In a shifting alcoholic beverage industry, hard seltzer has created a frenzy, leading to empty store shelves and record growth for producers, particularly in North America. Their clean labeling, natural branding and refreshing taste has captured broad appeal, rarely seen in such a fragmented industry segment. GEA is helping leading producers overcome process challenges and achieve the high-quality hard seltzers consumers are looking for.

The ingredient list for producing hard seltzers is a short one: carbonated (soda) water – the bubbly – and alcohol, typically the result of fermented sugars and other carbohydrates. The source of this sugar varies, ranging from malt grain to liquid dextrose, as well as a combination of everything in between. The addition of fruit flavoring normally rounds out the list. And that’s it.

Flavored malt beverages (FMB) and flavored alcoholic beverages (FAB), known to some as alcopops, have often enjoyed a lackluster reputation with consumers. However, the hard seltzer, while not new to the industry, is bringing consumers back, particularly in North America, where for reasons not easy to pin down, it exploded in the summer of 2019. Initially dominated by a few brands, more and more producers have entered the hard seltzer market, where they are capturing a broad demographic. The trend, which many say is not a trend, hasn’t let up, with the U.S. market being the prime example. And there is reason to believe this segment will grow in other markets where demand for sparkling water, RTD convenience and a greater focus on health continue to drive beverage choices.

Why they identify

Hard seltzer – the zeitgeist beverage

It is well known that people are looking for alternatives in the alcoholic beverage sector. Among younger consumers, loyalty to beer or a single alcoholic beverage is quickly becoming a thing of the past. However, the appeal of hard seltzers, according to Euromonitor International, stems from the fact that they combine elements that attract a broad spectrum of consumers, such as:

  • Clean labeling/minimal ingredients
  • A calorie count of around 100, with little or no additional sugar added
  • Only 1-2 grams of carbohydrates
  • Often gluten free
  • Contain less alcohol (around 4-6% ABV) than spirits
  • Available in diverse flavor choices

Sales of hard seltzers reached US$550 million in 2018 and are slated to continue growing at triple-digit rates. The interest in low and non-alcoholic beverages is an important driver in an era when more and more consumers identify themselves as “sober curious” or looking for mindful ways to indulge, which includes their alcoholic beverage choices. Socially, hard seltzers seem to hit the mark as well by being affordable enough to buy in multiples while still upscale enough for socially conscious consumers to feel comfortable offering them at social events.

Simplicity, not the same as simple

For brewers, hard seltzer is an opportunity to grow and retain their fanbase, and given it is a fermented alcoholic beverage rather than a distilled spirit-based drink, they’re not restricted to liquor shops only. In many places, this means hard seltzers are taxed at a lower rate. Furthermore, from a production and cost standpoint, they are less expensive to produce than beer, an additional benefit for producers.

That said, even with a simple ingredient list, making hard seltzers can still present challenges to manufacturers. The first is producing a base that is free of flavor defects which may otherwise taint the flavor of the finished product. “In brewing, managing fermentation and yeast condition is difficult, and the ingredients in seltzers do not provide any nutrients for yeast. Producing a high-quality hard seltzer that consumers will return to over and over, requires getting these steps in the process just right, particularly the creation of a clean seltzer base. The alcohol must be very clean,” explains Cedric Malletroit, Project Director, Liquid & Powder Technologies at GEA.

Producing a high-quality hard seltzer that consumers will return to over and over, requires getting the steps in the process just right, particularly the creation of a clean seltzer base.” - Cedric Malletroit, Project Director, Liquid & Powder Technologies, GEA

GEA solutions for producing high-quality hard seltzer

With decades of experience in brewing, which includes hard seltzers, GEA supports customers with turnkey solutions covering the entire process, including greenfield breweries, from planning to commissioning or individual machines as required. Our solutions encompass: materials handling, wort preparation, pasteurization, yeast management, fermentation, separation, membrane filtration, blending and filling, ensuring a high level of efficiency and consistency when managed with a customized automated process control system.

Customers who want to test processes, equipment or recipes before scaling up their own production or making a large investment can benefit from using one of our test centers. Here, GEA technologists are on hand throughout the process to support manufacturers in achieving high-quality results, while getting to market as quickly as possible.

Among our hard seltzer customers, GEA enjoys a leading reputation when it comes to brewing, the stage when the gluten-free beer base is developed; in membrane filtration, the point at which the color and flavor is removed; and in blending, when desired flavors are added and carbonation takes place.

GEA membrane filtration ensures the purest, cleanest seltzer base possible – critical for creating a high-quality hard seltzer.
GEA membrane filtration ensures the purest, cleanest seltzer base possible – critical for creating a high-quality hard seltzer.

GEA membrane filtration plants are efficient and feature a compact and hygienic design using economical and approved polymeric membranes to deliver a crystal-clear FAB base. Our solutions are CIP-able and allow for highly automated operation and can be retrofitted into an existing plant. After producing the perfect base, delicious and natural flavors provide the complementary component to ensure a perfect end-product. With GEA blending technology, diverse ingredients are accurately and hygienically added to deliver that bright and fresh flavor so sought after in seltzer. “Our GEA DICON line of blenders provide precise and reliable in-line flavor additions which ensure the anticipated flavor and aroma profile are captured in the end-product. Adding them homogeneously – and late in the process – locks in the flavor which is then released when the consumer cracks open that can,” says Cedric Malletroit, Project Director, Liquid & Powder Technologies at GEA.

GEA jet-mixing technology allows for complete fermentations and attenuation levels – otherwise unattainable. Following up with the integration of a GEA centrifuge will improve overall performance while increasing yields, and therefore profits, downstream. By synchronizing these critical technologies into an overarching plan, GEA engineering and execution teams can seamlessly deliver a packaged solution that allows customers to reach their specific seltzer production goals.

Our blending solutions provide precise and reliable in-line flavor additions, ensuring anticipated flavor and aroma profiles are captured in the end-product. Adding them homogeneously – and late in the process – locks in the flavor which is then released when the consumer cracks open that can.” - Cedric Malletroit, Project Director, Liquid & Powder Technologies, GEA

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