Local breweries get creative with hop water, seltzers and pop flavours
Alt beverages have lots of new flavour combinations, such as a seltzer with habanero peppers and pineapple
With The Beer Store reporting losses of just over $50 million in 2020, it's an indication that the brewing landscape is changing.
Craft beer, according to London, Ont.-based beer writer Ben Johnson, was gaining in the market and "growing like crazy" before the pandemic.
"There are telltale signs craft is eroding [the major brewers'] macro share, notably all the crafty brands invented by the big guys to masquerade as craft beer, the buyouts a few years ago and the way they've embraced this seltzer category as a means to bring in new consumers," Johnson said.
For their part, local craft breweries have also embraced seltzers in the past couple of years. Some brewers have added new beverages to their product lineups, from sparkling hop water — zero-alcohol sparkling water with added hop flavour — to hard seltzers either brewed like beer or with spirits to cream soda and other traditional "soda pop" flavours.
Marc Lecompte of the Sidewalk Beer Shop in Waterloo says non-alcoholic hop water is a new but rare addition coming out of breweries.
"Focusing on single hop varietals like Wellington Brewery is very interesting," said Lecompte. "It lets your customer get intimate with one specific hop. There aren't many others, but I think it's growing."
Currently, Wellington offers Cascade and Chinook sparkling hop waters.
Breweries get creative
As for seltzers, which are basically soda water with alcohol and sugar flavourings, Lecompte has tried many and says they can be hit-and-miss.
"They can be a difficult thing to make, but many breweries and distillers have nailed it," he added.
Local choices continue to grow, despite the pandemic. From the two dozen and more breweries between Stratford and Guelph, you can find nearly a dozen seltzers. Here is a brief selection of these "beer-adjacent" beverages made by area brewers and distillers.
Block 3 in St. Jacobs will likely make seltzers again this summer and may take a stab at a "trial batch" of hop water, according to head brewer Kevin Freer.
And, while it's not a seltzer, Block 3 is working on a malted beverage re-fermenting beer with grapes and using wild yeast and bacteria in the St. Jacobs air.
"While it's legally beer, it presents much like a natural wine or a pét-nat (pétillant naturel which translates to something like "naturally sparkling")," said Freer. "It's similar to a Belgian gueuze in process, but very different flavour-wise due to our local ingredients."
Brothers Brewing in Guelph brews five or six flavours of seltzer including habanero-pineapple. Co-owner Colton Proveau says the alcohol flavour is subtle. They brew the beverage year-round, and Proveau says it appeals to a wide demographic.
"Just about everybody's drinking it," he said. "It's great for barbecue season."
Foundry Brewing in Cambridge's seltzer, Hardwater, was an early entrant into the local hard-seltzer market. Foundry's Kyle Priestley says it was perhaps the first in the region, and they were surprised by the quick uptake of the beverage by customers when they launched in May last year.
"It was a strange time to launch," said Priestley. "But we did a drive-through offering a free six-pack and ended up gridlocking the entire downtown."
Using Champagne yeast, the seltzer is 85 calories and gluten-free, according to Priestley. Flavours include orange, lemon and ginger.
Four Fathers in Cambridge had a successful run with malt seltzers last summer. The brewery is launching three starting in late May: blood orange, mango-pineapple and black cherry.
Jackass Brewing in Cambridge are not entering the seltzer market, but owner-brewmaster Keith Saunders says they will have about 500 litres of cream soda ready for sale in early June. He describes the malted beverage as a light pilsner.
"It's a natural brewed colour with no dyes. It will be flavourful and 5.5 percent ABV."
Waterloo Brewing in Kitchener has the Landshark seltzer, which is lower calorie, made with real fruit juice and available in lemon-lime, cherry-peach and pineapple-mango. As well, their lineup of radlers (a blend of beer and soda) is low in alcohol and includes grapefruit, pineapple, tart cherry and watermelon flavours.
Wave Maker Craft Brewing is Cambridge is currently working on seltzer recipes, says owner-brewmaster Scott Pautler.
Wellington Brewery in Guelph has two hop waters, which are few and far between (Kingston's Spearhead Brewery also makes one), but they do offer some interesting flavours as well as being a non-alcohol beverage.
Wellington's two clear hop waters are brewed and have mild beer flavour but with zero carbs and sugar, according to brewmaster Marvin Dyck.
"We did some research and forward planning and wanted to have a different offering, something that was non-alcoholic but that was also beer adjacent. There is a finite amount of beer that you can drink," said Dyck.
Willibald Farm Distillery and Brewery in Ayr is a distiller, brewer and seltzer maker; however, their seltzer follows the spirits route. Willibald's Cam Formica says the drinks — strawberry-rhubarb, bumbleberry, "purple" (grape) and key lime — are vodka-based and gluten-free with about two grams of sugar per can.
"These are popular with men and women between 20 and 45 years of age. We've got watermelon launching soon and cherry-mead, which is a collaboration with Rosewood Estates Winery in Beamsville," he said.
Just a (tasty) fad?
Are these passing fads and trends that will see their way out of the age of COVID-19? It's hard to tell, says Ben Johnson.
But he does anticipate that the landscape will remain favourable for local brewers who have a good understanding of the marketplace around them.
"While there isn't a recent market-share figure to point to," said Johnson. "I'd wager that post-pandemic the craft category will come out swinging."