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More craft breweries should produce hard seltzer

 

There is no escaping it. Hard seltzer is a thing. Many people have been waiting for the fad to die, but important, informed people in the booze biz recently declared that hard seltzer is now its own category of alcohol beverage. I suppose that’s an official way of saying that hard seltzer has arrived.

According to IWSR, a leading source of data and analysis on the alcohol market, hard seltzer volume in the U.S. hit about 82.5 million cases in 2019, and that number is expected to more than triple, to 281 million cases, by 2023. Last year hard seltzer accounted for 2.6 percent of total beverage alcohol in the U.S., up from the previous year when it accounted for less than 1 percent. Another startling figure from IWSR’s Hard Seltzer Report, half of U.S. alcohol consumers drink hard seltzer at least once a week, with an average of 2.83 cans per occasion. (Read more about this on Brewbound.com.)

So yeah, just in case you needed convincing, there’s some proof that hard seltzer is a thing. Don’t expect me to abandoned beer for seltzer, but a lot of people are drinking the stuff these days.

I am of the opinion that more craft breweries should produce hard seltzer, not as a replacement for beer but as a supplement to the beers they already sell. Some of our local breweries already do it. Two Beers Brewing spun off a separate company to brew seltzer—Sound Seltzer. Over in Spokane, No-Li Brewhouse does it, producing its Day Fade Huckleberry Hard Seltzer. Woodinville’s Good Brewing Company produces its own seltzer for its two taprooms. I am certain that a lot of other breweries have quietly considered it.

So yeah, I think more breweries should consider dipping a toe in the seltzer pool. I am not joking, nor am I a traitor. Before you grab your pitchforks and torches and try to lure me back to the castle with violin music, allow me to explain myself.

Why You Would Not Make Hard Seltzer

First up, I should say that if you, as a brewery’s owner or brewery’s business decision-maker, are philosophically opposed to hard seltzer, then you should probably skip it. If your religious convictions forbid it, by all means, do not risk eternal damnation by making hard seltzer. Otherwise, consider what I have to say.

Understand that I am only talking about producing hard seltzer to serve alongside your beer in your own taproom or brewpub. I am not suggesting that you go head-to-head with White Claw in a battle for shelf space at the grocery store. That’s crazy talk. I am not saying you should make hard seltzer instead of beer.

Why Would You Make Hard Seltzer

  • Making seltzer is easy. In fact, it is really easy. Making beer is hard. In Washington, and I assume elsewhere, breweries are already licensed to produce hard seltzer. It just so happens that it requires the same equipment. Without getting into details, you dissolve some sugar in water, ferment it, flavor it, carbonated it, and you are done. Sure, that is a super-simple explanation of the seltzer-making process, but try explaining the beer-making process in so few words.
  • Making seltzer is fast. One craft brewery, which is already making a limited amount of its own seltzer, told me it takes just two weeks to go from the brew kettle to the keg.
  • Making seltzer is cheap. I don’t know what the actual costs are, but I have been told that it is a pittance compared to making an IPA, for instance. Beer is produced with expensive things like barley and hops. Seltzer is produced with comparatively cheap things like sugar and fruit-flavored concentrates. Even if you use fruit puree instead of concentrate, it’s cheaper than making beer. Yeast is probably the greatest expense. (I’ve heard of people using white wine yeast. I tried one from Good Brewing Co. brewed with Kveik, the Nordic yeast strain that’s become popular in recent years.)

What do You Have to Lose by Making Hard Seltzer?

Perhaps the most important reason you should consider producing seltzer is because you have nothing to lose. Lately, I’ve heard a lot of chatter about the beer biz losing ground to the seltzer biz, and I suppose there is some truth to that, but in reality, seltzer drinkers are not really craft beer consumers at all. Never were, never will be. I should rephrase that, they are not beer enthusiasts and are more like accidental craft beer consumers.

Allow me to explain.

As a craft beer lover, here’s how I approach beer. It starts with flavor. That is the most important thing. If it is produced by a small, independent brewery that’s better. If it is produced by a local brewery, that’s even better. If it is low calorie and low carb, that’s an amazing bonus that I never expected. It starts with flavor and works its way down to those other things, like health and wellness.

Seltzer drinkers approach it from the exact opposite direction, as far as I can tell. They want an alcoholic beverage that is low calorie and low carb, and if it happens to taste good, that’s a bonus. Words like quality, small, independent, and local probably aren’t even in their vocabulary. It starts with low cal, low carb and works its way down to those other things. Like I said, it is the opposite of how craft beer drinkers think.

