A few years ago, I was at our summer place on a small island in northern Wisconsin with my niece and her gaggle of twentysomething friends. I brought what I believed to be interesting beers, both commercial and home-brewed. All the youngs wanted was something called “White Claw.” Since it’s been a few decades since I’ve been a twentysomething, I’d never heard of it.
White Claw is a hard seltzer, a descendant of what have been called “alcopops” (a portmanteau of the words alcohol and pop), like the Bartles & Jaymes stuff I consumed in college. Some of these products have been criticized for offering appeal to underage drinkers. Whether or not that applies to sweet, soda-like hard seltzers, I don’t know. Make your own judgement.
Solely for research purposes, I purchased a twelve-pack of Truly Hard Seltzer, a product of Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams beers, which are generally pretty good. I tried one. My impression was that it was a simple, overly sweet soda pop with a slight kick. I gave the spouse a taste. “Ewww. Ewww. Ewww. Ewww. ****. I can’t get that taste out of my mouth. Ewww.”
I determined to figure out the appeal of these beverages.
Explaining the Popularity of Hard Seltzers
The reasons behind the popularity of these hard seltzers include opinions that it’s better for you because it’s lower in carbs, calories and sugar (despite the sweet taste), and it’s convenient to purchase. And the only reason hard seltzers get so much retail shelf space is that liquor stores want to feature whatever fad is popular and profitable. It’s just business.
“The bull case,” Jefferies Analyst Kevin Grundy says in an interview, “is that this [hard seltzer] is the next light beer. It’s going to become that big, and it’s here to stay. The bear case is that it’s another boom-splat scenario until the next whatever comes out that gets consumers’ interest and then falls precipitously.”
Like Hard Seltzers? Consider Shandies and Radlers
In theory, shandies (beer mixed with lemonade, originally from Britain) and radlers (a half beer-half fruit soda concoction, originally from Germany) should appeal to the same tastes as do hard seltzers. They’ve been around longer, and the flavor profiles are similar to those of hard seltzers, if a bit more sophisticated. Apparently, though, hard seltzers have a better PR team than do radlers or shandies, and as is generally known, booze companies spend as much (or more) on marketing as they do in the creation of the product itself.
DryHop Brewers, Penrose Brewing Company, Spiteful Brewing, Sketchbook, Goose Island, The Hopewell Brewing Co., Off Color Brewing, Revolution Brewing, and Burnt City Brewing, among others in the area, have produced shandies or radlers. They’re usually limited-edition seasonal beers, so if you’re looking for one in a taproom, call ahead. Point is, if you’re looking for an alternative to your hard seltzer, there are a lot of local breweries making what might very well be more satisfying than your White Claw, with many of the low carb/calorie/sugar benefits.
Craft beers are about appreciating and contemplating, if only briefly, the tastes you’re experiencing. Megabeers—from companies like Anheuser-Busch, Heineken and so on—and probably hard seltzers, are better suited to the simple need to put something liquid with a slight kick in your mouth, while you focus on other, more important things, like solving global warming, or trying to flirt with that person a few seats further down at the bar.
Recently, I bought PBR on sale for thirty-seven-cents per twelve-ounce can. Most hard seltzers were $1.08 for the same size. Drinkers will have to decide for themselves if they get three times the satisfaction from the hard seltzer as compared to a megabeer; each has comparable alcohol levels.
Hard Seltzers Made in Chicago
Chicago breweries including Alulu Brewery And Pub, Crushed by Giants Brewing Company, All Rise, Lo Rez Brewery & Taproom, and Ravinia Brewing, have produced hard seltzers. For a brewery to make a hard seltzer, their license generally requires them to make only malt-based beverages. (It’s not required of many of the larger commercial producers; their licenses are different.) Local breweries tend to use something called “neutral malt base.”
Doug Hurst, a German-trained brew master, Chicago-area pioneer of craft brewing and a co-founder of Metropolitan Brewing, says about making a hard seltzer “It’s an interesting trend. It’s not in our wheelhouse. I’m not one to chase trends. But yeah, [in the Metropolitan Tap Room, on the Chicago River in Avondale] we serve a couple of hard seltzers by other manufacturers, for anyone who doesn’t want to drink beer.”
Amy Wilkinson, co-owner of Sketchbook Brewing, tells me, “We made a hard seltzer just because some people here [in the taproom] wanted it. But we’re not planning on canning it or anything.” At Sketchbook, they refer to their hard seltzer as “Secret Stuff.”
Make Your Choices, and Maybe Get a Backbone
If you really like hard seltzers, more power to you. You have the absolute right to drink what you like. No judgements (well, maybe some). You make your choices that define who you are, or how you want to be perceived.
I asked Hurst what would happen if you simply put a little fruit flavoring into a basic lager to simulate a hard seltzer, and he says, “You’d get more of the malt backbone than you get in a hard seltzer.”
So, if you, Ms. or Mr. Hard Seltzer Fan, want a backbone, try a shandy or a radler. Whatever you decide, I can tell you this: you won’t get a backbone from your hard seltzer.