Hard seltzer isn’t necessarily hard. In many ways, it’s an easier lift than beer. Yet it still requires a craft approach to make a craft product. Attach a splintered board to two logs with rusty nails, and you’ve technically got a chair, but no one’s going to line up to order eight of them for their dining room. Know what I mean?
As I’ve written in these pages before: Fermentation is fermentation. If you can make beer, you can probably make other things. Does that same logic apply to hard seltzer? Yes … and no.
On the one hand, as a brewer, you have the skills necessary to get sugar into a liquid, ferment it, flavor it, package it, and carbonate it. Plus, we’re talking about a relatively low-ABV product with few ingredients—two factors that tend to reduce the degree of difficulty. On the other hand, hard seltzer’s defining attribute is its crisp, clean character, and that can be challenging to create. That is all the more true when there are certain recipe additions and process steps necessary to ensure a clean and complete fermentation.
That context raises the specter of a product that certainly can be made at home by a competent homebrewer. It also raises a question: Do you really want to?
A scene from the Christopher Nolan film The Prestige comes to mind: A Victorian-era illusionist visits visionary engineer Nikola Tesla (played to pitch-perfection by David Bowie) seeking his assistance to produce an apparatus for a magic act. The illusionist says that he wants “something impossible.” Tesla replies, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.” As a brewer, you are almost certainly capable of making hard seltzer at home. Whether it’s too expensive to do it the way you ought to—in time, effort, or dollars—is entirely up to you. Let’s talk it through and see where you end up.
What Is Hard Seltzer?
In case anyone needs a short primer, hard seltzer is effectively sparkling water plus alcohol. Nothing too complicated: It’s water plus table sugar and/or corn sugar, fermented by yeast, and then packaged and carbonated. That’s it. Because it doesn’t contain residuals from malted barley—such as proteins or unfermented complex sugars—it’s able to offer its alcohol at a rock-bottom calorie count and in a form fit for those with gluten restrictions. It’s easy to see why a brewery might be interested. As John Stemler, co-owner and head brewer at Free Will Brewing in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, put it, “we have made it; because it is a gluten-free product, there is high demand, and it’s darn tasty.”
There. Now you know what hard seltzer is. More importantly, though, you should appreciate the challenge involved: If all you have is water, alcohol, and maybe some fruit or flavoring, then you face a stern production test. Adding flavor is almost never as hard as keeping it out. Don’t believe me? Brew an IPA, then brew a helles and tell me which takes more tries to get right. Here, we’re going several steps cleaner than that.
First, though, let’s review the basic process.
Keep It Simple
You should already know that you could make hard seltzer by adding vodka to your favorite can of flavored seltzer water, maybe with some lemon or lime juice or flavor extract thrown in—and if you didn’t know that before, now you do. Heck, you can even combine those in a keg, force-carbonate it, and voilà! Hard seltzer on tap.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can go the way of homebrew pioneer and brewery owner-operator Jamil Zainasheff, “chief heretic” of Heretic Brewing Company, and try to make the world’s greatest craft seltzer. “We went about making a true craft seltzer,” Zainasheff says. “[As with] our beer, we used the highest quality ingredients, real fruit, no added sugar. It turned out great, but it costs a lot to make.”
Speaking for myself, I believe that somewhere between those two extremes lies the truth.
First, heat some water and dissolve about 12 oz (340 g) of sugar per gallon (3.8 l) of water. Stemler recommends a 50 /50 blend of dextrose and table sugar. That amount (about 3 3/4 lb for a 5-gallon batch, or 1.7 kg for 19 liters) should give you about 5 percent ABV. That may depend on the precise sugars used; most recipe software has options for simple sugar additions, to give you a target gravity/ABV. I recommend heating your water until it just begins to steam, then taking the kettle off of the heat and stirring in the sugars. This will help you avoid scorching the sugar, which could both darken your product and add undesirable flavors. (Also note that this is a pretty “light” product in terms of initial gravity, but nearly all of those sugars will be consumed by your yeast.)
Next, give yourself a short boil—five to 10 minutes will be more than enough to sanitize your.… Wait, what do we even call this? It’s not wort. Must? Wash? Whatever. Just boil it for a few minutes. Since you’re not worrying about isomerizing alpha acids, or developing color, or caramelizing anything (the opposite, in fact), the boil is short and sweet (pun intended).
Chill, add some yeast nutrient and yeast, and you’re done! Ferment at about 68°F (20°C) for a week to 10 days, then add any desired flavorings, package, and carbonate. That will get you a relatively colorless, low-calorie, gluten-free hard seltzer.
However, making a good craft seltzer takes a bit more care.
Keep It Clean
Making seltzer is one thing. Making good, clean, crisp seltzer is another. There are at least three areas that require your attention if you want to win this particular contest: preparing the ground, selecting the right team, and cleaning up after the game.
First, prepare the ground.
If you thought honey was barren in terms of yeast nutrients, then friend, you haven’t seen anything yet. When you leave behind your malted barley and wheat, you also leave behind a lot of nutrients, especially if you start your craft seltzer with distilled or reverse-osmosis (RO) water, as some recipes direct. As a result, you have some rebuilding to do to give your yeast the tools they need to chew up that sugar and cough up our ethanol.
