Love them or hate the very idea, hard seltzers are here to stay—at least until the Next Big Thing comes along. They’re here for several reasons. First, they were consciously created to suit a general trend toward healthier alcoholic drinks. With their transparent spritziness and lightness in alcohol and calories, seltzers deliver on this request. Second, they’re the “my own” drink for a chunk of the younger drinking-age generation. Additionally, there has been a decades-long trend in candy, snacks, and other products toward ever more explosive “hyper” flavors, delivering more intensity than conventional ingredients can.
Seltzers seemed to come from nowhere, but they’re just the shiny new thing in an evolution of wine coolers and flavored malt beverages going back decades: Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler (E & J Gallo, 1981), the lemon-lime Zima (Coors, 1991), Mike’s Hard Lemonade (1999), as well as numerous spirits-branded variations such as Smirnoff Ice. Mike’s parent company Mark Anthony Brands launched the first and biggest of the alcoholic seltzer brands with White Claw in 2016. Numerous market forces are driving this development: spirits makers and winemakers trying to grab a chunk of the beer market; brewers fighting back at those attempts; and flavored malt beverage makers just trying to find the next big thing.
“Seltzer” as a category term is only a slight stretch, since they’re usually lightly sweetened, but at a far lower rate than sodas, ranging from zero carbs to five per 12-ounce serving. While some are produced using at least some brewing ingredients, many are not. For brewers, they’ve been contentious. Does this fit our mission? Is it crazy to invest in a market already dominated by huge players? Can we bring anything to this fizzy party?
The Clear Not-Beer
Seltzer production is not terribly complex or expensive. Simply blending down industrial ethanol would be the cheapest way to make the base, but U.S. alcohol tax codes strongly discourage this with a high $13.50 per proof gallon (100 proof or 50 percent alcohol) rate on spirits. Beer, meanwhile, is taxed at only $3.50 to $18 per 31-gallon barrel, depending on production volume. But there is a sneaky loophole: For finished products that contain less than 6 percent ABV, spirits may be used as 49 percent of the product’s alcohol content as part of a product’s “flavoring,” so there is a cheap and easy way to get almost half of the alcohol in the tank.
The rest of the alcohol is created by fermentation, most typically of sugar. Another regulatory loophole states that beer must be brewed from malt, but it allows malt substitutes—basically anything one could use to cook up a batch of prison hooch, sugar being first on the list. Until recently, at least 25 percent of the alcohol in malt beverages had to come from malt, but this is no longer the case. So, typically, a brewery making hard seltzer will make up a strong-ish batch of sugar beer, add a ton of yeast nutrient to compensate for the missing malt, and ferment away.
Fermentation, of course, adds flavors—not all of which are desirable in these soda pop–like beverages. To remove those, along with any unwanted haze, the “beers” are first filtered conventionally, then put through a carbon filtration process that strips away any remaining color or flavor components. The resulting base is diluted with deionized and deoxygenated water to its blending strength. It’s pretty insipid at this point, but it’s supposed to be a blank canvas for the flavoring to come.
Here arises a problem, though. We hardly know what real fruit tastes like anymore. If your reference point is the gorgeous, plumped up, mostly imported fruit in grocery stores—talkin’ to you, strawberry—there’s very little aroma to be had. Jam is nice, but its cooking process changes the fruit’s flavor quite dramatically. Candy is a sad imitation. To get actual fruit flavor into your mouth, you need to wait for the right season, hit the farmer’s market, and savor every juicy, expensive bite as you replenish your vocabulary enough to last you through the rest of the barren year.
So, for whatever reason, most of us have a patchy understanding of what a genuine fruit tastes like. Some are pretty robust and specific. Raspberries and passion fruit always seem true to themselves, no matter the source. Others, such as blueberries, are supersubtle and only rarely deliver their delicious essence in processed form. Strawberries are highly complex, requiring a blend of many disparate aroma elements, including fruity (pineapple, banana), caramelly, sulfury, coconuty, floral (rose, citrus blossom), and butyric (parmesan cheese).
