The Nielsen consumer research company offered this ominous prediction for 2020: “Growth in the beer industry will focus on nearly everything but beer.”
You can try to ignore the prevailing winds. You can grumble about them. You can stick to knitting your excellent beers and hope that works out for you. Or, you can give people another option—another reason to spend money in your taproom—and likely for a higher margin than the beer.
Hard seltzer isn’t news anymore, but just for reference: It reached $1.2 billion in sales in 2019, almost fivefold what it did the year before. According to the consumer research firm Nielsen CGA, the number of people drinking hard seltzer in bars and restaurants went up 73 percent just from spring to fall last year. But sure, it could be a fad.
In analyzing the sales trends, Nielsen has connected the popularity of seltzers with a wider consumer shift toward choices they perceive to be healthier—lower carbs, lower calories, lower alcohol, lower guilt.
In their tightening market, brewers are responding in different ways. Lighter IPAs and lagers that boast lower calorie and carb counts have become a common sight. Craft seltzers are appearing here and there. Boston Beer’s investment in Truly hard seltzer is well-known. Sierra Nevada, meanwhile, is betting on its new Strainge Beast hard kombucha.
Meanwhile, the country’s 8,000 or so smaller breweries are left to consider how and whether to take some advantage of the trend. Here are a few specific paths that some breweries are taking.
Seltzer is just bubbly water; adding the word “hard” merely suggests that our old friend alcohol is involved.
There are a number of ways to go about this. In a brewery, the usual way is to ferment some sugar-water with yeast; the sugar might or might not be partially malt-based, so that it still counts as a malt beverage for legal, technical, or perhaps philosophical reasons. The yeast might be beer, wine, or champagne yeast, or even a turbo-type distillers’ yeast—and it’ll want plenty of nutrients. After fermentation, there is typically a filtration step to ensure a clear product, as well as dilution if it was brewed to a high gravity (as is often the case). Then there is typically flavoring added before packaging, though occasionally they are flavored at the bar instead.
It’s not beer, and one can imagine a variety of reasons why a brewer might object to producing it—not the least of which is that a lot of them don’t taste very good. But there are several business reasons to brew one, especially if you have a brewpub or taproom: (1) it’s cheap to make; (2) some guests are pretty sure they don’t like beer or else they avoid gluten; (3) you’ll get much better margins from your own seltzer than somebody else’s; and (4) what else are you doing with that empty fermentor?
Most breweries probably have all the equipment, if not the ingredients, they need to brew one. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting options for breweries that want to take the hard-seltzer thing a bit more seriously.
At Two Roads Brewing in Stratford, Connecticut, Phil Markowski and his team have opted for a real-fruit focus for their H2Roads brands of “craft hard seltzer.” Notably, they’re not going for a crystal-clear product.
They first ferment a solution of water and 100 percent sucrose, then they add the fruit—in the form of a vacuum-distilled juice concentrate. “We used to use puree but have found the variability to be too great from lot to lot,” Markowski says. Instead, they turn to a high-quality local juice processor called Fresh Bev, which supplies Whole Foods and others. “We pick up on the day the juice is pressed,” he says, and add it to the fermented sugar solution.
“We then run the product through our centrifuge to remove the larger fruit solids,” Markowski says. “The product retains the color of the fruit, which is a point of difference that we absolutely want. Our product is designed to be an alternative to the clear, artificial-tasting hard seltzers that currently dominate the market.”
Because the fruit has some fermentable sugars, there would be a danger of instability in the beer’s character over time. “Our ‘secret weapon’ is a tunnel pasteurizer,” Markowski says, “a piece of equipment that is bulky and expensive but is really the only way to stabilize a product like this without using chemical preservatives.
“Again, our mission is to produce a 100 percent natural hard seltzer for consumers who want real fruit, real flavor, and nothing processed or artificial.”
For breweries that aim to pursue hard seltzer, another piece of equipment to consider is the ProBrew Alchemator, a new, smaller variation on the de-alcoholizing technology that has generally been an option for only the largest breweries. The Alchemator uses membrane-filtration technology to remove both water and alcohol from beer. That water-alcohol mixture can then be carbonated and flavored to make a hard seltzer that hails from malty origins.
The Alchemator also facilitates another product: After pulling the water and alcohol from the beer, it leaves behind a nonalcoholic beer concentrate. That can then be rehydrated with de-aerated water to make a nonalcoholic beer.
No- and Low-Alcohol Beer
Before considering some other equipment, let’s review a few ways that nonalcoholic beer is typically made.
