During a recent, beachy afternoon out by the Oceanside Pier, I walked a short distance to the colorful new Kilowatt Brewing Oceanside Taproom. Parched from the sunshine, and in need of refreshment, I bellied up to the bar and ordered. “I’ll take a pint of hard seltzer, please.”
406 Mission Avenue, Oceanside
Yes, hard seltzer. The trending beer alternative has popped up in several San Diego brewery tasting rooms this summer following the emergence of national brands such as White Claw Hard Seltzer, Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer, and Henry's Hard Sparkling Water. The fruit flavored beverage drinks exactly as it sounds, like a potable version of seltzer, the carbonated soft drink.
A key selling point for hard seltzer is that it’s a low-calorie, low-carb, and gluten-free beer alternative. And prior to adding fruit flavors, hard seltzer has zero sugar. Which is ironic, given it’s fermented from either corn or cane sugars. “It's basically a sugar wash,” explains Kilowatt Brewing cofounder Steve Kozyk, “[it’s] what distillers produce to make vodka. In effect we're producing un-distilled vodka.”
Though the sparkling beverage is being made by local breweries, nobody’s claiming it is beer, other than maybe the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The federal agency in charge of regulating alcohol production has had its hands full in recent years, with the number of craft breweries topping seven thousand, and the advent of new beverage categories such as ready to drink canned cocktails and hard kombucha, in addition to hard seltzer. A backlog created by the government shutdown last winter hasn’t helped. “They’re a little inundated with all these new categories,” speculates Troy Smith, brewmaster of Belching Beaver Brewery, “so they’re classifying it as a beer, for now.”
980 Park Center Drive, Suite A, Vista
While some craft beer purists have been leery of the association, Belching Beaver has embraced the opportunity to diversify its alcohol offerings, supplementing its prized IPAs and stouts with the addition of both hard kombucha and seltzer. “You see a lot more than just beer drinkers coming to our tasting room,” reasons Smith. While the low-calorie and low-carb drink may not appeal to beer connoisseurs, serving hard seltzer caters to a growing demographic: non-beer drinking friends who tag along for the brewery experience. “I didn’t think hard seltzer would ever be a thing,” Smith points out, but with the rise of a health-conscious adult beverage segment, customers now show up seeking a beer-free buzz. And while a brewery can’t legally produce wine or cider, hard seltzer is “something that our license allows us to make.”
Kozyk says Kilowatt has received frequent feedback from guests who “appreciate having a non-beer craft option when they visit us."
5840 El Camino Real #101, Carlsbad
The owner/brewer of Rouleur Brewing Company has seen similar demand. An avid cyclist, Rawley Macias established his brand around an active, cycling lifestyle, often organizing group rides that start and finish at his Carlsbad tasting room. “Our primary focus will always be beer,” he emphasizes, but, “having an alternative to beer is always a plus… we get the occasional guest who wants a light, low-carb, truly gluten-free beverage.”
Thus far, Rouleur has tested the waters with raspberry and lime infused seltzers; Belching Beaver has worked grapefruit, mango, and passionfruit-guava; and Kilowatt with raspberry and cherry. Other first stabs at hard seltzer include a lime offering from San Diego Brewing Co., and recent grapefruit release from Rough Draft Brewing Company. The simple ingredients and requisite dryness of hard seltzer doesn’t leave much room for innovation, so these breweries focus on producing clean beverages that employ 100 percent fruit purees in pursuit of summer refreshment.