In another video, Shell picks up a hitchhiking Berry and they drive to Portland. They wander around the Old Port, where they visit a few restaurants, including, of course, the Thirsty Pig.
Berry and Shell are mascots for Wild Maine Hard Seltzer. (A third, Mitch the Moose, likes to jet ski.) They are, the company’s slogan goes, “your favorite party animals.” Wild Maine Hard Seltzer is owned by Orono Brewing Co., and its new marketing campaign clearly speaks to the thousands of university students nearby who have helped make hard seltzer so popular – remember 2019, aka “White Claw Summer?” It’s their love for the bubbly drink that prompted Maine breweries to start canning their own and serving it in their tasting rooms, right next to their latest craft beer.
Maine breweries used a portion of their down time during the pandemic to work on recipes, and a new crop of locally made hard seltzers is now appearing all over the state – both in cans and on tap.
Lone Pine Brewing’s OH-J seltzer, brewed with tangerine puree and hops, is crafted to mimic the Portland brewery’s popular double IPA. Fogtown Brewing Co. in Ellsworth followed up its Fog Melon with Fog Berry (made with cranberries) and Fog Blue (blueberries and lemon juice), and occasionally makes Fog Blanc, which is blended with sauvignon blanc.
Orono Brewing’s Wild Maine Hard Seltzer comes in flavors such as mango-pineapple (Mitch the Moose), blueberry (Berry the Bear), and lemonade (Shell the Lobster). Abe Furth, co-owner of the brewery, says the company plans to release another flavor in August; he wouldn’t reveal it, although he did say the mascot would be a raccoon.
As of this writing, Après, which makes hard cider and seltzer, was scheduled to open this weekend in Portland’s East Bayside, serving hard seltzers such as the gin-and-tonic-inspired Vesper, made with fresh juniper, coriander and citrus peel.
When customers walk through breweries’ doors, Sullivan said, they always ask tasting room managers, “What do you have that’s new?”
“This summer, I think a lot of our brewers are answering that question with seltzer,” he said.
Global hard seltzer sales were more than $4 billion in 2020, an increase of 160 percent over 2019, driven in part by more consumers discovering a taste for it during the pandemic. IRI, a data analytics and market research company, ranked new product launches in 2020 in terms of what was resonating with quarantining consumers, and Bud Light Seltzer was No. 1 on the list, with more than $100 million in sales.
According to Nielsen, sales of hard seltzer in bars and restaurants increased by 73 percent in the summer of 2019, the equivalent of 7.5 million new drinkers.
“The seltzer category is growing rapidly,” Sullivan said. “A lot of people love craft beer, yet they also love being active and outdoors and living healthy lifestyles.”
Most hard seltzer is made in one of two ways: Many breweries ferment a mixture of cane sugar and water, then add carbonation and flavoring. Others start with distilled spirits rather than doing the fermentation themselves, then add carbonation and flavoring at some point during the process. The hard seltzer craze feeds into consumers’ desire for healthier options with less alcohol and fewer calories and carbs than beer or mixed drinks, but just as much flavor. A typical 12-ounce can of flavored hard seltzer clocks in at about 100 calories – sometimes less – and 2 grams of carbs. Hard seltzer is popular with gluten-free consumers because it’s not made with grains.
And flavored seltzers appeal to people who like variety. Three summers ago, Peak Organic Brewing Co. in Portland was ahead of the curve when it started making hard seltzer (it produced the first certified organic hard seltzer in the country, according to founder Jon Cadoux). Its repertoire now includes a dozen flavors such as blackberry lime, strawberry cucumber, and lemon elderflower. Cadoux says the seltzers have become “a decent part of our business.”
“People are looking for variety packs with multiple flavors, versus one 12-pack of the same flavor,” Cadoux said. “No one wants six packs, we’ve found.”
Tom Madden, brewer and co-founder of Lone Pine Brewing Co., believes that the craft beer movement set the table for seltzers in part with the production of fruit-forward beers and “making beer a little less beer-y.”
