Elizabeth Lavin

Drinking

Taste Testing the Boom of Dallas Hard Seltzers

We did the hard work so you don’t have to (you’re welcome). We drank a local lineup of boozed-up seltzers—from dill pickle to prickly pear. Here’s what we thought.

Here’s the hard truth about hard seltzer: sales boomed to $4 billion last year (only a few years ago it clocked in at $500 million) and it’s likely to stick around for awhile, though other trajectories predict a slowdown. Still, national brands have had a stranglehold on the seltzer market. More recently independent companies and local breweries alike have put their seltzers in taps and on shelves, vying to be the boozy-fizzy beverage of the moment. Move over White Claw, Dallas’ roster of canned cocktails and hard seltzers are here to take over.

Do you want another hard seltzer hard truth? Its whole schtick is not tasting too strongly of anything. Some hints of lemon, sure. A vaguely citrusy profile, yes. But flavor bombs seltzers are not, which makes creating a refreshing, yet pleasantly flavorful drink a challenge. With that in mind, the D staff and myself challenged ourselves to a hard seltzer taste-off.

Deep Ellum Brewing Co.’s Blind Lemon is the goldilocks of hard seltzer: not too sweet, but just right.
Deep Ellum Brewing Co.

Deep Ellum Brewing Co.

BLIND LEMON 100 Calories | 5 Percent ABV

You know Deep Ellum Brewing Co. for its ubiquitous beer hits like Dallas Blonde and Deep Ellum IPA, but don’t sleep on Blind Lemon. It debuted in 2019 and is named for blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson. This effervescent drink is the platonic ideal of a hard seltzer. It’s lemony without summoning thoughts of Lysol disinfectant. (Hey, lemon-flavored things can get antibacterial quicker than you’d think!) No, this is refreshing. This is what you go for when the party starts but you don’t want to kick things off with a punch-to-the-mouth-IPA. This is sunshine in a can. And since Deep Ellum Brewing uses cane sugar, it avoids the unfortunately metallic aftertaste that burden other mainstream seltzers. As for the other seltzers in the DE lineup, you can take them or leave them, but Blind Lemon is hard to beat. Flavors: Blind Lemon, Dill Pickle, Peach, Lime.

STRAIGHT FROM THE EDITOR’S MOUTH

“This tastes like peach in the way that Coors Lite tastes like beer. Which, to be fair, does make this more refreshing than some of the other ones. It trades on minimalism, which is a snappy bit of irony for a product intended to mass produce artificially flavored beverages. Where would I drink this? Late in the workday when I want to lie to myself about my own productivity. ‘I’m not drinking drinking on the job, much like I’m not only browsing gifs instead of writing.’”

Rio Fresco comes from Denton’s Armadillo Ale Works.
Rio Fresco

Rio Fresco

PINEAPPLE MANGO 100 Calories | 5 Percent ABV

The folks over at Denton’s Armadillo Ale Works embarked on their hard seltzer journey in 2020 after a year of R&D. Founder and head brewer Bobby Mullins says he was hesitant to get into the hard seltzer fray after having seen alcoholic sodas like Not Your Father’s Root Beer boom then bust. “It went against everything I believed in as a brewer…until I started looking into it. Every craft beer brewer knows you brew a triple-chocolate imperial stout, but it’s really hard to brew a crisp, clean lager. I think hard seltzer takes it one step further because the hardest thing was a neutral base that complimented the flavor. That challenged appealed to me,” says Mullins, whose guiding question was a simple one. “Would we drink this?”

When Rio Fresco launched in a year that went topsy-turvy, it helped, not hindered, sales. The answer then was not only that Mullins would drink it, but a whole growing fan base would, too. Those fans include Julie Bucker who runs Bar and Garden, a wine and spirits bottle shop on Ross Avenue that stocks Rio Fresco in the cold case. I, too, am a fan of the Pineapple Mango and Watermelon Limón flavors. They hint at fruitiness and don’t slap you in the face with sugary artifice as other hard seltzers do. Flavors: Pineapple Mango, Blood Orange Hibiscus, Watermelon Limón, Agave Lime, seasonal/limited editions.

