The bells aren’t tolling quite yet to mark the death of beer, but breweries aren’t ignoring the fact that the longtime champion of craft doesn’t quite have the same pull as it used to. Usurpers in the form of hard seltzer, hard cider, and ready-to-drink cocktails are approaching the castle gates and sometimes, coming from within the beer industry itself.
“We saw demand increasing around the summer of last year with a lot of both homebrewers and businesses asking for tips and troubleshooting hard seltzer fermentations,” says Devin Tani, research and development technician at White Labs. Interest was high enough for White Labs to create a brand-new product to meet the rising demand: SeltzerMax, a nutrient-rich fermentation assistant that results in a consistent, clean hard seltzer.
“Since releasing SeltzerMax we have definitely seen an increase in sales,” says Tani, who anticipates even more demand from breweries as they continue to produce seltzers alongside beer.
More and more breweries are already taking advantage of these types of new products to open themselves up to new consumers. “The [hard] seltzer world is a very big world,” laughs Torie Berkel, head of marketing at Second Chance Beer Company. That’s why they tapped into it by launching an entirely new brand of hard seltzers, as opposed to a one-off here and there. Called Slim Chance, Berkel outlines their “farm-to-seltzer” vision for the new brand that also nurtures a partnership with The Ecology Center, an environmental and educational nonprofit in San Juan Capistrano. By relying on a direct line with the farm for organic produce, Slim Chance will likely be limited to seasonal flavors and retain a cap on production—but it’s a sacrifice on behalf of sustainability that Second Chance seems happy to make.
It’s far from a compromise on the business side; by diversifying their offerings, Second Chance also stands to diversify their consumer base—a seemingly obvious and increasingly necessary step for breweries to take in order to survive.
They’re not the only San Diego brewery to fully embrace the seltzer craze. Mikkeller’s own line of hard seltzers—dubbed “Sally’s Seltzer” as a nod to one half of their iconic character duo Henry and Sally—launched in January 2020 in response to craft consumers’ changing demographic. “It’s a perfect change of pace for any type of drinker—and a cool opportunity for us to connect with a wide demographic,” explains founder/CEO Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. “It also fits with our desire to be inclusive and reach as many people as possible.”
Traditionally, beer drinkers are assumed to be overwhelmingly white, male, and bearded. Compared with the Brewers Association’s 2019 industry look at racial and gender data for craft brewery employees, that assumption reflected back towards consumers holds true. But seltzer drinkers come from a myriad of backgrounds, and prove to be remarkably loyal (possibly due to the fact that there are far fewer hard seltzers commercially available than craft beers). It’s the same David and Goliath game as in beer; White Claw and Truly retain nearly absolute control over the flavored malt beverage (FMB) segment, which includes hard seltzers, with third-place finisher Twisted Tea brands lagging by over $200 million in year-over-year off-premise sales according to IRI data from last month.
Another local brewery who has gone all-in with a full brand launch into the seltzer space is Belching Beaver, with their “Fruiture” line of hard seltzers that feature real fruit with flavors like pineapple & mango and raspberry & blackberry. “We saw that there was a shift in the market, and in all reality, that’s what we do as our business. We don’t just make what we want to make because that’s what we want,” explains Troy Smith, brewmaster at Belching Beaver. “We try to make products that are going to fulfill our needs and our customers’ needs, so then we can play and make the things we want.”
Smith and his wife Haley McHenry, marketing manager at Belching Beaver, both laugh when they admit they enjoy hard seltzer as well as craft beer. “We were all looking for something alternative that wasn’t so calorie-heavy. We all enjoy our IPAs and our beer, but we’re like ‘this is getting a little crazy.’ We’re now in our mid-thirties and we can’t drink eight IPAs in a day anymore. We wanted something that we could make and offer and we felt like this was a good opportunity to offer something different that we could drink all day and not feel super guilty about it.”
That tug towards more health-conscious consumption has given rise to numerous alternative alcoholic beverages like cider, kombucha, and more. While hard seltzer remains separate from beer in the FMB category, the lines between formerly siloed segments in alcohol blur more by the day. There are hard cider seltzers, hop-flavored hard kombuchas, and every conceivable fusion one could think of. And as the core craft beer demographic continues to age, while new drinkers assess their options, brewing businesses should look at every way they can adapt and deliver.