When the local craft beer movement began, its image was of beer geeks brewing in their garages and dreaming of making beer for the masses. It felt like an exclusive club, and intimidating to some casual beer drinkers. Madden says seltzers help brewers be more inclusive, just as his own brewery tried to do with its Portland Pale Ale — a beer that could stand on its own but was also an easy introduction to craft beer — and its Holy Donut series of brews made with the popular local doughnuts.
“We’re sort of softening the edges of craft beer, making it feel a little less like an exclusive group and more of an opportunity for everybody to enjoy,” Madden said, “and I think that’s also what seltzer provides to the general public.”
That’s an important tactic to embrace at a time when tasting rooms are more like community gathering spaces than bars, welcoming families and people of all ages who may or may not be craft beer drinkers. Not offering options for everyone, Maine brewers say, is akin to reserving a table for four at a restaurant and then only one or two people get to eat dinner.
Maine-crafted hard seltzer also provides local options for consumers who have been drinking national brands like White Claw and Truly, just as local craft beer offered alternatives to mass-produced beers such as Miller and Coors.
A lot has been made of the appeal of hard seltzer to younger people who grew up after the craft beer explosion and are said to have more adventurous, flavor-seeking palates than their parents. Most brewers say interest does tend to skew younger, but unlike Zima — a sweeter beer alternative from the ’90s that late-night comedians made fun of and was like kryptonite to men – people across the gender spectrum seem to enjoy hard seltzers.
“It definitely crosses gender, and it’s maybe skewing younger,” Cadoux said. “But that was true with craft beer, too.”
Furth examined the demographics of Wild Maine Hard Seltzer’s Instagram followers and found that the majority are ages 21 to 44, with the largest age group – 52 percent – falling into the 25-to-34 category. Women account for 56 percent of the followers, men 44 percent.
Kim O’Donnell, 55, likes craft beer just fine – Rising Tide Brewing Co. is right in her neighborhood – but the Portland resident and her partner became big fans of hard seltzer during the pandemic after trying a can of Lone Pine Brewing’s blueberry lemon flavor.
“I thought wow, this is dangerously good because it wasn’t cloyingly sweet, it was very light, and it went really well with pizza,” she said. “It felt like a better alternative to a heavy beer. And now that we’ve had some hot weather and it’s been August in June and July, I personally find the seltzers to be so much more refreshing than a beer because it’s not as heavy. It doesn’t feel like you’re having a vodka tonic or a gin and tonic. It feels a little bit less intense.”
So, will hard seltzer seduce Mainers away from craft beer? Is the growth in locally produced craft seltzers an attempt to ward off competition in a crowded craft beer market and cash in on a trend? Maine brewers say it’s not that simple, and not one or the other, beer or seltzer, either. (Also, beer has been around for thousands of years and likely isn’t going anywhere.) Furth says his team got into making hard seltzers because it’s what a lot of the brewery’s college-age employees and customers were excited about. And, he points out, Orono Brewing’s beer production is actually increasing.
“There’s still a lot of room for all the breweries,” he said. “And there certainly are a whole lot more people making beer than seltzer here.”
According to Nielsen, 75 percent of hard seltzer drinkers also buy beer.
Sullivan said hard seltzer is indeed taking market share away from craft beer, but don’t sound the death knell of your favorite IPA just yet. He notes that Maine’s craft beer industry has gone from zero to 100 in the past 10 years, which is “a very small amount of time for an industry to mature.” He uses the analogy of L.L. Bean: At one point the company decided it could sell something other than hunting boots. Did that mean they were giving up on hunting boots?
“It’s the same thing with breweries offering lodging, partnering with farms to do food, growing some of their own ingredients,” Sullivan said. “They’re hearing from customers and growing and changing on the fly to build long-term, sustainable businesses.”
For her part, seltzer fan O’Donnell thinks the diversification is “a really smart move.”
“Just like you can have a favorite brewery,” she said, “you can now have a favorite hard seltzer brewery.”