Brewing, Cideries & Spirits  October 2, 2019

Hard-seltzer brewing spikes in region

Hard seltzer was supposed to be a female-targeted drink. Gluten free, lower-alcohol, lower calorie count.

At least that’s the idea Nick Shields, manager of a small beer brand in Connecticut, got in 2012 while watching five women order five vodka-sodas at a dive bar. “What if,” he thought, “I could brew something as light, simple, and clear but with a moderate alcohol level? Something bubbly, refreshing, low-sugar, and with natural flavors? Something that tasted like sparkling water? It was so simple, yet it did not exist.”

Late that year, in his Westport, Connecticut, garage, Shields created SpikedSeltzer, the original brand of alcoholic sparkling water. Seven years later, according to a report from Nielsen Media Research, nationwide sales of alcohol-infused seltzers have grown to nearly $488 million in annual sales, and breweries in the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado are joining the nationwide race to come up with their own brands and flavors.

Among the offerings on local store shelves are multiple flavors of Boulder-based Upslope Brewing’s Spiked Snowmelt, Longmont-based Oskar Blues’ Wild Basin and Colorado Spiked Seltzer from Windsor-based High Hops’ Heart Distillery. Other area brewers, including Verboten in Loveland, Odell in Fort Collins and Soul Squared in Wellington, have their own creations on tap and are likely to jump into the retail market. Westminster Brewing Co. reopened its taproom doors on May 3 and offered a hard seltzer in prickly pear flavor.

Although more women than men are buying hard seltzers, brewers and retailers alike have been surprised by the number of men scooping up the slim 12-ounce cans of fruity bubbliness as well. One recent night in Longmont, a tall man dressed in camo strode purposefully into Hover Crossing Wine and Spirits and grabbed a box containing three different flavors of Snowmelt — Tangerine & Hops, Pomegranate & Acai, and Juniper & Lime — from a cooler. “I love to take it on camping and fishing trips,” he explained. “It’s light, it’s refreshing, and it doesn’t weigh me down.”

“Sales would be maybe not quite equal, but men are drinking them,” noted Jeff Matson, beer buyer for Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins. Derek Ridge, beer manager for Hazel’s Beverage World in Boulder, concurred, noting that “a little more of the women are buying it, but the guys are on it, too. I’d say it’s about 60/40.”

Chicago-based market leader White Claw has taken note, posting testosterone-tinged slogans such as “Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws.”

That unexpectedly broad appeal is among the factors that has catapulted hard seltzers to sudden popularity that startled brewers and liquor stores alike — up to 5 percent of the total beer market, which Kyle Ingram called “a pretty insane statistic.

“We didn’t fully grasp at the time how big it would be,” said Ingram, vice president for marketing at CANarchy, the collective that includes Oskar Blues.

How’s this for insane? Some retailers have indicated that White Claw is outselling beers such as Bud Light, Coors Light and Heineken. In early September, White Claw, owned by Mark Anthony Brands, which also owns Mike’s Hard Lemonade, confirmed that the seltzer was selling so well that the brewer faced a nationwide shortage.

Ridge has watched with amazement as hard seltzers have spiked to 10 percent of Hazel’s total beer sales.

“It was crazy,” he said. “Last fall it started to catch on. We had it on two shelves, and all of a sudden we had to move it around and give it more space. It’s still expanding. We’ve had to organize the whole full-wheel shelves to give it more space, more depth. Before, we had them on single shelves and now they’re on the rollers. We started putting the Upslope hard seltzer with the other Upslope stuff; now we’re trying to get them together so they’re easier to find.

“Upslope Snowmelt is selling amazing. It’s one of our top sellers behind White and Truly.

“Shelf space is the other issue, so we’re adjusting things as we go.”

Hazel’s first experience with hard seltzer was Truly in single bottles, nearly three years ago, Ridge said, “and we said, ‘What is this stuff?’ It wasn’t bad, but some of these things we say, ‘Aw, it isn’t going to last.’ Now I wish I had stock in it.”

Hard seltzer has become so mainstream so quickly that on Memorial Day, runners finishing the BOLDERBoulder marathon had the choice of a post-race beer or a can of Wild Basin. Spiked seltzers also have joined the beer fare offered at Taste of Fort Collins for the second year.

On Sept. 14, Denver hosted Fizz Fight, the first-ever festival dedicated to hard seltzer. The fizzy favorite drew a crowd of seltzer fans to pony up $33.45 apiece to taste more than 20 varieties at the event that mimicked the Great American Beer Festival.

Oskar Blues was among the first in the region to ride the wave.

“Wild Basin was introduced in late 2018,” Ingram said. “We felt like it would bring some younger drinkers into the Oskar Blues portfolio, and it was female targeted from the start. We were really targeting a January 2019 launch, and originally just in Colorado. But not only did the hard-seltzer market show positive trends, but we realized we’d recreated an amazing brand.

“We got into the market at a time where most every craft beer is coming out with its own hard seltzer, but we were the first ones to really say, ‘This is from a craft brewery.’ We got out there before some of the other craft breweries.”

The far-and-away sales leaders are White Claw and Boston Beer Co’s Truly brands, but Ingram said Oskar Blues wanted Wild Basin to be different in several ways.

“If you picked up a can of Truly, you wouldn’t find Boston Beer on the can,” he said, “but we felt it was advantageous to us to be up front with the Oskar Blues branding. And look at White Claw’s packaging: predominantly white in color. We wanted to take a different approach. Bright and vibrant. Different colors you see when you look at the Colorado mountains.”

