We were watching the hard seltzer category just skyrocket and, for a while, hemmed and hawed about getting into it. But if we were going to get into it, we wanted to have a point of difference. I sought out some of the better-known brands and tasted them, and they just struck me as so artificial and unpalatable.
I came to realize there’s a strong nostalgic element to it. When I talked to people younger than I am, their eyes would light up and they’d say, “Oh my god, it tastes just like Jolly Ranchers candy.”
There’s a strong connection to childhood that really appeals to certain people. That’s been part of hard seltzer’s success, but we grew convinced that there’s a segment probably looking for something more real and more natural. Many of the common flavorings have “natural” attributed to them, but I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering for years what that really means. We figured there has to be somebody out there who is really wishing for a product flavored with real fruit juice or fruit puree, but a product that still meets the lower-calorie and lower-carbohydrate quota that’s such a strong driving factor in the appeal of hard seltzers.
We started to develop flavors with real fruit, and we found that in our own internal panels they did well, so we decided to enter the market that way.
There are definitely challenges to using real fruit because you’ve got this fermented base, and you still have active yeast in there. In our case, we use a centrifuge to separate it, but there’s still yeast in there, and it doesn’t take much to re-ferment fruit juice left in there. That was a big challenge, and we had some bad experiences to learn from—you couldn’t have any residual viable yeast in there, or you would invite fermentation.
We did further research into stabilizing the product, and generally speaking, there are two ways to do it. One is an additive called dimethyl dicarbonate, which is sold under a different brand name. To my understanding, it’s very commonly used in the drinks industry. It’s used in wineries. I’m told it’s used in all manner of fruit-juice production and sports drinks, but it doesn’t have to be disclosed on the label. It’s expensive, and it’s actually toxic in the first 24 hours. So, if you can or bottle a product with this additive, you can’t drink it for at least 24 hours. Then it breaks down into more innocuous components.
That didn’t seem right to us. It didn’t fit into our ethos with a real fruit–flavored alternative seltzer.
The only other alterative was a tunnel pasteurizer, so at great expense we purchased one. We were certainly concerned about the impact of heat on the hard seltzer’s flavor, but in our trials, we actually found a preference in our blind tasting for more aggressively pasteurized versions. It was very surprising—we expected the opposite—but we found that the sweetness is actually enhanced by this step. It was a fortunate outcome because we weren’t going to add a chemical to our product, even if it doesn’t have to be disclosed on the label. That just wouldn’t sit right.
Another thing we’ve learned over time, and frankly are still learning, is how different seltzer production is from beer production. It’s still a fermentation, but in terms of its sensitivity to dissolved oxygen, total packaged oxygen, and all of these things that are of high concern with quality beer production, seltzer is bulletproof compared to beer. That was an unexpected benefit. The seltzer base is really not impacted, it seems, like beer, when it comes to dissolved oxygen, to movement, or to total packaged oxygen.
In our case, we list a six-month shelf life, whereas a lot of the “naturally flavored” seltzers have 12 months or possibly more. Fruit does degrade more than the base seltzer does, but after six months we found very little noticeable difference.
Compared to what the big brands are, we have color, and they don’t. It’s a striking thing that makes us different visually. The first impression is often visual, and if you pour one of these into your glass—which, unfortunately, most hardcore seltzer drinkers don’t—but if you did pour it next to one of the big multinational brands, we’ve got color.
It’s a validation of the real-fruit component. That said, we do know that you can’t abuse seltzer. We process and package it with same standards as we do with beer because the real fruit is impacted by oxygen more than the actual fermented alcohol base. When I used the term “bulletproof” earlier, I meant the base, in comparison to beer. Once you add real fruit to it, it’s more vulnerable to oxygen. But we have very tight controls in processing our brands and are able to safely achieve a six-month shelf life.
I’ll admit that we’re still learning and experimenting with how to come up with a cleaner fermentation and a more neutral base, so that the fruit does the talking, entirely. Yeast choice—the choice of strain—is very important. We have found some that, even though highly recommended by suppliers, have not given us a good result. It may be our regimen, but it’s true that a seltzer base is trickier to ferment than beer.
Beer wort has free-amino nitrogen. It has a lot of the trace nutrients that sustain a fermentation almost on its own. You don’t really need to add yeast nutrients to an all-malt wort, even though a lot of brewers do. But you absolutely need to add it to a seltzer base.
Some people add nutrients at different intervals because later in the fermentation, the yeast needs a shot of nitrogen, typically. There are various recommended sequences where you’re introducing nutrient. We have our own, which was developed over lots of trial and experimentation, and I don’t consider the experimentation done at this point.
There are time-release nutrients that help. They take away the difficulty in hitting the fermentation at the right time with another shot of nitrogen. We’re a 24/7 brewery, so we always have people onsite and available at the right time. It’s not as difficult for us as it is for smaller brewers, but in that regard, a time-release nutrient is a good option.
It is a large challenge. How do you get as clean and neutral a character as you like, with minimal amounts of sulfur and minimal fruity esters? Some of the esters can mesh quite well with certain fruits, but then they might clash with other fruits, so neutral is the way to go. It’s the holy grail.
Cleaning It Up
We centrifuge to minimize the yeast carryover and to remove some of the heavier fruit particulate. We reserve some particulate that does settle to the bottom of the can. It’s a minimal amount, but it’s there. So we have a message on our can to gently roll the can before opening—just to homogenize the mix and stir up any fruit solids on the bottom of the can. Just like you would with any juice, a gentle roll gets everything homogenized, and you’re good to go.
High-Gravity Seltzer Brewing
Brewing to a higher strength makes sense. Typically, brewers will go to 10 percent ABV, or higher, in their fermentation, then dilute 1:1 with water down to a 4.5–5 percent ABV range. You typically don’t get twice the amount of ester production if you go high gravity, so that’s another way to tamp down the amount of ester that’s produced during the fermentation. It’s also efficient—you get twice the volume out of the tank size you ferment with. We use deaeratedwater and have a deaerated system. Not a lot of small brewers have them, and for seltzer, it’s not absolutely mandatory. It’s just a good idea.
Carbonation is very important in seltzer. We have a very efficient carbonation system, and we can get the base quite cold. We have to watch it—once it has alcohol in it, it lowers the freezing point, but we can typically get ours to 29–30°F (-2°C). Cold temperature and pressure are the key parameters, and if you can hit both, there’s no reason you can’t maintain carb levels that are higher than are typical in beer. We target 3 volumes of pressure.
The Long Game
Anyone in the beer business who hasn’t accepted the fact that seltzers are here to stay, at least for a very long time, is deluding themselves. In earlier times, I thought it was a flash in the pan, and I no longer think that. I do have more of an appreciation for seltzers, knowing the kind of trials we went through to get where we are, in terms of improving our base—our overall product stability in the trade. I definitely have a newfound appreciation for the difficulty in making these seltzers consistently and keeping them stable.
As a brewer who’s been in craft beer for 30-plus years, I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in the industry. I’ve had my own personal bouts with idealism, and I do find myself—if it’s 90 degrees out (32°C), I might actually reach for one of our grapefruit seltzers before I reach for a beer, to be totally honest. It has its place.