After a few millennia of human booze making, developing a brand-new hooch might seem pretty impossible. But Santa Barbara-raised Peter Stearns spent more than two years putting his Cal Poly food science degree to work in creating Hard Frescos, an alcoholic soda made by fermenting the ingredients typically found in Mexican aguas frescas, such as the hibiscus flowers of jamaica and tamarind pods of tamarindo.
“There is no category for this,” said Stearns, explaining that the federal government mandated including a tiny bit of malt so it could classified as a malt beverage, like other entries in the emergent “hard soda” genre. “It’s like fruit wine,” said Stearns, who uses so little malt that it’s considered gluten-free, “but made like beer.”
Stearns, who graduated Santa Barbara High in 1994 and Cal Poly in 1999, spent the first part of his career developing recipes for healthy food companies like Balance Bar, Tanka Bar, and Annie’s, where he worked on the popular Cheddar Bunnies. But he was always working on “crazy mad scientist” ideas in his free time and got an MBA from Golden Gate University in 2012.
After visiting his sister Grace (S.B. High class of ’99) in Mexico City — where she’s lived for nine years, teaching art and running a bar/restaurant — Stearns realized how popular the fresh-squeezed fruit juices were in the country, served from the urban streets to sandy beaches and mountain towns. It was a stark contrast to the sugary, artificial sodas that are peddled strongly to the Mexican-American community, where obesity and nutrition problems are rampant. “They’re basically marketing crap to people, with artificial flavors and fake ingredients,” said Grace Stearns of the American formula. “Mexico City is not like that. They’re into fresh pressed juices. We know what people in Mexico like for real.”
Stearns found inspiration for his own project but didn’t want to replicate the usual hard-soda recipe of combining “white lightning” — basically grain alcohol — with artificially flavored pop. “I wanted to go and ferment the real ingredients,” said Stearns, who then began figuring out how to turn kola nut, guava, and other exotic ingredients into alcohol with fermentation experts at UC Davis’s Robert Mondavi Institute, where he won the support of Mondavi’s grandson Carlo Mondavi. “Each one is completely different,” he explained of the process, in which some fruits use ale yeasts and others use pilsner yeasts to ferment. Dialing in those specifics also produced many “funny stories of exploding bottles,” as well.
This summer, after more than two years of trials, 42 label changes, the establishment of a production facility in Washington State, and the creation of a distribution network that involves tortilla delivery trucks, the Stearns launched Hard Frescos in Southern California, with Texas and Mexico as the next major market targets. The first flavors are Citrico (citrus-guava), Tangy Tamarindo, Juicy Jamaica, and Cola Buena, and they can be drunk cold, straight from the can and bottle. But they’re most refreshing on ice and also make for interesting cocktails, especially cutting the smoke of mezcal or heat of tequila.
“It’s pretty versatile, and we’re still figuring out the brand,” said Stearns. “We see the concept as between Jarritos and Corona. We’re trying to be right in the middle.”
Hard Frescos can be found across California and in Santa Barbara at Whole Foods (which is hosting a tasting on Nov. 12, 4-7pm), The Bottle Shop, 805 Deli, Mesa Liquor, Keg ’N Bottle, Riviera Market, Westside Market, O’Malley’s, The Nugget Downtown, Cesar’s Place, and Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. They will also be served on Saturday at the S.B. Bowl’s Día de los Muertos Celebration after-party at Sama Sama and The Good Lion. See hardfrescos.com.