“It hurts my brewer’s heart,” Ninkasi’s Daniel Sharp says about getting into hard seltzer. “But,” he adds, “as a fermentation scientist, I love it.”
At times, unquenchable consumer demand for a product outweighs a professional brewer’s resistance to venturing out of a comfort zone. Hazy IPA was like that for many—a radical departure from West Coast–style IPA, perhaps, but still not a departure from beer. Hard seltzer, however, can appear to be antithetical to beer as a whole. There’s often no malt or hops in it, and it’s typical to use wine yeast for fermentation. On the face of it, the only thing that beer and hard seltzer have in common is that they can both be produced at the same brewery.
For Ninkasi Brewing in Eugene, Oregon, it was the opportunity to expand the product line with minimal capital expense that drove the decision to launch sister brand Pacific Sparkling Craft Seltzer.
“We were asking ourselves, ‘If we don’t do this, will we be left behind?” says Sharp, Ninkasi’s director of brewing operations. The decision was made to launch the brand with flavors that were offbeat but approachable—such as cucumber mint and cherry blossom—to differentiate them on increasingly crowded shelves.
Embracing the Trials
Sharp’s task was to develop these new products. One target was to have a flavor profile closer to flavored sparking waters than to the brash mass-market brands. That required a neutral alcoholic base with as clean a flavor as possible, so that smaller doses of flavoring extract could shine without having to compete with esters and phenols from fermentation.
With a background in research brewing and a doctorate in brewing science from Oregon State University, Sharp relished the technical challenge. He began by testing different sugar sources, brewing up two-liter batches in the lab. After more than a dozen tests at that scale, he took it to the brewery’s half-barrel pilot system for more batches. His goal was a neutral and colorless base of 5 percent ABV, totally devoid of off-flavors. One thing that made iterating the recipe easier was how quick the process is.
“With beer you can have as long as an eight- or even 12-hour brew day,” he says, but you can make seltzer in much less time, almost “as fast as you can throw sugar into vessels.” He could see the results from small tweaks to a recipe or process quickly—but an unanticipated downside was that other people in the brewery could also see all this trial and error. The process was too visible internally. What were useful data to him looked like failures to others in the company. Sharp found himself defending the project against internal detractors who were unsure whether the brewery should be developing a hard seltzer at all.
“If employees don’t believe in something, it’s hard to get it off the ground,” Sharp says. This internal resistance can be a barrier to innovation. Sharp wanted to go into “covert mode” for the development, so he moved the project to the research brewery at Oregon State University in Corvallis. This less critical environment was liberating, allowing Sharp the freedom to fail while iterating hard seltzer. The OSU brewery’s flexibility and sophisticated automation were closer to Ninkasi’s production brewhouse than to its pilot systems. Off-site development allowed him to fine-tune the product before presenting it to stakeholders at Ninkasi. “Showing up with a great finished product generated a lot more excitement,” he says.
Scaling Up & Dialing In
With the base recipe determined, Sharp and his team needed to dial in the flow though Ninkasi’s production brewery. This was relatively inexpensive (as brewery improvements go), but it was a challenge to scale up production of the sugar wash. Once Sharp figured out how to do it, he had to figure out how to do it safely.
“People don’t think about materials handling until it’s a problem,” Sharp says. “You can’t have brewers dumping 55-pound bags of sugar into the brewhouse all day, every day. It’s a worker safety issue.” The solution was a dosing system separate from the brewery’s malt-handling space, along with equipment that could handle two-ton bags of sugar—expensive, but safer for the team.
Sharp then turned to getting the flavors right. He enlisted Jules Lerdahl, Ninkasi’s sensory specialist, to help taste through dozens of options available from different flavor houses. They quickly realized that the job was bigger than they’d expected.
“It took us 30 tries to get the right mint flavor,” Sharp says. They evaluated as many offerings as they could, looking for subtle vibrancy that didn’t taste artificial.
The handful of Pacific Sparkling flavors so far include Crisp Cucumber Mint (the “most out there”), Sun-Kissed Grapefruit, and Tangy Key Lime, but Ninkasi uses other flavors in other products, and not all the hard seltzer brewed there is for the Pacific Sparkling brand.
Contracting More Seltzer
One reason that Ninkasi got into the seltzer game was to use excess production capacity.
Now that they’ve developed a high-quality base that they can brew at scale, Sharp says that other brands are lining up to contract their hard seltzer production at Ninaski. “We have to say ‘no’ a lot,” Sharp says. He implemented new processes and added more equipment to increase the seltzer-production capacity.
He added an in-line blending skid from TechniBlend to increase the quality and production capacity of the seltzer. Sharp calls it “a big soda machine.” The unit takes a stream of high-gravity neutral base (at about 9 percent ABV) and blends it down to the target alcohol levels while adding the flavoring and carbonating the beverage. It’s an automated and continuous process that sits between the fermentation vessels and the packaging line. “You can run it all day long until you run out of ingredients,” Sharp says.
The demand for Ninkasi’s expertise and production capabilities gives the 15-year-old brewery some welcome breathing room in a marketplace where legacy brands and flagship beers are not finding the customers they once did. For Sharp, these upsides outweigh any concerns about a product that’s “less romantic” than craft beer.
“There’s no maltster or hop growers to work with,” he says. “There’s no real connection to agriculture at all.” Still, he can’t deny that the development process was a rewarding and enjoyable challenge.
The hard-seltzer trend is changing the beverage industry at every scale, and Sharp sees it as an opportunity for craft brewers to stay relevant and attract more customers from outside the beer world. “We’re expanding the definition of what a craft product is,” he says.