Love it or not, hard seltzer is here to stay — and Maine breweries and alcohol makers are looking to cash in on the craze for a less sweet, lower-calorie alternative to beer.
Hard seltzer in 2016 was a niche, $41 million part of the country’s alcohol industry. Today, it’s worth an estimated $2.5 billion dollars and growing. And in the past three months, three Maine craft breweries — Portland’s Lone Pine Brewing Company and Peak Organic Brewing and Orono Brewing Company — each launched their own brands of canned hard seltzer.
Lone Pine Craft Seltzer and Peak Organic Highball both launched in March, while Orono Brewing’s new line, Wild Maine Hard Seltzer, hits bars and retail shelves this weekend.
That’s in addition to lines of canned seltzer from Fogtown Brewing Company in Ellsworth and Sea Dog Brewing Company in Portland, both of which launched last year. And breweries like Thresher’s Brewing Company in Searsmont, 2 Feet Brewing in Bangor and the new Horn Run Brewing in Eastport all serve house-made hard seltzer on tap at their tap rooms.
“I think a lot of people, especially younger people, have shifted to seltzer instead of soda because it’s just so much healthier,” said Abe Furth, co-owner of Orono Brewing Company. “Hard seltzers are the same idea. It’s crisp and refreshing and flavorful, but the big thing is, it’s not really sweet and sugary.”
The Wild Maine Hard Seltzer line that Orono Brewing has just launched is made from just four ingredients: vodka, carbonated Maine water, natural fruit flavors and citric acid.
“It seems simple, but it actually took us over a year to get the recipe just right,” Furth said. “It is not as simple as it seems.”
In a highly competitive craft beer landscape in Maine, sometimes it’s hard to stand out. Adding a new product that isn’t beer can help do just that.
“It’s hard not to notice industry trends, especially one that’s as huge as seltzer,” said Jon Stein, owner of Fogtown Brewing. “With a craft beer market that keeps tightening, you kind of have two options. You either create new styles of beer, or you create a new beverage entirely. And that’s what we did. And so far, it’s worked really well.”
Stein said Fogtown’s line of craft seltzer is a highly seasonal product. Just like the brewery doesn’t sell very many stouts or porters in the summer, seltzers don’t really sell in the winter. But in the summer, when people are spending hot days at the lake or in the backyard, Stein said it can sometimes barely keep up with demand.
Fogtown presently offers four varieties, including Blue — which is flavored with Maine blueberries, lemon and hops — and Berry, made with cranberries.
“We go from barely selling any in the winter, to constantly running out in the summer,” Stein said. “It’s a hot weather drink, for sure.”
Most of the big national hard seltzer brands like Truly, White Claw and Bud Light Seltzer are malt beverages, meaning they are fermented from malted barley, with the alcohol reduced to as neutral a flavor as possible before other flavors and sweeteners are added to achieve the desired taste. Though hard seltzers are traditionally less sweet, they’re not unlike other “alco-pop” malt beverages that were popular in years past, like Zima or Smirnoff Ice.
Most of the seltzers made here in Maine are either made from a fermented cane sugar base or are vodka-based, which means they’re like a vodka soda in a can. Brewers can experiment with flavors and ratios to produce a consistent, unique product, that in most cases is also sugar-free, gluten-free and about 100 calories per can.
Nicole Bendtson, who with her husband Scott co-owns Thresher’s Brewing in Searsmont, launched a hard seltzer in February 2020. Though the seltzer is only served on tap at the brewery, the brewery offers lots of ways to customize it by adding the fruit flavoring after it comes out of the tap. Jalapeno pineapple is its bestseller.
“Once you get that recipe perfected, it’s pretty easy to make,” Bendtson said. “We can put lots of different fruit flavorings in it, but people will also drink it plain, and bring in their own fruit slices to put in it. You can do a lot with it. We eventually want to offer seltzer slushies with fresh fruit in it.”
Stein said that, as with the way people choose one craft brewery over another, the same thing will likely happen with seltzers, as they continue to grow in popularity.
“With craft beer, there’s a sense that there’s room for many, many different breweries, who all have a different approach and vibe,” Stein said. “I think the same is true with seltzer. People will seek out the higher quality local product. And hopefully that takes a little share from the Trulys and White Claws of the world, and gives it back to Maine.”