First, you need to brew beer (check). Then, you need to somehow remove the alcohol from that beer. One way is to heat it to about 172°F (78°C) until enough alcohol evaporates to be lower than 0.5 percent ABV. However, that level of heat is generally not great for beer flavor, adding tastes of autolysis and oxidation. The temperature can be lowered considerably using vacuum-distillation technology, mitigating the damage to beer flavor. However, these de-alcoholization systems tend to be large and expensive, more suitable for the largest breweries.
Membrane filtration, such as that the Alchemator uses, is another option. Rather than using the removed water to make seltzer, it can be returned directly to the concentrate to reconstitute it into nonalcoholic beer. One possible drawback is that the membrane filter might also remove flavor compounds, thereby affecting the flavor of the nonalcoholic beer.
If you don’t need to get that close to 0 percent ABV, there are some conventional options for brewing beers of very low alcohol (say, about 1 percent ABV).
There are tricks that can be done with a light grain bill—such as cold-mashing or, alternatively, mashing high (158°F/70°C) to maximize dextrins—to get a less-fermentable wort. Those can be used in conjunction with yeast strains that don’t especially like malt sugar. White Labs, for example, sells WLP618 Saccharomycodes ludwigii and WLP603 Torulaspora delbrueckii; the former has a limited appetite for maltose and maltotriose, while the latter won’t ferment them at all. Another commercially available option is Fermentis Safale LA-01. It uses Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. chevalieri, which also won’t ferment maltose or maltotriose.
It may take a lot of experimentation with these methods to produce a tasty beer. Notably, because of the inevitable residual sugars left by these yeasts, Fermentis warns customers that pasteurization after packaging is “mandatory.”
Much like low-alcohol beer—and there is certainly some Venn overlap—the low-cal/low-carb alternative should have the comfort of familiarity to a brewer. Light beer is, after all, still beer.
Furthermore, drinkers who are counting their carbs or their calories might opt for seltzer or the like—or, they might prefer a light beer, if it’s an option.
For context: Light beer has been popular in the United States since the late 1970s, and especially since the 1980s—when Miller Lite and Bud Light bombarded the national TV airwaves with amusing commercials. Those two plus Coors Light and Michelob Ultra are the country’s four top-selling brands. The latter—playing on its low-carbohydrate content (2.6 g per 12 oz)—grew its retail sales about 16 percent last year, according to data from the Chicago-based market-research firm IRI.
So light beer is not new to America. Smaller breweries jumping into that fray, however, is an interesting wrinkle—especially considering that microbrewing itself was arguably a reaction to industrial light beer in the first place. Craft brewers also have some cards to play—namely, variety and the agility to apply the idea to different styles and see what tastes best (and what sells).
Brewing a more flavorful light lager than the major brands shouldn’t be a great challenge. Many breweries already brew table beers or lighter session beers; in that case, it might be worthwhile to calculate the calories and carbs and trumpet them.
One widely available example of this is Ballast Point Lager, which avoids the word “light” but says “99 calories” right on the front of the can. It also checks in at 4.2 percent ABV, the same as major light-beer brands. It’s not a bitter beer at 10 IBUs, but Apollo hops help to give it a citrus-piney flavor.
There are a growing number of light IPAs out there, too. Some brewers are finding interesting ways to slim down the calories without slimming down too much of the flavor and body. A notable example is Dogfish Head Slightly Mighty IPA (95 calories, 3.6 g carbs), which uses monkfruit extract to add sweetness and an impression of body. WeldWerks in Greeley, Colorado, is another brewery using monkfruit to similar effect in its Fit Bits hazy IPA (4.1 percent ABV, 98 calories, 4.7 g carbs).
In Bend, Oregon, Deschutes is adding Belgian chicory root to Wowza, its “lo-cal hazy pale ale” (4 percent ABV, 100 calories, 4 g carbs). The chicory root “comes as a powder that we add directly to the kettle,” says Kyle Matthias, assistant brewmaster. “It has some calorie content, but less than that of your typical carbohydrate, so we are able to add a calculated amount to assist with perceived body, while still keeping calorie count below 100.”
Back in Connecticut at Two Roads, Markowski and his team are going for a more conventional tack with their Wee Demon IPA (3.8 percent ABV, 95 calories), which they spent nine months developing until its release in March. “With Wee Demon, our approach was simple and traditional,” Markowski says. “It’s beer, so we didn’t want to add any nontraditional sweeteners such as monkfruit, stevia, or erythritol, which some people are using.
