Hard Times Call for Hard Seltzers: The History of Seltzer

By Mark Bowers

Hard seltzers have been the next new thing for several years now in the world of alcoholic drinks. Hard seltzers from macro brands White Claw, Truly, Bud Light Seltzer, Bon & Viv, Diageo and Corona Seltzer have become near ubiquitous; the growth in sales of these popular beverages has gone from near zero in 2012 to a projected 2.5 billion dollars in 2021. They come in a myriad of flavors and are often marketed as a more healthy alternative to other alcoholic beverages. They can be relatively easy to make and can be legally made and sold by breweries in the US.

Naturally Occurring vs. Manmade Effervescent Waters

Niederselters, Germany (via abebooks.com)

In order to properly discuss and understand hard seltzer we first need to know what exactly “seltzer” is and its origin story. Naturally occurring sparkling (carbonated) mineral spring waters have been known for millennia. As far back as the ancient Greeks sparkling water has been espoused for its medicinal properties. Such naturally occurring bubbly spring water remained a novelty to those who were lucky enough to live in an area rich with it until the 1700s when the spa culture phenomenon took hold (especially in Europe). Hotels, inns, and resorts developed around many of these naturally occurring sparkling mineral water springs, where the wealthy and artsy folk could come to partake in the “healthy”, “curative” powers promoted for these waters with the naturally occurring bubbles. In fact, the word seltzer comes from the town Niederselters, a spa town in Germany that began bottling its sparkling spring water sometime around 1728.

In the 1800s as the industrial revolution took hold, city dwelling people first consumed natural spring bottled seltzer water for its purported health and healing benefits. These bottled waters were generally sold at the chemist or drug stores. Enterprising pharmacists analyzed the naturally occurring sparkling mineral waters and added the same minerals and amounts to plain “tap water,” carbonated it, bottled it, and sold it to eager consumers. 

Carbonated water and drinks go by a number of different names. Originally, seltzer was used for the naturally occurring bubbly mineral spring water. However, once those entrepreneurs began making carbonated water, the term soda and soda water became common. Club soda was a trademarked term for carbonated water made by the Irish company Cantrell & Cochrane in 1877.

Flavored Bubbly Waters

These mineral seltzers tasted like, well, plain old water. Customers who could perceive minerality in this water generally disliked it, so pharmacists began adding flavor extracts such as lemon to improve its taste. The first carbonated lemonade was sold in 1833. By about the 1870s, seltzers, at least in America, became more of a tasty refreshing beverage and less of a medicine. The late 1800s saw the rise of sweetened sodas–all similar in composition but referred to by different names like flavored soda, soda pop, and eventually soft drinks. Root beer was first introduced in 1876 followed by the first cola drink in 1881. 

Seltzer became even more popular as the temperance movement gained popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During prohibition, many bars and pubs opened soda fountains to avoid completely closing their businesses. Flavored bubbly beverages ruled the land.

The popularity of seltzers lasted well past the demise of prohibition. However, in the late 1950s as people left the city in droves for the suburbs, soda fountains were replaced with diners and the popularity of seltzers as well as unsweetened and generally unflavored carbonated waters continually declined over the next several decades. At this time highly sweetened “soda” or “pop” ruled and Coca-Cola was crowned king.

There was a flurry of seltzer revival in the late 1970s as Americans began to question the purity of their tap water. This not only helped seltzer sales but also marked the start of the bottled still water craze. During this time, flavored (but unsweetened) seltzers became commonplace. The seltzer market ebbed a bit early in the new millennium, but saw a resurgence around 2010. 

Ad from the ’80s for Seagrams Wine Coolers (via pinterest.com)

On a separate path during the same timeline, alcoholic beverage suppliers had been continually releasing new drinks. The wine cooler segment had become popular among many in the 1980s. Wine coolers were essentially a packaged form of what was mostly a homemade wine spritzer–a blend of an inexpensive white wine with lemon-lime soda–that became basically marketed as “soda pop for adults.” Other somewhat similar beverages to current hard seltzers were Zima, hard lemonades, and hard root beers. However, most of these drinks not only had alcohol but also a substantial amount of sugar. They were sweet and certainly appealed to many Americans who had been part of the Pepsi/Coca-Cola generation and were raised on soda.

