Brewer portfolio diversification continues with several jumping into the growing hard soda category. While Chicago’s Berghoff Rowdy Root Beer and Sprecher from Glendale, WI, have followings where distributed, Small Town Brewing (owned by Pabst Brewing Co.) drew serious attention to hard sodas this summer with the strong sales of its Not Your Father’s Root Beer. The recently launched Hard Root Beer from Coney Island Brewing (owned by The Boston Beer Co. via its Alchemy & Science division) is also on a roll, going national as this is being written. The announcement by MillerCoors that it would debut the Henry’s line of hard sodas in early 2016—led not by root beer but by a hard ginger ale and orange soda—confirms these beverages as the next level of innovation from brewers large and small. However, Anheuser-Busch appears to be taking a wait-and-see position.
No doubt, these beverages are relevant: they’re the logical next step for brewers looking to give consumers an alternative or incremental alcohol option beyond craft beer and hard cider. Alcohol sodas deliver on several “craft” attributes and appeal to both men and women. The root beers are technically beer; Not Your Father’s Root Beer, for example, is an ale with 5.9% ABV. Most retailers and on-premise operators are merchandising them with their craft beer offerings. Henry’s will come in at 4.2%, closer to a light beer, and it’s touted as a “soda,” not a beer.
How to classify these beverages isn’t the only question. As hard soda goes from emerging to explosive, industry pros and observers alike are wondering about its potential. Hard lemonades and teas have ridden their respective waves in recent years. The Mike’s Hard line was driven by the flagship Lemonade for years, but slowed recently. Flavor extensions and the introduction of the Mike’s Harder offerings have kept the brand growing overall. Twisted Tea from Boston Beer Co. grew volume nearly 20% in 2014, according to the soon-to-be-released 2015 BeerTAB Report. In addition, fast-rising Redd’s Apple Ale has drawn attention to the flavored beer segment. Launched in 2012, it’s grown to more than 8 million cases and ranks among the fastest-growing beer brands, according to BeerTAB. These brands have their competitors, but there appears to be room for only one major player in each style, which speaks to the size of the market appeal of these beverages.
Could the same be true of hard sodas? Is it a niche segment? If history is any indicator, hard soda will likely spike in volume in the coming months and more brands will enter the fray. Intrigued, consumers undoubtedly will explore the various offerings and incorporate some into their own drinks portfolios. The primary appeal of these beverages is the unique flavors—many of which are nostalgic in nature—and producers will be hard-pressed to innovate to keep consumers engaged while also competing with craft beer, hard cider, hard lemonades, hard teas and flavored malt beverages. However classified, hard sodas have both a tremendous opportunity and a tough road ahead.