For the craft beer-minded consumer, picking up a 12-pack of hard seltzer is not necessarily top of mind before heading out to a friend's party. But, once you arrive there, it's hard not to notice that coolers are brimming with flavored, clear, alcoholic water.
Earlier this summer, Christian McMahan, the president of Wachusett Brewing Company in Massachusetts, in an interview with Craft Beer and Brewing's Brewing Industry Guide, talked about why his company moved into the hard-seltzer game with their Nauti Seltzer brand. He said that it's a natural progression that brought us to this point, starting in the 1990s with Zima, MillerCoors's citrus-flavored, crystal-clear malt beverage, which is coming back this summer for a limited time. From there, other beer alternatives came to market (think Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer), and then cider exploded and faded, and hard soda became the hot new thing. Now it's seltzer.
"It's the hockey stick analogy; it can fall off quickly. So, we don't chase everything," McMahan told the Brewing Industry Guide. "We see what fits for us, and this is a natural place for us to spend some time."
So, is this a place for you, the homebrewer, to spend some time? And is the result worth it?
The answers are likely "yes" and "maybe."
I spoke with Caleb Goodrich, the head brewer at Wachusett, about what it takes to make hard seltzer at home. He offered up a few tips and suggestions.
"Don't," he says with a laugh. "From a homebrewing perspective, it's exceedingly challenging."
But, we know you're curious and have your home system that is ready for anything and an active social life in which you'll be even more popular when you show up with some fizzy boozy water in tow. So, let's take a look at how you can achieve hard seltzer at home.
There are two ways to make the boozy concoction. The first is to make a sugar brew. For five gallons (19 l), you mix sugar, water, and a clean-fermenting yeast, says Goodrich. The biggest problem he sees is that unless you have a very sophisticated reverse-osmosis (RO) system and a filtration system at home, the resulting alcohol will likely have a white-wine note to it. Once you carbonate it, it won't have the completely clear taste that comes with pure seltzer.
"It has background noise to it, and you want it to be flavorless," he says. "You don't want flavors competing with that."
We'll come back to this in a moment.
The other way to make alcoholic seltzer is to blend: Take a clear spirit, such as vodka or Everclear, and mix it with water until you hit the 4.5-6% ABV range, where most of the commercial hard seltzers fall.
"It's straightforward math once you know your base alcohol," says Goodrich. Then carbonate to 3 volumes of C02 because you want the strong fizz, which adds to the overall mouthfeel and experience.
Let's be honest, though. If we're drinking hard seltzer-homemade or not-we want flavoring. The commercial versions come in all manner of fruit combinations from lime and coconut to blueberry lemonade.
There are a number of ways you can infuse the flavors into your homebrewed hard seltzer. First, if you went the sugar-brew route, try to find flavors, such as pear, that will boost those white-wine characteristics. The best way is to cold-steep the fruit before carbonation.
If you're doing the blend, there are a number of ways to achieve flavoring. One all-too-simple way is to use flavored vodka. There's seemingly every flavor available, from birthday cake to cinnamon plus any kind of fruit your heart desires.
Another way is to cold-steep the fruits or flavors of your choice in the alcohol before blending. You can experiment with ratios by practicing with single cups in advance. Steeping in alcohol also helps to kill any stray bugs that might be hanging out on your additional ingredients.
Or, you can let your company choose their own flavorings. Mix up a batch of plain hard seltzer and then offer a variety of fresh fruits and spices that guests can add to their cups before pouring in the liquid.
It's always best to use fresh ingredients (unless you're doing the flavored-vodka thing) so that you get a truly natural taste because many of the fruit-flavored syrups available on the market can leave your beverage with an overly sweet sensation.
When it comes to flavoring, no matter how you get it into your drink, Goodrich warns that "a little bit goes a long way." It's always best to shoot for under when it comes to additions. You can always add more later, but starting off small means your taste buds won't be overpowered."