STRAIGHT FROM THE EDITOR’S MOUTH

I’m a cocktail girl. I like to infuse my booze with prickly pear or guava or smoked pineapple, top with Topo, and then throw in a few dashes of homemade pear or grapefruit bitters. Pretentious? Maybe. Requires time and planning? Certainly. Tastes purely of aged grains, fresh fruit, and whole spices? Absolutely. Which is why I can’t stand hard seltzers. They are like the worst of all worlds. They taste like carbonated rubbing alcohol with a fake lime peel thrown in. I don’t get it. But I’m trying. This can of Rio Fresco is beautifully packaged with a lovely matte lime green finish and a mod, graphic image of citrus and agave. I take a sip and want to scrape my tongue with a cactus paddle. I alternate between sipping and sniffing, waiting for the “vegan” nectar and “natural” lime to power through the weirdly artificial flavor and scent. It ain’t happening. Just give me a beer.”

Another editor had this to say: “This was exactly as advertised: Dill Pickle with a light bite of carbonation. It definitely fits with the fun Denton—hipster, a little unconventional—vibe. Worth a try! The first sip is a pretty big blast of pickle, but the more I drank, the less pickle I noticed, though small remnants were always present. For that reason, I think it might actually be the nose that triggers the pickle flavor. Overall though, the complaints I usually have about hard seltzers—too much bite or tastes like chemicals—were not an issue here. This could be a welcomed mild accompaniment at a picnic or barbecue, or with a burger.”

Yet another editor—hey, people are drawn to can design!—offered this review: “Does this taste like Blood Orange Hibiscus? Mostly! The flavor hits hard at first, like you’re being submerged in a citrusy dunk tank. Then comes the aftertaste, and you’re plunged into an antiseptic, metallic metropolis devoid of flavor. But in a fun way! Where would I drink this? In the lobby of a doctor’s office, when I seek temporary refuge from the impending reminder of my own mortality. Arbitrary rating: 4.7/7” (Editor’s note: There is no official rating system implemented for the purposes of this article outside of whatever 4.7 means to this particular editor who is not a food editor.)

Lone River Ranch Water comes in Original, Spicy, Red Grapefruit, and, the favorite, Prickly Pear.
Lone River Ranch Water

Lone River Ranch Water

PRICKLY PEAR 80 Calories | 4 Percent ABV

Lone River Ranch Water doesn’t hail from a North Texas brewery but stands on its own as a hard seltzer brand, which was born in 2020 and founded by SMU grad Katie Beal Brown. Made with 100 percent organic agave and natural juices, Lone River sidesteps the trappings of other fake-tasting hard seltzers out there. The Prickly Pear tastes nicely of its namesake flavor. Indeed, of the Lone River lineup, it was a favorite among D staff, myself included. I loved how crisp and clean it is without the hint of artifice you’d get from a La Croix (not hating on Croix here, but we aren’t pretending Key Lime Croix doesn’t taste exactly like liquified Skittles, right?). The Spicy, which gets its subtle kick from jalapeño flavors, zigs while all the basic seltzers brands zag. I respect the move to lean into spice rather than sweet. It maintains a fresh quality while also declaring, without a hint of irony, that Lone River is of Texas, by Texas, and for Texas. Flavors: Original, Prickly Pear, Spicy, Rio Red Grapefruit.

The team over at Four Corners Brewing have hatched, not a hard seltzer per se, but a boozy kombucha. It is, in a word, good.
Cristi Brinkman

Bucha Lada

RASPBERRY HIBISCUS 120 Calories | 4.5 Percent ABV

Four Corners Brewing is beloved for its beers, such as the El Grito lager, El Chingón IPA, and honey-rye golden ale, Local Buzz. But the brewing company wanted to expand beyond beer and deeper into other fermented drinks. “We wanted to demystify kombucha and create a package and product that was extremely approachable and lovely to look at,” says Cristi Brinkman, creative director and illustrator-designer at Four Corners. Enter BuchaLada, a boozy kombucha in a slender, matte can with an indeed lovely design by Brinkman.  It feels good to hold, it feels nice to gaze at, and it tastes as good as it looks, too. You might be surprised by how palatable these are—don’t let the word “kombucha” scare you off. These are sweet and sippable, sans much of the sour funk kombucha is known for. In fact, if you’re looking for the vague flavor profiles of a hard seltzer, this probably packs more punch than you’d want. For me, the Raspberry Hibiscus felt like I was drinking a soda rather than a seltzer, which I didn’t mind at all. The Grapefruit Sea Salt reminded me of how I like to sprinkle crunchy sea salt flakes onto a freshly halved grapefruit for breakfast. It was nice and easy to drink. Flavors: Grapefruit Sea Salt, Raspberry Hibiscus, Prickly Pear Ginger.