Wild Basin comes from those mountains, named for the drainage at the southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park from which springs the South St. Vrain River, Oskar Blues’ water source. That water is why it’s only brewed in Oskar Blues’ Longmont facility, and is so important to Oskar Blues that it’s donating $1 per case of Wild Basin to its charity partner, the Can’d Aid Foundation, to support initiatives that preserve the river as well as river and beach cleanups around the country.

Another difference from White Claw, Ingram said, is that Wild Basin is sugar fermented, not malt-based.

“We experimented with a lot of other processes. Sugar turned out to be a cleaner, high-quality taste. The resulting product has zero grams of sugar because it ferments out, so we were happier with the nutritional profile.”

That process posed challenges, though, Ingram said. “Working with that much sugar brings in potential contaminants that can infiltrate the brewery. So it’s work getting that clarity, making sure our flavors aren’t too overpowering. It’s definitely an art to make this product.

“We were also drawn to flavor combinations, many ingredients that are a little unexpected, a little more adventurous” with flavors such as lemon agave hibiscus, cucumber peach and the black raspberry version it introduced this summer.

“Innovation is how we got here, and we’re going to continue to innovate,” Ingram said.

In Windsor, High Hops Brewing’s Heart Distillery uses its craft vodka as a base, plus Rocky Mountain water, real fruit and a touch of organic cane sugar. Its Colorado Spiked Seltzer currently is available in cans with flavors such as organic lemon, tangerine and key lime. High Hops’ marketing encourages imbibers to either “drink it right from the can as a hard seltzer or use it as a mixer to make a delicious cocktail.”

The brand is available on draft in High Hops’ tasting room, as well as in six-packs there and throughout Colorado. The brewer plans to introduce flavor variety packs in November.

Although Odell’s current focus remains on creating a winery, said Alex Kayne, its director of marketing, seltzers have sparked interest because “we’ve made a commitment to explore gluten-free options so we have beverages available that all folks can enjoy. We are out here to build community.

“We have one line in our brewery dedicated to being gluten-free — seltzer or beer,” Kayne said. In Odell’s tap room, “we don’t have a seltzer out all the time; otherwise, it’s a gluten-free beer.”

Skinny Dip from New Belgium, pictured on sale at Wilbur’s Total Beverage World in Fort Collins. Dallas Heltzell / for BizWest

Odell introduced its third hard seltzer, Eddy Mule, in June. Its first was a lemon-lime flavor it called Zest last November, just as Verboten was coming out with its own brand.

“One of our key tenets is creativity,” said Verboten’s co-owner, Angie Grenz, “so last fall, what we just wanted to do was something that might be new or different. We started thinking about hard seltzer, so we first reached out to the Colorado Brewers Guild because we were pretty sure it was OK to do it under our license but we were trying to be sure. They said we were the first to ask them that and got back and said yes.”

Verboten started by offering in its taproom a mojito-inspired hard seltzer collaboration with Kure’s non-alcoholic ginger beer.

“The first batch didn’t sell that fast and sat around awhile,” Grenz admitted. “We thought the holidays would be the most popular time for it, but it wasn’t. It was a slow mover at first, but we still wanted a great option for anybody on a keto diet, who wanted low carb, low sugar, or just people who came in with their significant other who was drinking beer and we didn’t have anything to offer them.”

By May, she said, “all of a sudden, wildfire! Verboten’s hard seltzer “skyrocketed in popularity. Since then, we got requests a lot. We sold them out to our restaurants and bars too — and yes, surprisingly, a lot of men were buying them. We’ve even been contacted by several magazines to be interviewed, so that’s awesome.

“Beer’s a little heavy, so for the summertime it’s a great option. You can have two or three and still function. Beer’s lowest ABV is 5 percent to 6½ or 7, whereas seltzers are 4½ to 5 percent.”

Next up, she said, is to sell it in cans.

“We’re getting the labels printed up right now,” she said, and we’re looking at early to mid-November for a release date. It’s a black cherry flavor we’re calling Forbidden Water. Watermelon’s our most popular flavor, and that’ll come out next summer.”

Grenz said supplies might be limited at first, however.

“Several breweries canned them faster than we can do. It’s difficult getting tank space. It’s faster to brew but just as long a fermenter for us. It still ties up the tanks, so getting it into our cycle and getting them canned takes longer.”

Clarity isn’t as important as flavor, she said. “We use all-natural fruit purees, not like an extracted fruit flavor. So it’s not always crystal clear, but we appreciate the better aroma we’re getting.

“What we put on our cans is ‘Prepared without gluten.’ There’s no preservatives. Ours is just purified carbonated water, dextrose, natural flavor and yeast.”

What’s next for the burgeoning hard-seltzer industry?

“We’re just watching the trends, looking at data, trying to understand where consumers are going, how they’re living their lives,” said CANarchy’s Ingram. “There’s a lot of people getting in now, but at some point there’ll be some attrition.”

But in Colorado, perhaps the next phase is inevitable: cannabis. Longmont-based Left Hand Brewing in August started canning CBD-infused Present sparkling water in three places. It’s a collaboration with Berthoud-based WAAYB Organics, which operates a hemp farm.

Hard seltzer was supposed to be a female-targeted drink. Gluten free, lower-alcohol, lower calorie count.

At least that’s the idea Nick Shields, manager of a small beer brand in Connecticut, got in 2012 while watching five women order five vodka-sodas at a dive bar. “What if,” he thought, “I could brew something as light, simple, and clear but with a moderate alcohol level? Something bubbly, refreshing, low-sugar, and with natural flavors? Something that tasted like sparkling water? It was so simple, yet it did not exist.”

Late that year, in his Westport, Connecticut, garage, Shields created…

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