The biggest trend in brewing doesn't involve tarty sour ales or creamy double stout. It's all about releasing a fizzy, boozy water. The summer of hard seltzer is coming.
"It's possible that over the next few years, we could be producing more seltzer than beer," says Josh Uljans, co-founder of Moon Dog Brewing in Melbourne. "We think they could be absolutely huge in Australia."
Hard seltzer is essentially sparkling, flavoured, alcoholic water, produced through fermentation or mixed with spirit. Nielsen data shows US seltzer sales increased by 226 per cent in 2019, driven by millennials after approachable, "better for me" beverages. The first hard seltzer to become widely available in Australia was Quincy, launched by drinks giant Lion in November.
A seltzer generally contains around half the kilojoules of a standard ready-to-drink "alcopop" and around 10 per cent of the sugar. Many have a lower alcohol content than beer or pre-mixed spirit products. too.
"As soon as we announced we were releasing a seltzer, nutrition-related questions started flooding our social media," says Sam Hambour, co-owner of Melbourne brewery Hop Nation, which launched its 'Ray hard seltzers nationally on Friday.
"Unlike beer, people really wanted to know about energy content, carbohydrates and whether 'Ray was gluten-free. This is a completely new market for us."
For an Australian brewery keen to enter the ready-to-drink market, hard seltzers only require a small investment in extra equipment and resources. And because many hard seltzers are brew-based like beer, they attract around 40 per cent less tax than spirit-based competitors such as the Vodka Cruiser.
At least 12 more seltzer brands have hit the Australian market since Quincy was launched, including releases from Stone & Wood, Carlton United, and Dad and Dave's Brewing in Brookvale, Sydney.
"Over the past few years the beer market has become more saturated, so we're looking at ways to grow our brand and build a portfolio of different drinks," says Dad and Dave's co-founder, David Dumay.
With his brother James, Dumay created the Wildspirit Distilling brand last year which features lines of gin and alcoholic sparkling water. "The spirits are aimed at a different market than traditional beer drinkers, so we didn't want to group them in with the Dad and Dave brand," he says.
Wildspirit "Alcoholic Sparkling Water" (there's no mention of "seltzer" on the label) is available in flavours such as mango, passionfruit and lime. Dumay uses a grain-based spirit for the drink instead of a brew-base.
"We tried making seltzers with a brewed base, as they're better tax-wise, but found it hard to achieve the flavour and texture we were after. We wanted to create a product that presented like sparkling water in the glass with a similar mouth feel."
While Wildspirits alcoholic water is sold in standard-issue 375ml tins, many hard seltzers are released in thin cans, usually white or pastel. "They look like the kind of thing made for drinking in a polo shirt on a yacht," says Chris Hysted-Adams, customer experience manager for Moon Dog.
The Melbourne brewery will release its first line of hard seltzers in October, and Hysted-Adams hopes the can design and flavours will appeal to a wide market.
"We're going to release them in a classic Aussie six-pack format, with nostalgic flavours inspired by Weiss Bars, Splice ice-blocks, and strawberries-and-cream lollies. Most seltzers are targeted at 'bro culture' and millennials, which we find kind of boring. We want them to be something everyone can get behind."
Seltzer Taste Test
Not all seltzers are created equal, even within the same company. 15 flavours were tasted across five brands and the majority were comparable with a bland, diet soft drink. One had the aroma of Orange Power spot cleaner. There were, however, a few standout spiked sparklings.
White Claw, Mango, 4.5% ABV
In partnership with Lion, leading US seltzer brand White Claw is coming to Australia in October. The local version has a slightly lower alcohol content than the American original, but otherwise the recipe remains the same. Refreshing stuff, although the fizz falls away quickly. 418kJ per 355ml serve; $23.99 per four-pack.
'Ray, Peach, 4.5% ABV
There's a bellini vibe to Hop Nation's peachy brew-based drop, and the carbonation is more integrated than White Claw. The most "sessionable" seltzer tasted, suited for lazy spring afternoons. 360kJ per 330ml serve; $20 per four-pack.
Quincy, Passionfruit, 4.0% ABV
Produced through rice fermentation, Quincy's passionfruit number tastes like sake mixed with West Coast Cooler. This isn't as bad as it sounds. Rich on the palate and best served over ice. 550kJ per 300ml serve; $20 per four-pack.
Wildspirits, Royal Raspberry, 3.5% ABV
Nice one, Dad and Dave's. Seltzers from the brewery's distillery taste similar to a standard spirit pre-mix, but without the cloying chemical sweetness. Plus, you can actually pick up real fruit flavours. 366kJ per 375ml serve; $24.95 per four-pack.
Sunly Seltzer, Ginger and Lemon, 4.0% ABV
Brewed in Byron Bay by the Stone & Wood team, Sunly is made with gluten-free sorghum and if herbal tea was fizzed in a SodaStream, it might taste like this. Ginger-forward and good for drinking in the backyard with cricket on the radio. 407kJ per 300mL serve; $17.99 per four-pack.