Ann Arbor brewery draws national attention with hard seltzer smoothie

The hard seltzer smoothie Smooj seems to be popping up everywhere lately – from local grocery stores and bars to The Today Show. But the popular beverage got its start at an Ann Arbor brewery that was looking to diversify its product line during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When HOMES Brewery opened at 2321 Jackson Ave. in Ann Arbor in 2017, owner Tommy Kennedy's idea was to subvert the traditional model of distribution that has brought national recognition to other Michigan breweries, like Bell's. 

"We were trying to build a local audience who was excited and backed what we were doing and would stay flexible and go on the adventure with us. We [wanted] to be artisanal, an always-changing kind of brewery," says Kennedy of the wildly inventive sour beers he and his team offered on tap. "That was great, and then COVID hit. We realized we were relying on a small audience to really carry us, and if we were going to keep people employed and be able to endure a pandemic, we definitely needed to diversify our options."

In 2019, on a trip to a brewing conference in Denver, a friend in the industry had asked Kennedy and his head brewer if they, like many breweries at the time, were planning to get into the hard seltzer market. White Claw Hard Seltzer had become increasingly popular that year, and a slew of other products followed, offering tipplers a clear, effervescent, low-calorie alternative to beer. 

The market already seemed saturated, but Kennedy didn’t rule out the possibility.

"On that trip we started ruminating, 'If we’re really going to do it, how can we do it differently? What’s good about seltzer? What could we bring to it that we think would be unique?'" Kennedy recalls. 

It wasn’t until a year later, when they were grounded by the pandemic, that they began to experiment. Though Kennedy was never a smoothie drinker, moving in a fruit-forward direction felt like a natural path to follow. 

"We deal with fruit so often anyway, especially ... because we’re a brewery that does lots of sour IPAs," Kennedy explains. 

Fermented using the same method as clear hard seltzer, Smooj relies on fresh fruit for its signature flavor and creamy texture. It’s gluten- and dairy-free, has an ABV of 5%, and comes in strawberry banana and pina colada flavors. To name the product, Kennedy sought "an ideophone" for what the beverage is.

"Smooj — it had a smooth sound, and the ‘j’ was for an introduction of ‘juicy,'" he says. "It was a little playful, and mildly risque."

The first batch was made available on the HOMES website for curbside pickup in June 2020. 

"People found it, and it was gone in a couple days," Kennedy says. "Next time it was gone in a couple hours. Then it started crashing our website every time we put it up. It was pretty evident there was a market for it then. We started ramping up our concentration on it after that."

A year later, Kennedy has purchased a building that will be devoted entirely to Smooj production. Smooj is now available at local bars, Kroger, and soon, Trader Joe’s. This summer it will also be hitting shelves across Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and California, with more outlets to follow. But hometown fans will still have exclusive access to HOMES' brewpub-only twist on the popular can: a frozen Smooj-based slushie, spiked with liquor.

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.

Photo courtesy of HOMES Brewery.
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