When Ron Alvarado and Mike Williamson went into business together in 2018, they hoped to bring better-for-you ingredients to the US bar scene, cutting back on calories and sugar. But they didn’t start with seltzer.
They first set out to improve the mixers category, creating non-alcoholic cocktail mixers for margaritas, Moscow mules and Bloody Marys. Each has about half the sugar and calories of traditional mixers, and they’re now sold in Target and BevMo! stores.
When the pair decided to develop an alcoholic product, they felt seltzer was a natural choice given its healthier profile. Ficks Hard Seltzer launched at the Natural Products Expo West show in spring 2018, about one year ahead of the US seltzer craze.
Now the line consists of Blackberry, Cranberry, Grapefruit and Lime. Each 12oz can contains 100 calories, 1-3g of carbs, 0g of sugar and a 5% ABV.
A reckoning for 'farm to fizz'
While creating the beverage, Alvarado told BeverageDaily that they ‘couldn’t stand’ the taste of hard seltzers already on the market, in terms of the flavoring as well as the alcohol base. They chose to use real fruit juice to flavor Ficks, not unlike the approach of non-alcoholic seltzer brand Spindrift.
Sales of Spindrift have grown exponentially in the last few years, driven by health and wellness branding and a short list of ingredients. Its Lemon flavor only contains carbonated water and lemon juice, for example. Ficks is using a similar ‘real fruit’ model, just adding alcohol.
“We think that eventually there will be a bit of a reckoning … We think there’s an opportunity to build a premium category within hard seltzer. Our whole take on hard seltzer is that it’s replacing light beer. There’s no reason for us why you can’t have multiple dimensions of that category,” Alvarado said.
Ficks calls their process ‘farm to fizz,’ emphasizing the importance of having a story behind ingredients, and that there’s no story behind ‘natural flavors’ or extracts. Ficks sources its berries from Washington state, grapefruit from east Texas and limes from southern California and Mexico.
Fermented oranges vs malt liquor
As consumers turn away from beer and choose hard seltzers for the low calorie, carb and sugar counts, Alvarado believes it will only be natural for them to start to question the hard seltzer category leaders. Most of the bigger brands like White Claw and Truly flavor and sweeten with just the typical proprietary ‘natural flavors,’ not disclosing actual ingredients.
Mainstream brands also are more apt to use malt liquor bases, a common and cost-effective practice. Ficks calls its alcohol base ‘cold fermented sucrose,’ and it was another choice made for taste quality.
Alvarado and Williamson experimented with malt liquor in the early stages of Ficks, but they weren’t satisfied with the results. Since they come from wine country in California, Alvarado revealed they took a winemaker’s approach and introduced Valencia oranges to the ferment.
They ferment the oranges with a sugar base completely dry, so it results in a zero sugar dry alcohol. It eliminates a chemical taste and is similar to the process of fermenting apples to make hard cider.
Many seltzer and flavored malt beverage brewers are doing a pure sugar ferment, or buying industrial alcohol from a co-packer rather than fermenting it themselves, according to Alvarado. It’s a quicker solution but typically lower quality.
Finally tapping the right category
The team at Ficks isn’t surprised that hard seltzers have caught on so rapidly in the US, and believes the category is here to stay. Alvarado thinks light beer has been ‘on the chopping block’ for awhile, and that vodka soda drinkers have been onto the category for the last few decades.
It took so long for hard seltzer to flourish because no one found a way to make it scalable. Because of the high taxes on spirits, Alvarado explained, ready-to-drink cocktails have traditionally been expensive to make and sell.
But hard seltzers are legally classified as beer in the US, which allows for cheaper beer pricing with the ‘healthy’ nutrition panel found in something like a vodka soda.
“We think this is the future of alcohol, whether it’s kombucha or hard seltzer. We think beer has failed in a lot of ways to address that low sugar, low calorie consumer while also giving some flavor. We think it can grow just as big as light beer is now,” Alvarado said.
Ficks is currently sold in California, Arizona and Washington state, with more markets coming this year. They are primarily found in Safeway, Target, Whole Foods, Costco and BevMo!. Ficks will exhibit again at Expo West next week in Anaheim, California.