First came the nationwide firehose of hard seltzer. Then, on a parallel path, brewers began loading up their kettle sours with buckets of fruit puree to create thick, creamy smoothie-style beers. As both of these trends reached different parts of the American drinking populace, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to Frankenstein the two hyper-popular beverages into one. And in early 2020, someone did. Now, drinkers around the Midwest are growing increasingly familiar with what’s known as the “seltzer smoothie,” thanks to a brand called Smooj.
If you haven’t yet encountered the creamy, sparkly, boozy rocket ship in a can, you likely will soon. Introduced last March by Ann Arbor’s HOMES Brewery via its experimental beverage arm, Troobado, Smooj’s seltzer smoothie is one part hard seltzer, one part fruit puree, gluten-free, dairy-free, 5 percent ABV, and might just be the next big beverage trend set to sweep across the country.
Currently available in just two states (Michigan and Pennsylvania), with just two flavors in wide release (Strawberry Banana and Piña Colada), Smooj has already earned a spot among the top-rated “breweries” in the world on the beer ranking app Untappd. And it’s also currently the app’s No. 2 “nano brewery” on earth.
But where did the idea for a sweet, milkshake-thick hard seltzer even come from? And how did it find a foothold in Michigan?
According to Smooj owner Tommy Kennedy, the stay-at-home order of March 2020 is to thank for the hard seltzer smoothie. “All of a sudden we were grounded back at the beginning of the pandemic and it was like, OK, if we’re going to be here, we’re really going to try and take a swing at something,” Kennedy says. “We started really pouring our energy and resources into seeing if we can make this a thing.”
A thing it certainly is. Emerging from the thicker, fruit-forward smoothie beers it had dabbled in at HOMES, and inspired by the levels of hype that those beers generate among beer traders online, the brand saw an opportunity to leverage that trend to fill in the blank left by other seltzers. Whereas “[regular seltzer] does tend to have the not-natural flavoring aspects to it and tends to be pretty dry, we [said] let’s make it like the opposite of that: big flavor and pack it with real fruit,” Kennedy says. Plus, they’re easily scalable from a production standpoint and “a great starting point for carbonated alcohol,” he adds.
Smooj saw exponential growth from the very first release. “Starting off, we had a small batch, but we limited it to four cans per person and it sold out in about a day. We did the same thing probably a week later, and it sold out in a couple hours,” Kennedy says. “By the third time — and basically every time following that — our server would crash as soon as we put it up. So we were pretty sure there was a potential for virality with it.”
Based on the success of the first two flavors, the appeal is immediately clear. Smooj is somehow simultaneously thick and creamy but also sparklingly carbonated, with deep natural fruit flavors that regular hard seltzer can only give you a whiff of. They’re also more satisfying than your average seltzer, thanks in part to the calorie count — Smooj tips the scales at 240 calories per can compared to the average 100 calories of hard seltzer. Health aspects aside, it feels more decadent to drink a Smooj, more like a tropical dessert, compared to a swig of slightly medicinal-tasting bubble water.
Given Smooj’s immediate popularity, it’s no surprise clones are beginning to emerge in its wake. One challenger for the seltzer smoothie crown is Fruity Boom from Minneapolis’s Fair State Brewing Cooperative. Head brewer Joe Wells said that these, too, emerged in 2020 following some behind-the-scenes experimentation the year before. “We started making an in-house product called Turbo Ultra, which is anywhere from like 17 to 19 percent ABV,” he says. “It’s actually really surprisingly delicious — it honestly tastes like cheap Prosecco.”
Using that super-seltzer as a base, Fair State created riffs on cocktails like Negronis and Aperol Spritzes, and after a weekend of independent Piña Colada experimentation between Wells and owner Nico Tonks, their Fruity Boom line of hard seltzer smoothies emerged. Initial varieties came in flavors like fruit juice, coconut cream coffee, apple cider, and “one with pistachios that was fluorescent green and tasted like a Waldorf salad,” Wells said.
The current Pineapple + Orange + Banana Fruity Boom is available in crowlers thanks to a partner with a tunnel pasteurizer (“One thing we really did not want to do was to have to put a disclaimer on the side saying, ‘Keep cold or it’s going to explode,’” Wells says). Though due to the vagaries of Minnesota laws about what can be sold from brewery taprooms, the Boom will have to stay closer to home in a 750-milliliter format.
Other recent entries to the game include two Chicagoland breweries: Phase Three Brewing recently added a line of smoothie seltzers dubbed Lulz, while Mikerphone Brewing is set to roll out a new line called Puree-ntal Advisory in mid-May.
Mikerphone owner Mike Pallen fully admits to his Smooj admiration in crafting its new pineapple/mango/banana smoothie. “I’ve been freaking out about Smooj,” he says. “Obviously … it’s always cool to see when a brewery says, ‘What can we do next?’ In beer, we’ve already gone to the deep end, but there’s always things to do that push the bar, and look where they’re at. They have that whole thing on lockdown.”
In spite of this recent activity, no one has committed to the style as much as Smooj, meaning there’s still a clear lane for it to dominate the category that it created, which is assuredly the goal. “I’m certain that three years from now, this category of hard seltzer smoothie is gonna seem like, ‘Well, of course that was supposed to happen. It was inevitable,’” Kennedy says. But, he maintains, “it was not.” And without the time to experiment in those bewildering, head-scratching months full of downtime in early 2020, who knows if hard seltzer smoothies would even exist? Lucky for curious drinkers, though, they do.
In the near future, it’s likely that the name Smooj — for which the company is currently in a trademark lawsuit over, another indication that it looms large enough to have other operations pick fights with it — will be as inseparable from seltzer smoothies as White Claw is with hard seltzer. “We wanted to just take it to 10 right away and make sure that we’re defining this other category [and] to not be compromising in any way,” Kennedy says. “Let’s just set that mark out as far as we can and make exactly what we’d want to be drinking.”
With California reportedly next on the distribution map for Smooj, that far-out mark is about to hit the Pacific. From there? It’s just a matter of time (and puree availability) before the hard seltzer smoothie takes the country — and likely every taproom— by storm.