Hard Seltzers are Born

The hard seltzer craze traces back just a few years ago to the introduction of SpikedSeltzer brand’s “West Indies Lime” seltzer. It was in 2012 that a brewer, Nick Shields who managed his family beer brand Haffenreffer Private Stock, and his business partner, Dave Holmes, developed hard seltzer in Nick’s Westport Connecticut garage.

Nick Shields has the following to say of the history of SpikedSelter: “The idea for SpikedSeltzer struck me while watching five women order five vodka-sodas at a local bar. What if I could brew something as light, simple, and clear but with a moderate 6% alcohol level? Something bubbly, refreshing, low-sugar, and with natural flavors? Something that tasted like sparkling water? It was so simple, yet it did not exist.

Clearly, at least in hindsight, the time was ripe for what people considered to be a more healthy alcoholic beverage. There was a growing trend for healthy alternatives to most everything we ate and drank. Refined sugar was routinely vilified as was gluten and all other ingredients deemed to be artificial. Active people wanted a beverage that was naturally low-calorie but that still tasted good; at the same time there was a growing group of consumers who wanted a low-ABV alcohol option in their beverages. They were ready to wean themselves of the sugary sweet sodas they grew up with–or the artificially sweetened diet sodas they transitioned to–for something more adult that also qualified as a “healthy choice.”  

These new hard seltzers checked off most of the perceived boxes for currently recognized “good stuff:” low calorie (around 100), all natural ingredients (nothing artificial, non-GMO, simple, organic), healthy (no sugar–refined or otherwise–and gluten free). Adding to seltzer’s appeal was the fact that it was light, refreshing, bubbly, thirst-quenching, and tasted fruity. It could also have a bit of a kick, with most hard seltzers having alcohol contents of around 5%. Even the packaging, aluminum cans, were considered to be sustainable compared to traditional packaging methods as cans are recyclable as well as lightweight and not easily broken.

Hard seltzers can be made in a couple of different ways. The most simple way is to add flavoring, a neutral spirit (like vodka), and a flavor extract to purified water and then carbonate it. Breweries are not legally allowed to add a neutral spirit to water but must instead produce their alcohol via fermentation. Typically, this is accomplished by fermenting a solution of sugar water. The trick is to get the yeast to readily and fully ferment the simple sugar water into clean ethyl alcohol that is devoid of off-flavors and presents crystal clear. To accomplish this special nutrients are added to the sugar wash along with special yeast strains. Then the alcoholic water is filtered to remove remaining particulates and any off-flavors before the desired flavorings are added. Finally, this flavored alcoholic water is force-carbonated to make it sparkling, packaged, and ready for consumption!

At first the flavors of hard seltzers revolved around the addition of natural fruit extracts with a particular emphasis on citrus flavors. Lemon and/or lime were early arrivals and are still immensely popular. After citrus, tropical fruits like mango and passion fruit became common as well as watermelon, cucumber, ginger and even dragonfruit. Berries, like raspberries, blueberries, elderberries and cranberries, are now frequently found usually in combination with traditional citrus flavors. More recently, seltzer producers have been delving into unusual flavorings: berries like acai, goji, aronia, and schisandra; flowers like hibiscus, honeysuckle, and lavender; and herbs like basil, thyme, and sage; not to mention more unusual (but still quite trendy) hard seltzers with CBD and herbal adaptogens, which are edible plant based pharmaceuticals claimed to counteract the effects of stress on the body.

Our “Moscow Mule” hard seltzer!

Here at Aeronaut, we have recently begun experimenting with hard seltzers. So far we have only made several small batches of hard seltzers that we have sold exclusively in our tap room. Going forward, we will continue to explore unique and exciting hard seltzers that you can enjoy in our Somerville Aeronaut Hub as well as our newly opened Everett Aeronaut Cannery! Swing by for a pint and let us know what unique seltzer flavor combinations you’d like to see come out of our fermenters!

Mark Bowers is the Brewmaster at Aeronaut. The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original author, and they do not necessarily represent those of Aeronaut Brewing Co.