A decade-old beer recipe buried in the archives at DB Breweries in Auckland became a critical piece of the puzzle when it came to creating the brewery’s first hard seltzer.
When DB master brewer Dave Eaton started working on the brewery’s just-released Club Setter seltzer, he dived into the archives to find a recipe for super-pale beer he “kind of remembered from 10 years ago”.
The recipe was created by Doug and Jim Banks, the twin brother brewer-scientists who worked their entire lives at DB, including many years along legendary brewer Morton Coutts, the inventor of Continuous Fermentation.
Coutts, whose father Joseph Coutts co-founded Dominion Breweries, worked right up until his death at the age of 100. An inventor and innovator who was always ahead of his time, he died 16 years ago but his spent the latter years of his life trying to perfect a beer so clear it resembled chardonnay.
His work and that of the Banks brothers is proving remarkably prescient given the rise and rise of hard seltzer.
“The recipe I went to look for was created by Doug and Jim Banks and they would have been heavily influenced by Morton Coutts over the years as they worked alongside him,” Eaton said.
“We used their recipe, from about 10 years ago, as a starting point for a beer-based seltzer.”
Eaton said the recipe was invaluable “because when you look around it’s not as if there’s a standard recipe for a beer-based seltzer”.
He said the Banks brothers’ super-pale beer “was a product that didn’t end up going anywhere – but it looked just like one of our seltzers now; it was perfectly clear but not as low in sugar as what we are doing now.
“You’d argue that it’s a version of a seltzer, it was like an alcoholic soft drink.”
Even with the old recipe, bringing DB’s beer-based Club Setter seltzer to the market was a huge technical challenge, Eaton said.
“You’re trying to make something with no distinctive character – it’s a relatively complex thing to make but the finished product is incredibly simple – it is a challenge.
“From a brewing point of view, you really have to look after your yeast and understand it.”
The Club Setter seltzer is fermented in a similar style to low-carb beer to reduce the sugars and has a total of 3 bitterness units, said Eaton.
“It’s definitely got hops in there and if you really go hunting for them you’ll pick them. They are there as part of the complexity of the base.
The finished base is designed to be perfectly balanced and neutral “with nothing standing out on its own”. It’s then carbonated and flavoured to create a spritzy, fruity, extremely dry product with low sugar, low carbs, low calories.
One of the reasons DB – and others – are making beer-based seltzers is the ability to sell them in grocery.
Because the seltzers are “technically” beer they can be sold in NZ supermarkets whereas ethanol- or vodka-based products can’t be sold in grocery and are limited to sale through bottle shops.
Wellington brewery Fortune Favours is another going down the beer seltzer route.
Inspired by American brewery Oskar Blues, which created a sub-brand seltzer called Wild Basin, Fortune Favours has come up with Luckies Seltzer.
“We sat on idea for a while as we didn’t know if New Zealand was ready for it,” said chief executive Shannon Thorpe.
“And we asked ourselves whether it should be a Fortune Favours brand or do we create a new brand? In the end we created a new brand for it because we think it’s a different market to craft beer drinkers, but it carries an endorsement on the tap badge that says ‘crafted by Fortune Favours’.”
Thorpe preferred to go with a beer base over ethanol for a number of reasons.
“As a craft brewery we wouldn’t have felt authentic putting out a product with an ethanol base.
“We think the beer base also provides a nice backbone to this product. I find some of the ethanol-based ones a little thin.”
He admits the beer-based route was more “difficult” than the ethanol method as used by hugely popular American brands such as White Claw.
“It’s the totally opposite challenge to craft beer where you’re trying to get as much flavour as you can into a product – here we’re trying to create the most neutral beer we can to let the fruit extracts and flavours shine through.”
Fortune Favours have launched on tap only at this stage but will move to package if it sells well over summer – again with grocery in mind.
Other breweries planning to enter the market with beer-based seltzer include Garage Project and Lion.
Lion currently has seltzer made in the White Claw style but is working on a beer-based one.
“Our brewers have found it an interesting and difficult challenge to brew a beer that has the right characteristics for a seltzer rather than traditional beer characteristics,” says Lion’s general manager of craft Dave Pearce.
Garage Project is working on an entirely different beer-based method that is around six weeks from launch.
Despite the difficulties of producing these drinks and then explaining what they are to an audience unfamiliar with the term seltzer, selling them looks like the easy part.
That’s because seltzers hit all the touch points for young consumers: low sugar, low calorie, low carbohydrate, and in many cases, they’ll be labelled gluten-free when the alcohol is derived from a non-gluten source.
That wellbeing element of the marketing riffs off the surging popularity of low carb beer and reflects some of the marketing associated with so-called “clean” RTD brands such as Pal’s and Part Times Rangers.
“The wellbeing aspect is important,” says Peace.
“It’s a bit like the rise of low carb beer – but it’s a ‘relatively better for you positioning’. You can’t make wellbeing claims on alcohol and it’s not a product that should be marketed as health drink.
“But seltzer will have relatively less calories and relatively lower sugar – and it can make those claims versus a vodka RTD or a full-strength beer.”