By: Nan McCreary, Sr. Staff Writer
Listen up, fans of wine, beer and spirits: there’s a rising star in the beverage universe, and it’s taking the market by storm. It’s hard seltzer, a ready-to-drink cocktail made from three essential ingredients—carbonated water, fermented malt or sugar, and fruit. Described as light, crisp and refreshing, the drink has become so popular that beverage pundits named this past June, July and August “the summer of hard seltzer.”
While seltzer has been around for years, hard seltzer first bubbled up in 2013 when a brand called Spiked Seltzer—now known as Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer—hit the market. The drink was such a success that other popular brands followed, and the industry exploded. According to Nielsen, from March 2018 to March 2019, sales of hard seltzer totaled $585 million. This represents a 200% growth, with 164.3% happening in July alone. Some analysts predict sales could expand to $2.5 billion by 2021.
So, what’s with all the buzz? It’s really pretty simple: hard seltzer is low in sugar and alcohol, usually gluten-free, relatively inexpensive, sold in convenient cans, makes a great mixer and, oh yes, tastes good. With today’s health-conscious millennials as a key consumer demographic, that’s a definite formula for success.
Let’s start with the better-for-you benefits. Hard seltzer is almost always made from fermented sugars, while beer is made from fermented barley and other grains. During the fermentation process, most of hard seltzer’s sugar converts into neutral alcohol, as opposed to grain-fermented spirits which don’t wholly ferment, leaving behind more sugar and, of course, more calories. Typically, hard seltzers contain 100 calories or less per 12-ounce can, with only 4-5% ABV, about the same as a light beer. With no barley or wheat, hard seltzers are also gluten-free.
Besides being lower in calories, spiked seltzers come in many fruit flavors, offering a refreshing alternative to beer, wine or cocktails. White Claw, currently the dominant player in the market, owned by Mark Anthony Brands, has six flavors: black cherry, ruby grapefruit, natural lime, raspberry, mango, and Pure, the latter made to mimic a vodka soda.
White Claw’s primary competitor, Boston Beer’s Truly Hard Hard Seltzer, produces four styles of 13 hard seltzers: four berry, four citrus, four tropical styles, and a Rosé, described as “delicately sweet with a hint of California Chardonnay grapes.”
The flavors in hard seltzers come from extracts, natural flavors, real fruit juices or concentrates. For the brewer, experimenting with flavors of sparkling water is a blank canvas; while with beer, pushing the limits with fruit or botanicals can upset the flavor of the malt base.
While hard seltzers can be delicious in themselves, the beverage is very versatile and mixes with just about anything to make an outstanding drink. Some mix it with classics like vodka soda and tequila soda, which adds depth and complexity to the drinks. Others replace the nonalcoholic seltzer in any cocktail with an alcoholic one. Another option is to create a spritzer by adding white wine to your favorite hard seltzer. For all of these drinks, ingredients can be adjusted to each person’s tastes. While the mixes will be a little more “boozy,” they’re still a low-calorie alternative to a cocktail.
Hard seltzers are especially appealing to those with an active lifestyle because they are portable. The 12-ounce cans are ready-to-drink and ideal for camping, beach outings, boating, stadium events, or any destination where glass is not allowed or discouraged. Like canned wine and canned cocktails, they also offer the advantage of no mixing and, in the case of wine, no corkscrews. Plus, aluminum cans are shatterproof and easier to maintain and transport than glass.
Hard seltzers offer one more advantage: they are often cheaper than craft beer and certainly less expensive than a mid-range bottle of wine or spirits. A 12-pack of White Claw 12-ounce cans sells for about $15, which is the same price as a domestic light beer and an average cost for a bottle of wine. Canned cocktails retail for $12 to $15 for a four-pack of 12-ounce cans, while a four-pack of 250 ml canned wines averages at $16.
With all of these benefits, it’s no wonder that hard seltzers are having a moment. Plus, with craft beer sales going flat, brewers are turning to alternatives to expand their sales. Today, there are dozens of brands of spiked seltzers on the market, with the numbers growing by the day. Even big beer is jumping on the bandwagon. Anheuser-Busch acquired Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer in 2016, Constellation Brands owns Svedka Spiked Premium Seltzer, Diageo touts Smirnoff Spiked Sparkling Seltzer, Oskar Blues has Wild Basin, and MillerCoors has Henry’s Hard Sparkling. In August, Pabst Blue Ribbon announced the release of its first spiked seltzer drink, Stronger Seltzer, at 8% ABV. Four Loko, known for its colorful cans of high-alcohol malt beverages, is releasing a spiked seltzer with a 14% ABV. They’re describing the product as the “hardest seltzer in the universe.”
Of small breweries entering the market, one of the more noteworthy is Braxton Brewing Company, whose nationally acclaimed seltzer, VIVE, was just named “Official Hard Seltzer of the Cincinnati Bengals.” Based in Covington, Kentucky, Braxton is the region’s first brewery to release a hard seltzer. The spiked seltzer has only 100 calories and two grams of carbohydrates per 12-ounce can. It’s available in four naturally flavored varieties; mango, lime, dragonfruit and grapefruit. In honor of its partnership with the Bengals, the brewery recently released a Tailgate Variety Pack that includes four flavors: blood orange, cherry, peach and black raspberry.
For Braxton Brewing, described as “a place where ideas are born and fermented,” entry into the hard seltzer market in 2018 was a natural extension of the entrepreneurial spirit of brothers Evan and Jake Rouse, who founded the craft brewery in 2015.
“We pride ourselves in innovation, and we like to create products that our customers really want to drink,” Jake Rouse told Beverage Master Magazine. “Hard seltzer plays toward the health and wellness trend that is sweeping the country, so we wanted to offer a low-calorie alternative to beer and a ‘better-for-you’ beverage.”
Braxton Brewing has enjoyed success with its hard seltzers similar to the explosive growth it experienced when the brewery first opened three short years ago. “VIVE has been very successful because of the quality of the product,” Rouse said. “It’s all-natural, and we’re using real fruit. It tastes like water with fruit in it, and that flavor profile works really well in competition with the big producers.”
Hard seltzer, with three simple ingredients, may seem like a simple beverage to produce, but in fact, “getting it right” is a challenge, according to Rouse. “It’s really difficult to make a great hard seltzer because you’re creating a product that tastes like water,” he said. “While you need to have that 5% alcohol flavor, you don’t want it to taste like there’s a bunch of alcohol in it.”
Rouse explained that their process for making hard seltzer is a proprietary process developed during beer-making. “The result,” he said, “is a product that’s clear and easy to drink and flavorful without that alcohol sting to it. All brands have their own processes, so they’ll all be different.”
Hard seltzer’s popularity is rising in the beverage industry and showing no signs of abating. Experts note that consumers of all ages and genders are counting calories and watching their alcohol consumption, giving hard seltzer a leg up in the search for a good tasting, low-calorie, low-alcohol drink. Beverage professionals predict that big beer will seek more opportunities for hard seltzers, and even small breweries will try to lure local customers with a better-for-you alternative to beer. Braxton Brewing Company, which already distributes to three different states, told Beverage Master Magazine that they are seeking opportunities for greater distribution of VIVE, and are considering adding new flavors to their portfolio.
With these trends in mind, it seems that there only one place for hard seltzer to go—and that’s upwards!