Can Hard Seltzer Survive the Winter?
Hard seltzer has been on a tear recently, but it faces some serious issues during the next few months.
When fall slowly dissolves into winter, I like to drink big whiskies, stout beers and other seasonally appropriate beverages. But what does a hard seltzer fan drink when the mercury drops?
It’s a question that is suddenly very important to brewers, since hard seltzer is propping up the industry.
White Claw, Truly and all of their competitors had an amazing summer and have ridden the hot weather to new heights of popularity but the winter is usually when beer sales tank. Seltzer haters are giddy with anticipation and are expecting a long-awaited comeuppance for the category.
The good news, is that White Claw and Truly have experienced winter before and their sales just kept growing right through the snow, sleet and hail. I don’t think it matters if it’s cold outside, the club is always hot inside. Plus, much of America isn’t affected that much by winter anyway.
But the category still faces a tough season with a blizzard of new flavors and brands entering the market. And that’s not to mention the growing pains of going from a niche business to a mainstream drink. Here are some of the major issues that hard seltzer makers will have to contend with this winter.
The hard seltzer category is dominated by Truly, which is made by Boston Beer, and White Claw, which is made by the same folks behind best-seller, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, so neither brand is backed by what you’d call a small company.
But their meteoric sales growth over the last few years has attracted the attention of the really big companies. Grupo Modelo, the brewers of Corona, recently jumped in with a hard agua fresca called Refresca. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which previously bought the small brand Bon & Viv, has wheeled out the biggest gun of all, Bud Light Seltzer, which is launching in early 2020. (If you read my piece about Natural Light Naturdays, well, there’s now a Natural Light Seltzer, too; “a f***ing seltzer,” as the brand’s introductory tweet put it so eloquently.)
Like almost all hard seltzers, Bud Light Seltzer is made from cane sugar. It will come in a familiar range of flavors—black cherry, lemon lime, strawberry, mango—and be packed in 12-ounce cans and also in battleship-sized 25-ounce cans.
“Seltzer has brought excitement to the entire category and brought consumers back to beer,” said Bud Light vice president of marketing Andy Goeler in a press release issued by the company. “We are looking forward to leveraging the power of the Bud Light brand to help grow the category.”
Whether drinking hard seltzer is bringing consumers “back to beer” is yet to be proven. And come on, is fermented cane sugar really “beer”? No, it is not, just like rum isn’t whiskey.
It was only a matter of time before a hard seltzer brand dialed up the alcohol level. And that’s exactly what Pabst has done with its Stronger Seltzer. At eight-percent ABV, it has zoomed past malt liquor and is at wine strength. Stronger Seltzer is sweetened with Stevia and has only one gram of sugar, even with all that booziness.
Is eight-percent not enough for you? You’re in luck because Phusion Projects is launching Four Loko Hard Seltzer. It’s “the hardest hard seltzer in the universe,” according to the company’s Instagram feed and at 12 percent ABV, they just might be right. Finish one of its 23.5-ounce cans and you’ll be wondering if they forgot to add the seltzer.
Phusion Projects first posted on social media about a Four Loko hard seltzer back in August: a “sour” hard seltzer with a “hint of Blue Razz” at 14 percent ABV. I’m convinced that they were just poking fun, and the response to the joke convinced them to go ahead and launch the product, albeit in a more conventional black cherry flavor and slightly more reasonable 12 percent ABV. That’s still some pretty hard seltzer.
How does a brand get an edge in a category that’s essentially just alcohol and some fizzy water? Use better fizzy water. Boston’s Harpoon Brewery has teamed up with New England’s acclaimed seltzer maker Polar to create Arctic Summer.
“Arctic Summer is doing well right out of the gate,” said Dan Kenary, co-founder of Harpoon Brewery. “What really resonates with customers is the fact that it comes from a collaboration with a real seltzer company with more than 100 years of experience.”
Ask any Polar fan, and they’ll tell you the brand’s bubbles are different, more intense. “Our level of carbonation is unique in the category,” said Kenary, “most other hard seltzers have a lower level of carbonation. Arctic Summer’s tiny bubbles carry and brighten the bold fruit essences and aromas, delivering a significantly more dynamic tasting experience.”
Better seltzer, better hard seltzer? We’ll see how that translates outside of New England; Arctic Summer just launched in California.
You knew it was going to happen, since these days everything has a “craft” version. But one of the brands that wants to lead the hard seltzer craft surge is, surprise, Truly.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds, since Truly is a product of craft parent company Boston Beer. To that end, Truly has revamped its entire line, tweaking the flavors. “For many of our flavors, we simply intensified the aroma and brought up the flavor profile, making it more natural and accurate to the natural fruit flavor it represents,” explained Casey O’Neill, Truly’s product development manager. The brand sent me several to try side by side with their corresponding old versions, and the new flavors did taste more like real fruit. It’s a subtle difference, but a real one.
That’s not the only change Truly is making, though this is maybe less crafty and more pure line extension, but it’s introducing a hard lemonade...seltzer, in four different flavors. They are the same five percent ABV and 100 calories as the standard Truly seltzer, but with a different taste profile.
There’s also a small company called Vivify that has two brands that did well at the recent “Fizz Fight” competition event in Denver. The odd thing is that neither of the of the drinks are called “hard seltzer.” There is the Itz Spritz, which is a “spritz cocktail;” the other, Bravazzi, is an “Italian-style soda with alcohol.”
Co-founder Sarah Ross says it’s not just branding. “The products are different!” she exclaimed. Bravazzi’s flavors “are citrusy and juicy, like drinking fruit juice mixed with sparkling water, so the taste profile is very different than a hard seltzer where the goal is to minimize flavor.”
I’d have to agree; Bravazzi is like drinking a spiked San Pellegrino, the low-sugar Italian soda and Itz Spritz is similarly more about the flavor than most hard seltzers.
“We really lean into flavor with both brands and do it with natural and better for you ingredients,” said Ross. “Not everyone is on a diet and constantly counting carbs and calories. Most of us just want a delicious alcohol beverage that isn’t full of fake stuff!” That sounds a lot like what craft brewers used to say about light beer.
Philadelphia’s Evil Genius, which is a straight-up craft brewer, complete with beers that have weird names and odd ingredients (like its Purple Monkey Dishwasher peanut chocolate porter), is now making a craft hard seltzer named, prosaically enough, Evil Genius Hard Seltzer. It seems counter-intuitive, a classic craft brewery, making IPAs, stouts, sours...and hard seltzer. Isn’t that going to cost them street cred?
“We’ve never really cared much about street cred,” said co-founder Trevor Hayward. “We make beer (and now seltzers) for people who enjoy great tasting, excellently made beverages. We’ve always denounced the hoity-toity snobbery that some breweries lean into.”
Evil Genius is making three pretty basic flavors—black cherry, lemon lime, and grapefruit—though there are plans to experiment down the line. How does that fit with the idea of “craft” being something that means pushing boundaries?
“Defining what ‘craft’ is, is the eternal question, no?” Hayward responded. “I think for us, it tells our customer that you’re buying small batch, generally small company products, and we know that people these days like to support local businesses.”
That opens the door to a lot of hard seltzer brands. I keep thinking that hard seltzer may be the next light beer, something that completely shifts the basic assumptions of the market. But if it is the next light beer, it’s clearly going to evolve faster and more diversely than light beer ever did.
Or it may be another large flash in the pan. We’ll have to wait and see...and get through this winter.