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‘It’s made us better brewers’: Hard seltzer water is gaining in popularity among younger drinkers

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 13, 2019, 3:59 p.m.

No-Li Brewhouse owner John Bryant would like to think he saw the writing on the wall, but it was actually the keen eye of his 24-year-old daughter.

Her bright idea: brew and sell hard seltzer water – the kind that looks and tastes much like the non-alcoholic ones with funny sounding French names. After all, the cool kids are doing it.

“It’s been a labor of love,” said Bryant, who started brewing the low-calorie beverage in March. “But it’s made us better brewers.”

Bryant’s plunge into the world of low-calorie, sugar-free, carbonated alcoholic water isn’t lonely. For the past few springs and summers, the bubbly cocktail has been swallowing up a sizable chunk of beer and wine market share nationwide, and, more importantly, it has found itself in the hands of young, health-focused, thirsty connoisseurs.

In recent weeks, the drink has carved out about 4% to 5% of the nation’s total beer sales in dollar terms, said Bart Watson, the chief economist at the Brewers Association based in Boulder, Colorado. That’s up from about 1% in 2018, according to Nielsen data, which showed a 0.1% decrease in U.S. beer dollar sales in 2017.

“This year is on another level in terms of sales and growth,” Watson said. “The success last year really laid the groundwork for people to plan bigger this year.”

While brands such as White Claw and Truly have been a staple in grocery stores since 2016 – and Bon and Viv Hard Seltzer three years before – Watson said the trend didn’t take off until last spring, around the time national and craft brewers began to take serious notice.

Earlier this year, Anheuser-Busch re-branded Bon and Viv Spiked Seltzer after acquiring it in 2016. The can’s new design is trendy and slick, with a heavy dose of white and bright colors, with flavors such as cranberry and grapefruit – the type consumers have come to expect in carbonated water.

Anheuser-Busch even cemented the redesign with a Super Bowl commercial featuring – what else – 20- to 30-something-year-old mermaids.

Yes, the beer company was marketing its non-beer on one of the nation’s largest beer-drinking Sundays.

“They’re very popular with the young market,” said No-Li brew master Ryan Bookhart. “I think there’s definitely a shift. I don’t know if it’s going to hold, or if it is just a phase, but it’s here for now.”

Though the entire package is clearly targeted toward younger female drinkers – the ideal demographic being women ages 21 to 34 – Watson and others say the drink is enjoyed by all ages and genders, especially the health-conscious consumers.

Unlike most beers, which can have about 250 to 300 calories per 16-ounce glass, hard seltzers typically fall in at about 100 calories, give or take.

And many are completely sugar free, unlike beer, though some do add in the sweet stuff for a bit of flavor. Same goes for craft cocktails – many of them are pumped full of sugar.

On top of that, hard seltzers are gluten free, with a 5% alcohol by volume.

“There is a trend among millennials of ‘quote unquote drinking healthier,’” said Chris Swersey, the manager of the World Beer Cup competition held every two years. “Whatever that means.”

Taste and presentation wise, they’re about on par with a La Croix or Bubbly sparkling water, which have exploded in popularity the past few years. La Croix specifically is enjoying a sparkling-water renaissance, having recently expanded to 21 flavors. In 2004, there were six.

The clear hard beverage usually has a hint of flavor, depending on the particular variety, that leads to a crisp – if not somewhat bitter – finish.

And the alcohol? You can hardly tell it’s there.

“It’s kind of interesting,” said Mike Magee, owner of the recently opened River Rock Taphouse on Sprague Avenue and Monroe Street downtown. “It has really good flavor, but then it misses that sugary component.”

Magee, whose tap house has more than 30 handles, said he became enamored with hard seltzer after getting requests from customers this summer during their soft opening.

After reading into it, he decided to install one for a trial run. Before long, the drink’s popularity convinced him to give it a go as part of the regular rotation, making River Rock one of the only tap rooms in Spokane to pour it directly from a keg.

As of last week, it was a San Juan Huckleberry Seltzer from Seattle, a slightly purple seltzer with a strong punch of huckleberry.

“The whole thing kind of caught me off guard,” he said. “Hard seltzer water is taking off in popularity.”

In May, Trent N Dale Pub at 8721 E. Trent Ave. in Millwood also started serving a hard seltzer – the first in the Spokane area, according to owner Cody Lus. He, too, went with a huckleberry flavor, this time from Big Sky Brewing in Montana.

While it’s been popular on tap, Lus said the real secret to the seltzer’s success was found when they started using it as a mixer in a vodka press, swapping the soda water for a more flavorful, berry-like alternative.

“It’s delicious,” Lus said. “That’s a hot seller.”

Around the same time No-Li began experimenting with a cherry and huckleberry flavor of hard seltzer, Davon Sjostrom of Summit Cider Company in Coeur d’Alene, too, was hard at work on a variety of his own.

This spring he unveiled Current Strong Seltzer offering blood orange and raspberry flavors. Pineapple is soon to follow.

As someone already clued into the re-surging cider category, Sjostrom said it was easy to spot the hard seltzer trend and get in on the ground floor.

“I noticed it took more and more slots at the grocery store, and those slots were empty a lot,” Sjostrom said. “People were really buying it up. It just made sense.”

In fact, this week Anheuser-Busch InBev unveiled another seltzer to the world, this one a health-obsessed college student’s dream: Natural Light Seltzer, in mango and peach, and cherry and lime. The 130-calorie, 6% alcohol-by-volume drink should hit stores in the coming weeks.

“This is not a fad,” Ricardo Marques, vice president of Core and Value Brands at Anheuser-Busch, said to CNN on Saturday. “This is here to stay.”

And as far as brewing goes, the clear beverage requires much of the same equipment a brewery or cidery already has in stock, though the process uses completely different ingredients.

Mostly, it’s water, sugar and yeast, finished with a touch of fruit or extract. And a lot of filtering. A lot of filtering. By the time it’s ready to drink, the yeast has completely eaten the sugar, turning it all into alcohol and with no residual sweetness.

Trend continuing, that could mean more seltzers across Spokane’s many breweries, said No-Li owner Bryant, who added that while his beverage has seen promising numbers in spring and summer, its lasting power in winter is yet to be seen.

The only other hurdle? Normalizing the process of ordering a seltzer on tap at a bar or brewery, sans can.

“That’s going to take a little while,” said Sjostrom. “(Customers) really aren’t used to asking for it on tap.”

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