STRAIGHT FROM THE EDITOR’S MOUTH

The edge Four Corners has here is they can mash up ideas like kombucha that’s grapefruit flavored but with some salt on it like a total weirdo and create a flavor profile that can sorta be anything they want it to be because it’s entirely make believe. Anyway, this tastes like sweet tea brewed with Sunkist, which is absolutely an experience I’m down to be a part of.”

Not every flavor is a winner, but the ones the wow are worth getting the variety pack of Brite Side seltzer. Brought to you by Community Beer Co.
Brite Side

Brite Side

SUPER FRESH 90 Calories | 5 Percent ABV

The brains behind Community Beer Co. have hatched one of my favorite seltzers: Super Fresh, which is what happens when watermelon and cucumber have a bubbly, boozy baby in a can. This bev from Brite Side is the hard seltzer manifestation of a watermelon-flavored Charms Blow Pop you beg your parents to get you at the gas station so you can earn yourself another cavity in your molars. I honestly love it. It is on the sweet side, but not in a bothersome way (in the way that I’d trade you my Snickers for your lollipop with no take-backs). The Berry Twist is another solid option. Cranberry and lime tastes like a cabin by the lake where there’s no cell service so you just play board games all night, drinking this and refreshing Instagram to no avail until your iPhone says 5 percent battery is left. It’s not explicitly cranberry, but I think it’s to its benefit. If I close my eyes, this could be cherry limeade, and I like that. Garnish this with an actual lime and you’re golden. Flavors: Super Fresh, Berry Twist, Pinkies Up, Golden Mule.

RANCH20 is a canned cocktail, which means it uses actual liquor rather than alcohol derived from sugar as its boozy element.
RANCH20

RANCH20

CLASSIC MARG 150 Calories | 7 Percent ABV

Now these, to be clear, are canned cocktails, which differ from hard seltzers in that they use actual liquor rather than alcohol derived from sugar cane or agave, for example. In RANCH20’s Classic Marg, then, find tequila and a confident amount of lime flavor. It totally hits the spot on a balmy day when putting a few ingredients in a glass is too much work or when you’re on the go and want something simple. In the case, though, that you actually just want a margarita—or a ranch water or vodka soda, for that matter—well then, just get a margarita. In Dallas of all places, the birthplace of the frozen marg, you might just want to have that! If you’re hellbent on sipping a fizzy marg with minimal to no effort then, absolutely, this is for you. Flavors: Classic Marg, Gin Fizz, Vodka Soda, Ranch Water.

STRAIGHT FROM THE EDITOR’S MOUTH

On Gin Fizz: “This is like a dry Sprite, if that makes sense. It’s refreshing and is tart without being sour. I can find no evidence of synthetic malt liquor taste, either.”

Another editor ponders, “Does this taste like margarita? It tastes like a fourth grader’s idea of a margarita, which is to say someone pushed the lime button again and again and again until said button collapsed under the weight of lime oversaturation.” More pondering: “Where would I drink this? In a candy store, surrounded by other products in which the flavor is reduced to the broad strokes and then overrun by a mountain of sugar like barbarians storming a stronghold.”

The “TAP” in TAPWTR comes, of course, from Texas Ale Project, which brews Mojito Lime and Wild Berry hard seltzers.
TAPWTR

TAPWTR

MOJITO LIME 110 Calories | 5.4 Percent ABV

Before even cracking one open, the name gave me pause. Note from a wordsmith: Don’t name your seltzer tap water (or TAPWTR, in any stylization) lest you welcome the comparison. But I get it. It is clever as an in-joke, considering the TAP nods to Texas Ale Project, the brewery behind such a product. Although the name conjures a less than lip-smacking flavor, or lack thereof, Texas Ale Project’s Mojito Lime and Wild Berry don’t over promise and, thus, don’t under deliver. They are, to paraphrase Goldilocks, just fine. Flavors: Mojito Lime, Wild Berry.

STRAIGHT FROM THE EDITOR’S MOUTH

Regarding Mojito Lime: “The lime tastes synthetic, like it’s a facsimile of a mojito made in 2060 after the sun burned up the world’s lime supply. It tastes like someone trying to remember what a mojito tastes like. I would say the flavor profile is closer to a lemon-lime Four Loko than a mojito. The carbonation is strong. I’ll give it that.”

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