Maine brewers are finally admitting what consumers have known now for years: hard seltzer is no mere fad.
In 2016, craft beer brewers were understandably skeptical about hard seltzer’s potential. Most are too young to remember Coors’ unpalatable “clear beer,” Zima, in the 1990s, let alone the rise and ignominious fall of wine coolers in the ’80s, but they have coexisted with other competing alcoholic beverages. Cider has enjoyed steady growth, and flavored malt beverages like Twisted Tea and Mike’s Hard Lemonade have their loyal drinkers, but neither claimed too much of beer’s market share. Spiked Seltzer hit the market in 2013, but didn’t take over much space in the beer aisles of grocery stores. So why worry?
In retrospect, three developments in 2016 were good reasons for brewers to worry. First, Mark Anthony Brands, purveyors of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, introduced a line of hard seltzers called White Claw. Second, Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams, Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard Cider, introduced Truly Hard Seltzer. Third, AB-InBev, the parent company of Budweiser, bought the Spiked Seltzer brand.
Still, who could have guessed hard seltzer could sustain 200 percent growth for the next few years? If someone claims they knew how big it would get, ask them why they didn’t buy Boston Beer stock (NYSE: SAM) at $160 a share in 2016, since the share price is now over $1,000. If they then tell you they did but that stock, tell them the next round of Trulys is on them.
By February 2020, Maine brewers recognized the threat. At the New England Craft Beer Summit, no one was preoccupied with the looming pandemic that would close all their tasting rooms two weeks later. But keynote speaker Rob Tod, the founder of Allagash Brewing, admonished his peers to make seltzer if they chose — just not to call it beer.
Breweries like Island Dog, in South Portland, did just that. Having seltzer on tap allowed guests who avoid gluten, or who just don’t like beer, to enjoy a light, bubbly alternative with their beer-drinking friends. Thresher’s Brewing, in Searsmont, Bangor’s 2 Feet Brewing, and Horn Run Brewing, in Eastport, have put hard seltzer on tap, but, like Island Dog, have not yet packaged it.
Other Maine breweries have begun canning their hard seltzers. Brunswick’s Moderation Brewing introduced Puttin’ On The Spritz in cans. Flavors include pomelo grapefruit, orange/juniper, and lime-ginger-hibiscus. Sea Dog, a division of Shipyard Brewing known for light, fruit-forward beers, brought out hard seltzers to match the flavors of their wheat ales: blueberry, raspberry, black cherry and peach grapefruit.
Last March, Lone Pine Brewing launched a hard-seltzer variety pack with strawberry, raspberry-lime, watermelon-cucumber, and blueberry-lemon flavors. Like most hard seltzers, Lone Pine’s are low-carb (2 grams), low-alcohol (4%) and low-calorie (86 calories). Sea Dog’s seltzers, White Claw and Truly are all slightly higher in alcohol content (5%) and calories (100).
In addition to the variety pack, Lone Pine introduced two other seltzers. The first was Oh-J, a companion to their very popular IPA. Unlike the beer, which derives its citrus flavor from select strains of hops, Oh-J hard seltzer uses tangerine puree, which makes it nearly as hazy as the IPA. The second variety, introduced for Cinco de Mayo, tastes like a margarita. A continuation of Lone Pine’s collaboration with the Holy Donut, this seltzer was made with gluten-free margarita doughnuts. Lone Pine donates 1 percent of all seltzer sales to Sebago Clean Waters, a consortium of conservation groups and breweries working to protect Sebago Lake.
In May, Orono Brewing launched Wild Maine Hard Seltzer, which debuted in three flavors: mango-pineapple, blueberry and lemonade. Unlike some other hard seltzers, Wild Maine is made using vodka diluted to the target strength; others use a fermented malt or sugar-based source of alcohol. Orono boasts that Wild Maine Hard Seltzer uses natural flavors, Maine water, and vodka that’s been distilled six times.
Although the Sea Dog seltzers have already established themselves in the market, only now is Shipyard putting its own brand on a hard seltzer. Pumpkinhead Hard Seltzer, modeled on the seasonal beer that outsells any other Shipyard ale, will be released in late July. Brewery president Bruce Forsley notes that the two Pumpkinheads will not taste exactly the same, since their base ingredients differ, but he promises the seltzer will have “overtones of vanilla and a subtle cinnamon and spice finish, just like a pumpkin pie with a dollop of freshly whipped cream.” All that, with only two carbs, and 100 calories.
Spritz up Tom Major’s e-mail with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.