 10% of total beer dollar sales.” Hard seltzers earned $61 million in off-premise sales for the same two-week time period in 2019. Sales this year were up more than 250% to $215 million.

The current hard seltzer landscape is not unlike the beginning days of craft beer, where a few large players controlled the majority of the marketplace and small brewers need to appeal to local consumers for survival and growth.

The largest player in the space is White Claw, owned by Mark Anthony Brands, makers of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. In mid-May, the brand had a 55% dollar share in the category and had grown 309% in year-to-date numbers, according to market research firm IRI. The company declined several requests for a telephone interview.

The second biggest brand in hard seltzer is Truly, which is owned by the Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams and Dogfish Head beers, Angry Orchard hard cider and Twisted Tea. The brand recently unveiled new flavors in an effort to appeal to more consumers.

“We believe in order for hard seltzer to keep growing and bringing drinkers in, we have to keep innovating and pushing the boundaries of what hard seltzer can be,” says Casey O’Neill, senior product development manager at Truly. “As brewers, it’s in our bones to keep creating, so it’s perfectly suited for us.”

Avery Brewing hard seltzer
Avery Brewing Co. launched Sparkle, a hard seltzer line, this year / Photo by Beth Machen

Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, has several hard seltzer products, which includes Bud Light Hard Seltzer, BON VIV (previously known as Bon & Viv), Natural Light hard seltzer and Social Club, which is designed to mimic cocktails. Offerings from large beverage companies also include Corona Hard Seltzer, Smirnoff Hard Seltzer, and Vizzy from Molson Coors. Molson Coors plans to launch a Coors hard seltzer later this year, too.

Meanwhile, small breweries across the country have seen an uptick in the number of customers asking for hard seltzers on tap. Some patrons might be interested in lower-calorie, low-carbohydrate options, or perhaps want something gluten-free. Others could just be curious about the trend.

“Every week we make a fresh batch, and every week we run out,” says Mike Marr, owner of Buffalo Creek Brewing in Illinois. He started making hard seltzers and serving them in his tap room last year following numerous customer requests. He’s experimented with flavors like mango habanero, but finds that boysenberry sells best.

“It doesn’t take that long to make, it’s inexpensive to make, and we have the equipment to make it properly, so this gives us another option to serve something on tap for people,” he says.

The current hard seltzer landscape is not unlike the beginning days of craft beer, where a few large players controlled the majority of the marketplace and small brewers need to appeal to local consumers for survival and growth.

Rather than try to compete with marketing budgets of the largest brands, craft brewers appeal to consumers who favor local flavors and small-batch productions. In 2020, brewers with regional and smaller distributions have released seltzers that either convey a sense of place or serve as a firewall against eroding beer profits. Sweetwater Brewing, Avery Brewing Co. and Ninkasi Brewing Co. now have seltzer brands.

Wine brands, such as California-based Barefoot, have also begun to enter the space, with wine-based hard seltzers that increase competition and category visibility.

At its simplest, hard seltzer is just fermented sugar water. Brewers can use their brewhouse to combine sugar and water and then ferment with a clean yeast. They can add flavors during fermentation and then force carbonation as needed.

Fruits and herbs are the most popular flavorings for hard seltzer and can be added by either using fresh produce, zested or squeezed into a batch, or through processed purees or manufactured syrups.

Alternatively, distillers start with a spirit like vodka, and dilute it with water until the malt beverage reaches the desired alcohol by volume (abv).

“For us, it never felt natural for the brewery to produce a seltzer because we uphold a passion for craft, and recipe creation and flavor,” says Adam Dickerson, the brand manager of New Holland Brewing. And so, the new line of Lake Life hard seltzers is created at the brewery’s spirits arm.

“As a company, we’re trying to find a certain flavor that appeals to drinkers while bringing down the abv, calorie count, and carb count and to adapt to that ever-shifting consumer motivation,” says Dickerson. The company plans to distribute Lake Life in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. The idea is to stay near the Great Lakes where the brand can resonate with both locals and vacationers.

Ninkasi debuted Pacific Sparkling Craft Seltzer in 2019 / Photo courtesy Pacific Sparkling

While most hard seltzers are 4–6% abv, there are “imperial” versions, like the 8% abv Stronger Seltzer from Pabst, and the 12% abv hard seltzers from Four Loko, available in black cherry and sour mango flavors.

While a lot of the hard seltzers will push forward familiar and commercially friendly flavor combinations like strawberry, or lime, or cranberry, some craft brewers are innovative with taste and process.

At Muckraker Beermaker in Franklin, New Jersey, Founder/Head Brewer Tom Troncone produced a version with the brewery’s coolship, and then fermented it with a mixed culture yeast. An early batch was aged on raspberries, while a more recent brew rested on coffee beans. He suggests serving that one with an ounce of dark Jamaican rum. “Basically, I’m making them with the same process I’d use to make a beer, except substituting organic cane sugar for malt,” he says.

Troncone remains rooted in the traditions of lambic and using nature to create his regular stable of beers, but there’s no denying the allure of hard seltzers. “They are fun as fuck, poolside crushable, fruity, a little tart,” he says, “and people can’t seem to get enough of them.”