What does that mean? In my opinion, it means that craft beer is not losing people to seltzer directly. The people who regularly drink hard seltzer were never craft beer people in the first place. Sure, when they go out to a brewery tasting room with their friends, they drink craft beer, usually asking for whatever is the lightest beer, or asking if they can get a glass of cider or wine. At best, they are accidental beer drinkers.

A brewery offering its own, house-made seltzer may actually be a draw. Maybe it will get people through the door that might have made a different decision about where to go. Instead of selling them a glass of someone else’s cider, as so many brewery taprooms do, why not sell them a glass of house-made seltzer at a much higher margin?

Observations of a Beer Lover

I was at The Woods recently for a friend’s going away party. The Woods is the tasting room for the three-headed business that is Two Beers Brewing, Seattle Cider, and Sound Seltzer. One of the reasons my friend decided to have the event at The Woods is because, though it hurts me to say it, not everyone wants to drink beer.

While I was there, I paid attention to what the crowd was drinking at The Woods. What I saw that night helped lead me to the opinion I’ve outlined here. I observed that about half the people at the crowded taproom were not drinking beer.

Indeed, not everyone wants to drink beer, even if they are visiting a brewery taproom. If a brewery can easily, and in good conscience, offer them an option that ticks all of their health and wellness boxes, I do not see how that is a bad thing.

If you are a brewery owner and you just simply hate the idea of making a seltzer, I get it. You got into this thing to make beer and you don’t want to produce things you don’t like, so perhaps it’s best that you don’t. Then again, your brewery is a business, right? I’ll just remind you that a brewery opened in Ballard in 2011, with an owner that vowed to never make an IPA. They were almost immediately irrelevant and lasted less than five years.

Instead of complaining about hard seltzer encroaching on beer sales, why not try to capitalize on it? I suppose that’s my only point. I, for one, would never begrudge a beloved craft brewery for doing that. It seems like smart business to me.

What the hell, give it a shot. It’s easier and cheaper than making gose, and y’all gave that a shot.

 

 

 



3 comments

  1. Ah well I normally try to keep our annual beers for Strange Brew Fest (coming up the next week, the 24-25th in Port Townsend) pretty close to my chest, but this seems an appropriate time to announce next week’s exciting launch of Bainbridge Brewing’s newest wholly owned subsidiary:

    CYNICAL CASHGRAB HARD SELTZER ™

    We’ll be debuting four exciting new flavors at Strange Brew including:

    * “Totes Juicy Brah!” Hazy IPA Hard Seltzer (Yes. It will be a 4% alcohol, colorless, crystal clear Hazy IPA. You dare question my methods?!)

    * “Diet-BEETUS” Pastry Stout Hard Seltzer (credit to Drew Beechum for this wonderful, awful idea over some beers a few months back. We’re going Chocolate Coffee Amaretto for this one…)

    * “Cool Ranch Dorito” Hard Seltzer (we just had to, it’s kind of our thing)

    * “Purple Pea-Ple Eater” Asian Butterfly Pea Hard Seltzer (I’m mildly worried this one might actually be…good)

    The ultimate irony of course is, all satire aside, from a practical standpoint it was easier to just brew a half-batch on the main system and run it through the lenticular filter than to pilot batch it. Meaning I have more neutral unflavored seltzer than I need for this festival, and so we might as well flavor it up and sell it in the taproom at a ridiculous, stupid, frankly obscene profit margin, and my greatest fear is people will actually like it. (Seriously though, thanks in no small part to corn subsidies, I think this cost us like $0.50 a gallon to make.) But hey, if people want to drink fermented glucose solids and corn dextrose mixed with flavor extracts more than good old honest water, malt, yeast and hops, who are we “Craft Brewers” to stand in the way of progress? 🙂

  2. This was an absolutely fantastic read! Well said.

    My company, ProBrew, just released an all-new, one-of-a-kind piece of equipment designed specifically to help the craft breweries get ahold the seltzer market. Check it out – the Alchemator takes the craft beer you’re already brewing, separates the alcohol and water from it, and leaves you with two beverages from one. Brewers get hard seltzer on one end, and LA/NA beer on the other end, all without compromising the unique flavor profile the brewery is already known for.
    You don’t have to waste space storing extra ingredients or holding up a brite tank fermenting sugar water, and the end result tastes far better than that hairspray in a can the big guys are cashing in on.

    I could go on and drop a crazy sales pitch here, but it’s not necessary. This thing hit the market right on time and it completely sells itself. I’m just happy to be a part of the ride!

    If you’re up for a quick chat, reach out! Maybe your next blog could go further into the tech side of seltzer?

    Cheers!

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