The Rise of Hard Soda


They’re expanding beer-drinkers’ tastes while expanding the market

First it was hard lemonade, then hard cider, and now there is yet another player on the burgeoning craft product scene: hard soda.

The rise of this new entry was kick-started when Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer (originally released in 2012) was re-released by Pabst last March.  Now, riding the wave with Pabst and adding their own spin on hard sodas are beer leaders MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch. The three brewers are tapping into the adult beverage market by creating a product whose sweet taste makes it easier and more fun to drink than beer.

Says Kate Tigani, assistant marketing manager and advertising coordinator of Standard Distributing Co., “It’s exciting. It’s opening up a whole new category and a whole new consumer base by introducing beer to people who were turned off by beer.”

According to USA TODAY, IRI, a market research company, predicts that hard soda sales will double in 2016. Imagine this when considering that Not Your Father’s Root Beer sold $7.2 million in the first six months of 2015, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.

Mellissa Riggs, field marketing manager for MillerCoors, says this trend has to do not only with the growth of the craft beer segment, but with people wanting more choices. Riggs says most consumers, particularly millennials, have grown up with a lot of different flavors and like to have options. At the same time, Brian Ferschinger, senior director of MillerCoors Innovations, says MillerCoors Henry’s Hard Soda, introduced in January, targets Gen X because they grew up with soda and are drawn to its familiar flavor.

Beyond offering more flavor options, hard sodas are capturing the attention of those who don’t like the taste of beer and wouldn’t normally drink it, says Tim Kovac, founder of Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

“Recently I had a 75-year-old woman come up and thank me for NYF,” says Kovac. “We find that we have introduced many non-beer drinkers to the beer category and love that we helped expand someone’s tastes.”

Which is not to say that beer lovers are not drinking hard sodas. According to Riggs, craft beer drinkers are becoming more sophisticated. Kovac adds that there is a beer renaissance happening in the U.S. that is introducing beer lovers and novices to all styles of beer. People want as much variety in their beers as they do with foods, says Kovac.

’Throw back a throwback’

Best Damn Brewing Co.’s Brand Director Kathy Sattler says the root beer, which is aged with real vanilla beans during the brewing process and contains 5.5 percent alcohol, is meant to be approachable and not too serious. She says the Best Damn brand wants consumers to “throw back a throwback,” and drink a fresh take on a timeless classic.

Henry’s, which differentiates itself from the pack with its orange flavor, launched its Hard Ginger with fresh ginger flavor and lime notes, as well as Hard Orange soda with Valencia orange (4.2 percent alcohol). This is another brand created with fun in mind. It was inspired by a quirky, fun-loving Pacific Northwest soda and beer maker named Henry Weinhard, says Ferschinger.

As for the hard soda pioneer, Kovac says Small Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer (5.9 percent alcohol) is a gruit brew that contains Madagascar vanilla, sarsaparilla and other flavors. These ingredients were chosen to capture the essence of a classic American drink.

“People tell us it tastes just like ‘real root beer,'” says Kovac. “We’ve been told that Not Your Father’s Root Beer was the first to capture the taste of nostalgia that people craved.” In fact, he says, the hard sodas of today have a long history, since ginger ale and root beer were brewed with small amounts of alcohol during Colonial times.

Malt and gruit

In the hard soda category, there are two distinct types: flavored malt beverages and gruit ales. Henry’s and Best Damn are flavored malt beverages, while Not Your Father’s is a gruit ale, says Tigani.

A flavored malt beverage is crafted like a beer—with fermentation—but has flavors added in. For example, Henry’s adds real cane sugar to the product, which allows it to fall into the craft beer category, according to Riggs.

A gruit ale, on the other hand, is beer that is brewed with botanicals and spices instead of hops, says Tigani.  NYF’s gruit ale is brewed with botanical ingredients like ginger, citrus, herbs and spices, Kovac says.

Hard sodas like gruit ales and flavored malt beverages are not a new concept. Henry’s Hard Soda was inspired by a craft soda created by Henry Weinhard, who made the rather unusual offer to pump beer though a fountain in Portland in the 1800s, says Ferschinger.
Not Your Father’s Root Beer’s products were inspired by the brewing traditions of Kovac’s ancestors, including his grandfather, who also brewed beer.

The local scene

As for the trend in Delaware, Tigani says it really is not a trend but a category—which took off when it was first introduced with Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

“Not Your Father’s Root Beer set the bar high right out of the gate and the brands that followed gladly accepted the challenge, which has led to the growth of an exciting new category with many fantastic products to choose from,” says Tigani.

Standard distributes NYF’s and Henry’s throughout Delaware while Best Damn is handled by NKS Distributors. All three hard sodas are now available in stores all over the state. In fact, Tigani says many liquor stores are beginning to create an entire hard soda section while local restaurants like Kid Shelleen’s are offering Not Your Father’s Root Beer Floats as a dessert option.

“Even for those who love beer, sometimes you’re just in the mood for a soda and nothing else will hit the spot,” she says. “Now you don’t have to choose between a beer and a soft drink, you can have both and still be drinking a true ale.”

The future

The future of hard sodas appears to be bright and bubbly in 2016. NYF released its Ginger Ale in November, followed by Henry’s in January. In February, Applebee’s added an NYF Root Beer Float to its menu, and Best Damn is planning to release Best Damn Cherry Cola this month. Despite having different packaging and adaptations, these brewers are all saying the same thing—step aside, hard cider and hard lemonade.

Says Small Town’s Kovac: “We really don’t see Small Town products as a trend, specifically because these are products rooted in ancient traditions with authentic stories.  We are here to stay.”

Bottles with soda


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