These days our point-of-reference is more along the lines of Sour Patch Kids—in the land of unreality. Boosted by cheap, artificial ingredients, plenty of sugar, and unnatural levels of acidity, the flavors of candies and slushies have become the norm for many people. Some are what the flavor experts call a “fantasy flavor.” Blue raspberry is a notable example. It doesn’t exist in nature. At all. It’s basically a less acidic raspberry-ish base with a good deal of a flavor chemical called benzyl alcohol, which gives it a round hint of bitter almonds and cherries. Green apple, fruit punch, and bubble gum are similarly elusive flavors. Some flavors, such as watermelon, are so subtle and vulnerable to decay that they must be built from scratch into something people will accept as worthy of the name.
This high expectation of flavor potency—along with a limited experience with the real things—creates a balancing act for flavorists, who must meet the expectation of real fruit (whatever that is these days) with the intensity that drinkers enjoy. Seltzer flavors can be much more grown up and sophisticated, with mixtures such as pear-elderflower, blueberry, and açai, along with the more common watermelon and grapefruit.
The Dark Art
There are two main working methods for formulating fruit flavorings, largely depending on the expected volume of the product. Small breweries can request samples of stock flavor extracts from flavor houses and try them out in a neutral base, carefully pipetting in specific quantities and keeping track of the formula. It’s also important to control the quantities and types of sugar and acidity added, as these will profoundly affect the overall flavor once they hit the mouth. The goal is to manage both the intensity of the flavoring and its character, looking for your own unique spin as well as the familiar flavors people are seeking. It’s challenging for established breweries to find their voice in this new landscape of seltzer.
Larger brands get their chosen flavor house much more involved, presenting them with a target description and letting them do their thing—trying a wide range at first, then narrowing the focus with some back-and-forth, sometimes with consumer testing involved. Often the arrangement with the flavor house is that it will fund the development work, but it will also keep its formula secret, so you must purchase the flavor extract from them. These formulas can be quite complex; one strawberry formula I saw had more than 50 chemicals in it. And this is the norm. Generally, these flavorings are rarely simple extractions of pure fruit but are a mix of various individual chemicals and sometimes essential oils. For unfamiliar flavors, it’s common to run the target source through a gas chromatograph to separate its flavor into molecular components, creating a list of potential ingredients to start with. However, every aroma compound has a different intensity, and smells are almost never the simple sum of their components, so this approach has its limitations.
More sophisticated approaches employ principal-component analysis to identify which—among hundreds of odor-active chemicals in a natural aromatic object such as fruit—is an essential contributor to its aromatic profile. It’s a labor-intensive process that involves determining odor-activity values, mathematical modeling, and repeated reblending and testing. A version of this process, dubbed “sensomics,” generated serious press a few years back for narrowing down chocolate’s 600 odor-active chemicals to just 24, none of which tastes anything like chocolate.
Nature’s Fine Print
Is any of this natural? It really depends on how you understand the meaning of the term, as there is no precise definition. The U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau that regulates alcohol and its labeling is fairly picky about the line between natural and artificial flavorings—but there are some loopholes, especially for the addition of artificial ingredients in very small quantities, and for certain chemicals such as vanillin.
Even some single molecules can be absolutely natural if they’re extracted from natural materials or processes. Essential oils from botanical ingredients can be refined further into molecular components. Gamma-decalactone and other similarly peachy flavor molecules may be refined from wild and cultured fermentations. Genetically modified microorganisms can do this quite efficiently, but consumer pushback has kept this fairly limited.
Once the flavor has been developed, there’s little more to do but blend the seltzer to the desired alcohol level and add the flavoring, sweetener, and acidity. Even at the low levels at which it is typically used, sugar is still fermentable. Pasteurization is the preferred choice for preventing this, as fermentation-inhibiting ingredients are either ineffective or, like potassium sorbate, require explicit labeling that is undesirable from a marketing point of view.
Seltzers aren’t profound or serious, nor do they have to be. Sometimes all you want is a bit of mindless beachy fun, and for this they really hit the spot. Dive in and ponder that flavor … at least until the next big thing comes along.