Craft Breweries Pivoting to Hard Seltzer Is a Real Bummer
It was just a few years ago that the craft beer world was caught off guard by the hard root beer phenomenon. After Small Town Brewery captured a young drinking audience with Not Your Father’s Root Beer, a good handful of craft breweries took notice and immediately dabbled in the sweet beer alternative. It wasn’t long after Small Town Brewery ramped up output to meet this crazy demand around 2015 when young drinkers quickly moved on from this adult drink option. In present day, you’d be hard pressed to find any small to medium sized craft brewery with even a mention of hard root beer or soda.
By mid-2018, I began getting press releases from well-known craft breweries proudly touting they are now offering a line of hard seltzers. Hard seltzers? What is hard seltzer I wondered. From my understanding, it’s carbonated fermented sugar with added essence and minimal flavors. Please correct me if I am wrong.
The first thought that popped into my head was “alco-pops.” Alco-pops was the derogatory term used in the early to mid 2000’s referring to the likes of Zima, Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. The beverage industry uses the term FMB or Flavored Malt Beverage. The biggest difference between what’s being presented today, and the sweet malt beverages of yesteryear, would be the level of sweetness and who these beverages are being marketed towards. While no alcoholic beverage company will admit this, Smirnoff Ice and the likes were targeted towards teens and very young adults, people who wanted to get acquainted with the lovely effects of alcohol without the initial harsh bite of ethanol or hops. Today, these hard seltzer products are being marketed as a healthy alternative to a highly caloric beer or sugar laden mixed cocktail. Not pushed to a youngster looking to have the icky flavors of beer masked, but rather an active person looking for a buzz without the bloat.
I absolutely love that people have choices of what to drink. Whether it be pilsners or Lucky Charms IPAs, there has been no better time for people to drink what they want and more importantly, drink what they like. With all that said, something is not sitting well with me when a medium sized craft brewery announces they are offering a line of hard seltzers or even craft cocktails.
There has been so much narrative since I have been following craft beer, the Brewers Association’s push for defining craft beer and their recent push to differentiate between big evil macro beer. Without going deep into the weeds, there has been a romanticization of using all-natural ingredients, brewing small batches of beer by hand, hand selecting hops yearly from the Yakima Valley. Additionally, there has been an ongoing message that some of these small to medium sized breweries are brewing beer for the love of it, sometimes neglecting financial stability or fiscal responsibility. Basically, craft beer is this intimate beverage made in the labor of love.
So why would a brewery in the name of craft begin “brewing” a beverage sans malt and hops?
Would it be because a craft brewery cares about your waistline? I really don’t think so. Anyone who doesn’t want the calories of beer but wants a nice buzz could prepare a vodka soda. Would it be because business is doing so well that a brewery would like to open up a new line of business and strike gold twice? I really don’t think so.
It’s no secret that the current craft beer boom peaked about three to four years ago. You couldn’t scroll down Facebook without seeing a proud craft brewery setting up gigantic, new, shiny stainless-steel tanks. Press release after press release would tout breweries ditching their brown bottle efforts for an in-house canning line. The bigger players couldn’t press the send button quick enough announcing their latest expansion into a new out of town market. All those endeavors cost serious money, and in many cases, racked up considerable debt based on very positive market forecasts.
The easiest way to keep the bank happy, the tanks full, and the employees employed is by producing another alcohol beverage they are licensed to produce, using less expensive ingredients marketed to a less finicky consumer. I am very happy that these breweries are doing what they need to do to keep the lights on, to keep the economy strong through honoring their debt and by keeping their hard-working employees working.
I am, however, bummed out that any company that has been on “team craft beer” or “team independent” or “team only the most premium ingredients” or “team handcrafted” is selling hard seltzer. I know it might seem that I am over simplifying this stance, but with Brewers Association altering their independent craft brewer definition, it really waters down the strong messaging and the entire craft beer movement in general. Find me a brewery owner who dreamed of making his craft brewery a jumping off point into hard seltzer and maybe I’ll change my mind. Otherwise, it sadly comes off as a desperate money grab and most definitely anti-craft beer.
March 6, 2019 @ 9:01 am
Interesting article. As the owner of a smaller”regional” brewery (BA definition) I certainly see it both ways. We have preached our independence and love for craft beer since our brewery’s inception. It is true, especially now after many years in the industry. Unfortunately, the market has filled with explosive new brewery growth, where there used to be one or two breweries there are 50-60. The business has change and it will continue to. Craft brewers, big and small, are cannibalizing each other when we use to cannibalize the foreign-owned industrial-size brewers. Everybody is watching the craft slice of the pie slow in growth while other alcoholic products seem to demonstrate much better growth opportunities. Is it our passion to make hard seltzer? It certainly wasn’t eight years ago, I can assure you. But there has been a significant change in the beverage market and you can either embrace or ignore it. If you ignore it you then are left with the challenge to continue to fight for a smaller slice of the pie with more and more breweries coming everyday.
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March 6, 2019 @ 6:08 am
If more breweries getting into the craft seltzer/cocktail game means less hazy/milkshake/smoothie/haze bro beers then count me in 1000%. Also sometimes changing up the game is a good thing.
March 5, 2019 @ 6:09 pm
Sometimes, I just want something I can ignore. Don’t overthink it.