Pure, crisp, and refreshing: The marketing fueling the burgeoning hard seltzer craze leans hard on the idea that 100-calorie, low-carb fizzy water is an easy-drinking and better-for-you alcoholic choice. Budweiser made the latest splash into the category, announcing Bud Light Seltzer with an ad set in the town of Seltzer, Pa., during last weekend’s NFL wildcard playoff games.
From White Claw to Corona, there’s no shortage of mass-market seltzer choices. But what if you want a buzzy beverage that’s made closer to home?
Local brewers, some of them converted seltzer fans themselves, are jumping into the fizz game to flex their fermentation techniques and experiment with new flavor profiles. While some are styled after the easy-drinking bubbles from mainstream brands, others are serving up craft seltzers with a bit more bite.
“It’s way harder than you think to make a good seltzer,” said Evil Genius owner Luke Bowen, who was downing clean and refreshing fizz long before his brand’s hard seltzer launched in late October. Their 12-can variety packs of 5% ABV seltzer are contract-brewed at Wyndridge Farm in York County, and available in flavors #BigMood Lemon Lime, #TBT Grapefruit and #BestLife Black Cherry.
“I’m a brewery owner, but I drink everything,” Bowen said.
Better known for an irreverent lineup including caramel macchiato porter, guava IPA, and chocolate-hazelnut imperial stout, Evil Genius took the opposite approach to seltzer: “We need a clean, neutral profile that is flavorless before adding in fruit essences, and it takes six times longer to filter it than a typical beer.”
Beer is most often brewed by extracting sugar from malted grains like barley, wheat, and oats, then fermenting with saccharomyces cerevisiae, better known as brewer’s or baker’s yeast. Hard seltzer is distinctive as it is typically brewed from pure sugar — dextrose (corn) or cane. Distiller’s, wine, or Champagne yeast are utilized to consume all the residual sugars in the brew, leaving it with a neutral taste.
But some breweries are less concerned with achieving a crystal-clear flavor. At Cherry Hill’s Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing Co., owner Jamie Queli wants the brewery’s seltzers to have a bit of fermentation character, unlike the best-known players.
“White Claw is a strict version of what we are doing,” she said. “We are brewers at heart, so we like to work with what's actually brewing.”
J’Aime seltzers — they’re branded separate from Forgotten Boardwalk’s beers — are brewed using pure dextrose, then infused with flavorings: The brewery collaborated with Tavola Tea to create Tangerine Rose with Hibiscus and White Tea, and Lemonade with Black Tea (both 5% ABV). (The former flavor took second place in first U.S. hard seltzer competition this summer.) A third is now in the pipeline.
Second District brewer Ben Potts echoes Queli’s sentiment. “As someone who enjoys fermentation, instead of replicating what we know as as standard seltzer, I’m more interested in making something different.”
Potts was inspired by an employee’s home fermentation experiment to create 6% abv Lo Leaf, brewed from dextrose, a touch of Heidelberg malt and flaked rice, and hopped with a handful of aged Celia hops before being dry-infused with lemon verbena and topped off with a basil “tea.” The result is an aromatic, Champagne-like sparkler that does not meet the gluten-free criteria prized by Big Seltzer.
“No one is doing really cool flavors yet,” Potts said. “It's all just fruit flavoring and back-sweetened. I think there's a nice opportunity to do something different with herbs and spices.”
When brewer Tom Baker got a call from one of his farmers about a great deal on ugly, hail-damaged peaches, the owner of Bar Hygge and Brewery Techne saw an opportunity to try something he’d never done before. “I’d just read an advisory from the PA Liquor Control Board that defined cider as only made from apples and pears,” he said. “Anything else has to be classified as a fermented fruit beverage, and under 8% ABV or it’s considered wine. I thought that was kind of interesting.”
Baker and his brewer quartered, stoned, and pureed all 500 pounds of peaches before fermenting them down with dry Rhone Valley wine yeast until the brew had zero residual sugar. They called it H2O-GUH. “We kept it hazy. It’s highly carbonated, 5% ABV, and gluten-free, of course.”
Even though Baker was pleased with the final product, he doesn’t plan to make it again. “It’s kind of a dubious thing for me. I’m not a seltzer advocate, and I don’t know if craft breweries should be making them. Starting with [a base of] 100% sugar — that’s not brewing.”
Vikram Nayar, co-owner of Philly-based seltzer brand Two Robbers, takes the opposite opinion. “At the end of the day, [seltzers] are fairly fragile products,” he said. “An IPA has a ton of flavor and taste; a drink like that can mask off-tastes and off-smells because the flavor profile for the drink is so strong. These are so subtle, it takes some nuance to make a good one.”
Two Robbers is contract-brewed by Yards Brewing Company and sets out to differentiate themselves with compound flavors like orange-mango, pineapple-ginger, and watermelon-cucumber. Two Robbers has seen support from local breweries with no plans to make their own seltzer, like Brewery ARS in South Philly, that want to offer something for gluten-free guests.
Nayar sees no immediate dimming of the better-for-you booze craze, or a dramatic slowdown in sales in colder months. “I do believe it's early days for the category; it's sort of a one-directional trend. A lot of the low-cal beer stuff has adjacent categories, like hard kombuchas, that seem to be doing well.”