Luckily, homebrewers should have no problem getting their hands on the additions they need to ensure proper attenuation. What do those include? “Keep an eye on your nutrients,” Zainasheff says. “If you are using sugars—dextrose or sucrose—make sure to add FAN [free amino nitrogen], zinc, and minerals to buffer the pH.”
Zinc, Epsom salts, magnesium chloride, DAP (diammonium phosphate), sodium bicarbonate—combinations and blends abound, and most recipes will direct you to add a certain pre-formulated nutrient blend (e.g., Yeastex 82, Fermaid K) to ensure that the yeast have the necessary fuel to ferment. Whatever your instructions, you’ll probably want to stagger additions of these nutrients, much as one does for mead: As a rule of thumb, add nutrients at the boil/pitch, then twice more at 24-hour intervals.
Second, pick the right team.
The right team of yeast, that is. If you plan to add minimal flavoring to your seltzer, you’ll definitely want a clean, neutral yeast. SafAle US-05 is a popular choice, with a clean profile and wide ideal temperature range.
However, if you’re planning on a certain flavor profile, you might consider choosing a yeast that gets you leaning in that direction already. A word of warning, though: Just because a brewing yeast is noted for a certain flavor—“English yeasts produce berry-flavored esters, so that’ll be perfect for my strawberry seltzer!”—that may not be the only flavor it imparts. At the end of the day, you can make hard seltzer with just about any beer yeast, but remember that the goal is a crisp, clean product, whatever other flavors you’re adding. In beer, I advocate leaning on every ingredient that can provide your desired flavor profile, but for seltzer, you’re probably best advised to stick with neutral yeast.
Third, clean up after the game.
You don’t want to neglect those end-of-process steps such as flavor additions, clarifying/fining, and (if you have the requisite equipment) CO2 scrubbing.
When you add flavorings or flavor extracts, add to taste in small increments until you get your precise volumes and recipes dialed in. You’ll also want to use a fining agent such as isinglass or gelatin to get a bright, clear finished product—and if ever there was a great candidate for aggressive filtering, this is it, especially with no hops to clog your filter. There’s also no concern about stripping IBUs, as there might be with beer. Last, Stemler recommends one additional step to get the most out of your seltzer: “Scrub with CO2 after transferring off yeast, to drive any lingering yeast characteristics out.” Those can include sulfur, DMS, and other compounds that might hide in beer but are all too noticeable in seltzer. CO2 scrubbing is risk-free in seltzer because there are no hop aromas to drive off—a common concern with using it on beer. How to do it: With the seltzer in a keg and the lid removed, connect a gas line (set to about 3–4 psi or 0.2–0.3 bar) to the “out” post and simply bubble gas up through liquid for five minutes. These last steps will polish up your seltzer before serving.
A Place for Everything, and Everything in Its Place
I think that we must take a moment here, in conclusion, to discuss two questions raised by the boom in hard seltzer—though conveniently, they form complementary answers. First, will “craft” seltzer find a regular place in the alcoholic beverage market? And second, is it worth it to a homebrewer to produce his or her own versions?
Some adherents to a form of “craft” purity bridle at hard seltzer, either out of an abundance of respect for tradition or because it’s usually not an especially artisanal product. One brewing professional (who shall remain nameless) responded to my request for comment with the terse and sarcastic, “what is ‘craft’ seltzer?” That view is not universal, though. Stemler replies, “as long as it’s being created with quality, I’m fine with whatever,” noting further that sloppy production is a far greater concern as the industry competes with wine and cocktails for customers.
Others—such as Tim Ohst, head of brewery operations at Sly Fox in Pottstown, Pennsylvania—say they think that seltzer will find a place but that individual purveyors will face a challenge in building a loyal audience. “I’m sure some small-scale producer will hit on a unique flavor concoction or clever marketing idea and have success,” Ohst says, “but in general I don’t believe there’s enough of a differentiation between ‘craft’ and ‘mass-produced’ hard seltzer in the eyes of the consumer to have them identify with the brand.”
Zainasheff has a grimmer outlook. “Seltzer will get cheaper and cheaper on the shelves,” he says. “There are huge players positioning for battle, and the consumer will not see the value of higher-priced options. Seltzer will stick around for a number of years, but the drive to make it cheaper, and the success of that drive, will eventually doom it to the trendy—but not good—pile of failures.”
This brings us to the second question: Is it worth it to make your own hard seltzer at home? If these predictions are correct, then I believe it drives us to a logical conclusion: Yes, you should try it. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for my money (and time), this is a skill worth having. Amid competition and price pressures, there is good reason to believe that better hard seltzer will become increasingly difficult to find on store shelves.
It’s exactly that sort of situation that led homebrewing to become popularized in the first place. Thirteen years ago, I started brewing because a beer that I loved was no longer being exported to the United States, so I decided to make it for myself.
If we want high-quality, artisanal hard seltzer, we will probably need to shift for ourselves—and we need not do it the easy way.
Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com