For the majority of its 25-year life, Great Divide Brewing pretty much made one product: beer. But then came 2019, the summer of White Claw, when many breweries — small, large and industrial-sized — realized that they are no longer just in the beer business; they are in the "beverage" business.
It was a dizzying change, but not one that came without warning. In 2018, the craft-beer industry's trade organization, the Brewers Association, announced an expansion of its sometimes controversial definition of a "craft brewer" to cover the production of hard seltzer, soda, kombucha, hard lemonade, cider, CBD drinks and more.
Oskar Blues, so often a leader in adaptation, was the first brewery in Colorado to introduce a canned hard seltzer. But others soon followed, including Upslope Brewing and Denver Beer Co., which now both sell lines of canned seltzers. Left Hand Brewing and Ska Brewing, meanwhile, are making non-alcoholic, CBD-infused beverages. And you can find hard seltzer, in myriad flavors, on tap at dozens of small breweries around Colorado.
As 2020 begins, though, three of the state's most well-known breweries — Great Divide, Ska Brewing and Avery Brewing — are also adding canned seltzers to their lineups. While some of the breweries taking the plunge acknowledge that the decision was a difficult one after having focused on beer for so long (and because some people look down on seltzers), most have bought in fully.
"We didn't make this decision in a vacuum. The distributor, retailer and, most importantly, the consumer demand for us to make a seltzer was so great that it became an obvious choice," says Great Divide founder Brian Dunn.
In the spring, the brewery will unveil a line of four Whitewater canned seltzers (the name 'white water' was previously used for beer) in a mixed twelve-pack. "Our team really stepped up, and they have done an amazing job of coming up with a variety of flavors that are crisp, refreshing and taste like real fruit," Dunn adds.
In Durango, Ska Brewing has already rolled out its three hard seltzer flavors: Hibiscus Lime, Black Raspberry and Blood Orange. Although they are only available in a mixed twelve-pack for now, that could change as the 5 percent ABV low-calorie, gluten-free beverage gains traction.
"Longevity has taught us to never say never," says Ska co-founder Dave Thibodeau. "Sometimes it feels like the righteous path should be to stick to beers, but where do you draw the line? With Hazy IPAs and Oreos? We all know where that went. Beer is obviously our first and strongest love, but we’re sure as shit not purists. We’re simply listening to the feedback of our friends and trying to accommodate them.
"All of that being said, a good, clean seltzer is much harder to brew than you might imagine, and I can honestly say I’m really proud of what our crew has created. I probably tasted more seltzers in 2019 than I’ll taste in the rest of my life, but then, I’m a beer drinker to the core. Some people simply aren’t," he adds. In fact, some of the most common feedback Ska has received over the years at its tasting room is that it doesn't have a gluten-free option. Although that will change this year as the brewery converts into a brewpub (which will allow it to serve food, wine and cocktails), it was also the impetus for the production of a seltzer.
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At Avery Brewing in Boulder, whose motto is "beer first, the rest will follow," hard seltzer has also joined the pack with Sparkle, a 100-calorie hard seltzer with only 1.5 carbs.
"Along with everyone else in America, Avery’s brewers have been enjoying their share of hard seltzers between beers," Avery says. So when the brewery decided about a year ago to make one, the brewers researched more than sixty "flavor options" before settling on cans of Cherry Lime, Grapefruit and CranRaz.
So who's next? Well, Dry Dock Brewing has been experimenting with its Mysters hard seltzers at the brewery, tapping a new one every Monday and selling it in Crowlers (looks for cans soon in liquor stores). And there are several smaller packaging breweries, like Wiley Roots, that are trying out recipes and brand names as well. Will they be able to hammer away at White Claw's dominance of the category? Only the bubbles know.