“We simply mash at a higher temperature to retain more body in the finished beer,” he says. “To me, most importantly, Wee Demon delivers lots of hop character for a 95-calorie beer. It is very much a true IPA.”
To people who are buying hard kombucha for the health benefits—not just for curiosity, flavor, or mixing cocktails—the key element is the live, probiotic cultures, widely regarded as good for the guts.
Traditional kombucha is a slightly alcoholic tea with a bit of sugar, fermented by a SCOBY—a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. This culture is essentially a gelatinous pellicle that used to kickstart the fermentation of more kombucha.
Adding the word “hard” to kombucha implies the presence of more alcohol. This means adding more sugar and yeast to the kombucha for additional fermentation, taking the drink to anywhere from 4 to 8 percent ABV.
The highest-profile arrival into this market so far might be Sierra Nevada’s new Strainge Beast, announced in February by the Chico, California-based brewery. The product comes from the brewery’s new Chico Fermentation Project offshoot. (“Here our brewers, with their wild imaginations, chase ideas and take on beastly challenges,” the release says.)
Sierra Nevada tried multiple SCOBY cultures before finding the one the brewers liked best. After brewing the base kombucha, they add fresh yeast and organic sugar to reach an ABV of 7 percent. The drink is then flavored—the initial variety gets ginger, hibiscus, and lemon; it’s being market-tested in at least 10 cities in March and April. Future varieties mentioned on its website include “blueberry, acai, and sweet basil” and “passion fruit, hops, and blood orange.”
Hard kombucha is another drink that Two Roads has taken for a spin, though Markowski says their recipe is still in development. They start with a mixture of fruit juice and plenty of tea—he says he wants to be able to taste the tea in the final product. “I’ve tasted many kombuchas, both NA and hard, and am surprised how low the tea character is in the majority.”
Then they add the SCOBY and let it do its thing for about a month, depending on the ambient temperature. “We repurposed an open fermentor on our pilot system for this,” Markowski says. “The resulting SCOBY is massive!”
To fortify the kombucha, they do a separate sucrose fermentation on the side, then blend it with the kombucha. “We seek out more of an acetic character—vinegar—than I typically taste except in only the most authentic kombuchas,” Markowski says. “It may not be crowd pleasing, but to me that characteristic is what makes kombucha a kombucha. And besides, the acetic acid component is apparently one of the many health benefits that a hard or NA kombucha offers to the consumer.”
The good news for breweries who want to try it: They probably have all the equipment necessary already. It should be possible to brew the tea, ferment the kombucha, and re-ferment it to make hard kombucha all in the same vessel—especially if you have spare fermentation capacity or a forlorn tank waiting for its time to shine.
Also marketed as “hard cold brew,” it’s unclear how many hard coffees are made. To distill the early reviews into an oversimplification, they taste like un-boozy, sweet, flavored coffee drinks.
Two of the most notable products so far come from La Colombe (a coffee brand) and Pabst Blue Ribbon (a beer brand). Inevitably there will be more—while these drinks are arguably not “health conscious,” they do fit the profile of beer alternatives.
It was only a decade ago that state and federal officials cracked down on caffeinated alcoholic drinks such as Four Loko (which is still sold, but without the caffeine). After several blackout incidents involving college students and underage teens, there were public concerns about whether the caffeine masked the feeling of drunkenness, thus encouraging overconsumption.
At the time, brewers who were making coffee stouts and the like managed to keep their heads down and emerge relatively unscathed. If hard coffee gets popular, it may raise the question of whether there was an overreaction back in 2009–2010.
It appears that the usual way to make hard coffee is to blend a neutral malt-based alcohol with coffee and other flavors—more of a cocktail than a beer.
In the case of PBR Hard Coffee, however, Pabst first brews a beer-like base using malt, water, and a small amount of hops, according to PBR Brand Manager John Newhouse. “Then we ferment it,” he says. “Then we remove the malt and hop flavor, color, and aroma. Once we have this neutral malt base, we blend it with dairy, coffee, and other flavors to create the creamy, tasty final product.”
It’s easy to imagine the potential for serving hard coffees via nitro taps, especially for bars and taprooms that are already using them to pour (nonalcoholic) cold-brew coffee. But it’s hard to imagine any of these competing on character with a well-brewed coffee stout.
On the other hand, we would never underestimate the sales potential of a short-term trend when it comes to overlooking drinks of greater character.