Summer is the busiest season of the year nationwide for beer sales, and over the past several months, the adult beverage industry has witnessed a major rise in popularity of a new kind of boozy beverage, hard seltzer. This light, low-cal, low-carb alternative to beer is attractive to consumers preferring more health-conscious drinking habits and an active lifestyle. Hard seltzer offers that with its sessionability (low ABV, 5% typically) and convenient packaging. Both national and regional brands have jumped on the bandwagon with Miller-Coors’ launching their hard seltzer line, Bon & Viv; Oskar Blues with Wild Basin; and smaller names like NC-based brewery Mother Earth Brewing’s Sercy Spiked & Sparkling this year.
When I first tried a hard seltzer, I inevitably had some questions: Where the heck does the alcohol come from? Is it some kind of weird powdered alcohol? Is it full of fake additives? The answer is that the alcohol in hard seltzer comes from a completely natural process of fermenting sugar, or dextrose. The difference with beer, of course, is that the sugar needed for fermentation comes from extracting sugar from malted barley and other grains. As someone experienced with making kombucha, jun, mead, and other fermentables, I was intrigued by the process of brewing my own hard seltzer at home. Could it be as tasty as those on the store shelves? First, I had to deepen my understanding of the process.
Blending vs. Sugar Wash
There are essentially two ways to make hard seltzer. One way is to literally blend your seltzer water with a grain-fermented spirit such as Everclear or Vodka. Obviously this method doesn’t involve brewing methodology so much as mixology. It will yield similar results but it lacks the convenience of a premixed beverage. Also, we promote homebrewing, so in the spirit of DIY, we’re going to focus on the second method, the sugar wash or sugar ferment.
A sugar wash is simply a mix of sugar, water, and yeast. When yeast strands come into contact with sugar, it feeds on the sugar and over time converts the sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide (CO2). The process is quick – within a few hours, the yeast colony begins to grow and feeds rapidly on the sugar. The process ends when there are no more sugars for the yeast to feed on, usually within 3-7 days. You then add water back into the sugar wash before bottling or kegging.
Flavoring – Extracts vs. Cold Steeping
I’ll be honest, some of the hard seltzers on the market are a bit too much for my pallette, bearing a slightly artificial taste. The most common and easy way to add flavoring is with a natural flavoring extract. This is what is most common in the commercial market, but there are a lot of options out there (especially with more folks having home carbonation machines such as Soda Stream). Look for those without added dyes, or that are derived from actual fruit, herbs, bitters, or even hops. Remember, a little goes a long way, so go easy! Another method for flavoring your hard seltzer is to cold steep some fruit in alcohol (called an infusion) before adding it to the sugar wash. Choosing fruits that might complement a wine such as pear, peach, or melon are a good way to go. Extracts and cold-steeped fruit are good options for doing the sugar wash method; if blending, you can always go with a flavored spirit.
So, you want to make hard seltzer?
Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
- 6 gallons R/O or distilled water
- 4 lbs Corn Sugar
- Yeast Nutrient
- 1 pack Lalvin EC-1118
- 2 cases of bottles or kegging equipment
- Priming Sugar (if bottling vs kegging)
- Brew Kettle (at least 3.5 gallons capacity)
- Fermenting Bucket with Lid
- Optional: Flavoring
*It is strongly recommended to use distilled or reverse-osmosis water to make hard seltzer. This is because the extra minerals in tap water can bring out a slightly white-wine taste which is not consistent with hard seltzer.
- Fill your brew pot with approximately 2.5 gallons of water, bring to boil, then turn off.
- Pour 4 lb bag Dextrose (corn sugar) into the warm water in the brew pot and stir until dissolved.
- Bring the sugar-water mixture to a boil. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
- When 5 minutes is up, turn off the heat – the boil is now finished.
- Add 2 tsp/gallon yeast nutrient at approx 86*
- Cool the sugar-water mixture with a wort chiller (if you have one) or by putting the covered brew pot in an ice bath until no longer warm to the touch.
- Pour the cooled wort into a sanitized fermentor and add water to bring the volume up to 5 gallons.
- Carefully cut open the pack of Lalvin EC-1118 Yeast and sprinkle over the surface of the wort, then seal the fermenter and move to a quiet, dark location that is approximately 70°F.
- The yeast will convert sugars to alcohol and CO2 gas – this will usually start within 24-48 hours and finish in about 3-7 days.
- Once fermentation is complete, add isinglass to the fermented seltzer in the fermenter. Wait three days before proceeding to bottling.
- When fermentation is complete, sanitize your bottling equipment, as well as approximately 2 cases of pry-off bottles and enough bottle caps to cap them (if bottling).
- Prepare a priming solution by mixing 5 oz priming sugar with 1 pint of boiling water.
- Mix the priming solution and flavoring of choice with the fermented sugar-water.
- Fill the bottles with primed hard seltzer and cap.
- Store the bottles in a dark place at 70°F for 10-14 days to carbonate.
- Chill the bottles, drink, enjoy!
* Instructions adopted from the TrueBrew Hard Seltzer Homebrew Kit.A similar process is followed for making a sugar wash using Turbo Yeast and sugar. Plenty of recipes are available.
Of course, you could always take the guesswork out of it entirely and snag up one of our new limited-edition Hard Seltzer Kits from True Brew. These come with everything you need to make your own hard seltzer of approximately 4.3% abv (equipment not included) and will be available as soon as this week. Check your local store for availability or shop online here.