It’s difficult to avoid hard seltzer this summer. Cans of White Claw, Truly and Vizzy tower in grocery stores throughout Clark County.
These clear, sparkling drinks feed into two trends — lower-calorie, lower-carbohydrate alcoholic beverages, and the rise of flavored sparkling water like La Croix and Bubly.
Seltzerland, a nationwide hard seltzer festival, lands in Portland in late September with more than 50 flavors produced by the big brands that have dominated sales of this sparkling beverage.
Local craft brewers can’t help but notice this bubbly beverage trend. Some are offering it in small batches at their taphouses.
“A lot of brewers are very slow to come around to them, but the market proves people want something different,” said Bolt Minister, founder and head brewer at 54˚40’ Brewing Co. in Washougal. “We wanted to do this in a way that satisfies our creative side. Let’s learn more about yeast and what we can make with it.”
Landon Smith, head brewer at Loowit Brewing, noticed a demand for this product in his taproom. He decided to make small batches of it and run a rotating tap for hard seltzer.
“If you had asked me two years ago, I wouldn’t think I would be doing this,” Smith said.
Like Minister, he wanted to craft a drink that fit within his sense of balance and flavor.
“I wanted to have a nuanced flavor and not have it taste artificial,” Smith said. “I did a little research, and it was pretty easy to make a neutral seltzer. Real fruit was the next step.”
After speaking to Minister and Smith, I headed over to their taphouses to sample craft hard seltzers. I was pleasantly surprised.
Loowit had a pineapple-mango-guava hard seltzer on tap. Tropic Thunder, a pineapple-coconut hard seltzer, was flowing at 54˚40’. Both hard seltzers were bright and fizzy, with just a hint of real fruit flavor — a nice departure from the artificial-tasting flavors of other hard seltzers.
The secret is Oregon Fruit Puree, which both brewers use. The big commercial brands use extracts that impart a stronger, less natural flavor.
At Ben’s Bottle Shop, I sampled a lightly fizzy mango-flavored hard seltzer from Three Creeks Brewing Co. in Sisters, Ore. The shop plans to keep at least one hard seltzer on tap “for now,” said owner Tim Augustin.
Three Creeks is one of the few craft brewers in the area that is canning and distributing hard seltzers. Other places such as 54˚40’ and Loowit aren’t taking the leap into canning. For now, they’re offering small batches of kegged hard seltzer while waiting to see if this trend sticks.
Ben’s Bottle Shop also carries cans, including SeekOut Hard Seltzer in blackberry lemonade, apricot or mango, and Sparkling Stillwater’s Fruit Stuff hard-seltzer smoothie in fruit punch.
“It’s definitely becoming something some consumers wanted more and more of,” said Kimberly Johnson, co-owner of Final Draft Taphouse.
Final Draft offers cans of hard seltzer, including Swift Cider’s Melon Melange and Yuzu Citrus and Sparkling Stillwater’s Fruit Stuff.
Mike DiFabio of Fortside Brewing inadvertently brewed a hard seltzerlike beverage called Rosé Gone Wild. This lower-calorie, lower-carb hybrid of wine and beer tastes even better when run through Fortside’s slushie machine and sipped through a thick straw.
Opinions split about whether hard seltzer is a fleeting trend or the next must-have beverage for taphouses. Minister of 54˚40’ feels that this clear, fizzy beverage will be a taproom requirement for a while.
“The same thing happened with hazy IPAs, and now you’re hard pressed to find a pub without hazy IPAs,” he said.
Smith of Loowit Brewing remains less certain about the inevitability of this drink.
“Right now, we’re at the peak with the hard seltzers,” he said, “Who knows where it goes? In the ’90s, Zima was a thing. Then all of a sudden, it was gone.”