We sniffed and sipped, we coughed and laughed. We called a beverage “basic.”
The Milwaukee Magazine staff gathered this week – it had been a while, folks – and tasted what we thought were all eight flavors of Wisconsin’s own Press hard seltzer. (Turns out we missed one. More on that in a minute.)
The gathering aside, sipping hard seltzers is a very 2020 activity. The explosive growth in sales and shelf space that began in 2019 has continued this year. Nationally, hard seltzers doubled their market share this summer over last, accounting for 10% of the beer sales they’re lumped in with for a four-week period in June and July, according to an Axios report. Data from Wisconsin grocery stores from last July showed we were already at about 10% hard seltzer share of the beer market. That figures to have grown further this year.
Thing is, hard seltzer has mostly been the domain of big, national players.
The sector-dominating White Claw is owned by the same company that makes Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and the distant No. 2, Truly, is a creation of the Boston Beer Co., the maker of Samuel Adams beers and Angry Orchard ciders. Molson Coors has launched a few brands, none of which has really caught on (don’t bother with those nasty Leinenkugel’s Spritzens), and this year big beer has also given us Bud Light Seltzer and Corona Seltzer.
But with the market continuing to grow, there’s plenty of room for smaller, and even local, hard seltzers. This year already, Sheboygan’s 3 Sheeps Brewing rolled out its Cloudless brand and Milwaukee Brewing debuted the Tierra Buena line of hard seltzers. Last year Sprecher Brewery introduced a single hard seltzer based on an Old Fashioned Press cocktail, with more likely to come.
But Milwaukee-based Press is one of the hard seltzer O.G.s. Amy Walberg founded it in 2015 – a year before White Claw was introduced – and it has a solid presence in bottle shops and grocery stores around Wisconsin. Earlier this year, international beer/wine/spirits company Constellation Brands took a minority ownership stake in the brand.
Press’ media contact played it a little coy about where the seltzers are made; narrowing it only down to “western Wisconsin, a land of endless bluffs and pristine streams.” I’ll simply note here that City Brewery, one of the biggest contract brewers in the country, is based in the former G. Heileman brewery in La Crosse.
Anyway, Press’ sleek can design and interesting ingredients position it as a kind of a grown-up, more sophisticated seltzer option. This doesn’t really seem to be going for the “ain’t no laws when you’re drinkin’ Claws” set.
And while hard seltzers all look the same and their metrics are pretty close – nearly universally 4-5% alcohol by volume and around or under 100 calories – there are significant differences in these beverages. Not just the flavorings (whcih do matter a lot), but also the base seltzer. Some are crisper, fizzier, sweeter, drier, lighter, etc., than others.
So we jumped at the chance to run down the complete product line of our original home-grown seltzery. The samples provided by Press, though, omitted its top seller: Blackberry Hibiscus, which (like a lot of these other offerings) sounds pretty good.
Before we dig into the individual flavors, some general notes on Press’ seltzers. We found them all to be very clean, dry and somewhat alkaline – all pleasant characteristics for the base seltzer. Our tasters found Press to be not as highly carbonated as White Claw (the obvious comparison), as well as having less mineral character while also being generally more flavorful. One taster noted that she liked that the flavors all come in pairs, which can make for interesting combinations and flavor exploration.
Overall, these seltzers do drink as the premium products they’re positioned as – kind of the craft beer of seltzer – which is great because they’re priced similarly to White Claw and Truly.
On to the flavors! Most of these are available year-round in six-packs and/or variety 12-packs – one of which will be making its debut in late August.
This one was my personal favorite, with an aroma and flavor that one taster described as Sweet Tarty before another jumped in with a more apt descriptor: Smarties. Those little tart, fruity, chalky round candies that come in rolls? This is that, like if you just empty the whole little sleeve into your mouth at once and chew. Maybe that’s because we had really no idea what a lingonberry or elderflower really taste like. After kind of looking for it, we did find a hint of a floral note in both the aroma and flavor. I know the candy comparisons make this sound pretty sweet, and while it was on the sweeter side of this tasting, it was still quite balanced and far from cloying.
This one was a polarizing flavor among our panel, and perhaps the most straightforward of our tasting. One taster noted correctly that it’s quite a bit like a Sprite, without the sugary sweetness.
There was alchemy in this can. Somehow, without containing any of these flavorings, our tasters were picking up coconut and strawberry notes. I think our brain was recognizing the pineapple and tricking itself into completing the pina colada. One taster insisted it tasted like a Miami Vice cocktail, which she helpfully explained is a blend of strawberry daiquiri and pina colada. It may also have been the power of suggestion, but Pineapple Basil also seemed creamier than the other flavors. The basil character is only there as a light herbal note; it doesn’t play much against the much more assertive pineapple.
This flavor, one of Press’ stalwarts, was a popular favorite with our group. It has a gentle touch with the ginger – not too spicy, and a nice complement to the sweet/tart fruit.
Most of us agreed this one was the easiest-drinking of the Press flavors due to a very light flavor. This surprised me because grapefruit is an intense flavor that’s not usually underplayed. But here it’s not at all tart or bitter, and it’s paired with a really subtle earthy funk, presumably from the spice. We agreed this flavor was somewhat less dry than the others.
This one was a clunker all around for our group. It’s very chamomile forward, which makes for a decent aroma, but not necessarily for something you drink. One taster described it as barely more drinkable than a “Bed Bath & Body Works lotion.” It also had an artificial, metallic flavor that is somewhat common in hard seltzers, but was absent in the other Press flavors.
Blood Orange Chili
Whoa! This one – the lone flavor we tried that is remaining a rotational instead of permanent offering – has an intensely spicy aroma, especially when it’s first poured or the can first cracked. No kidding, it actually induced capsaicin coughs in multiple members of the panel – including myself, and I’m a big fan of spicy foods. It drinks spicy, too, with a little of the sweet citrus character but still a lot of heat – including a lingering burn in the front of the throat. All of it was too much for many of us, but it was one taster’s favorite flavor, too. We speculated it might be good with food – something you don’t think about all that often with seltzers.
If you think this combination sounds dreamy in a seltzer, you’re going to love it, because it absolutely delivers on the premise. Otherwise, you’re probably going to want to pass. Even the biggest fan of this flavor – the co-worker who routinely drinks cinnamon tea when we’re in the office – described it as “basic,” and not really referring to simplicity. We thought this flavor – or maybe just our moods – might be improved with a shot of Fireball dropped in. People do that!
All the flavors!
After we ran through our tasting, there were a whole bunch of partial cans left, and being an idiot with a curious streak, I had to cuvee them. There may have been six flavors that went into my cup – I perhaps should have kept track of them – but it didn’t matter. It could have been good but it was not; I do not recommend a cuvee of however many different Press seltzers. (But, yes, I did finish my cup.)