The Craft Hard Seltzer Movement

We speak of the “craft beer movement,” that surge in popularity and success of American small and medium batch-brewing operations now well into its second decade (or third, depending on how you count). We talk about regional styles and substyles as they emerge and spread, but always within the realm of craft beer.

However, a completely new movement has arisen very quickly within the craft beer industry, only fueled in popularity by the recent socially suppressed pandemic. It is one of the flavored hard seltzer, and it remains to be determined whether it is beneficial to the industry as a whole or something else entirely.

What is a hard seltzer? A hard seltzer is an alcoholic malt base, carbonated and artificially flavored with (usually) a sugary addition or flavor combination thereof—fruit, herbal or spice combinations are most popular. The result is sweet and fizzy yet distinctly adult, as they can contain a moderate amount of alcohol (in the ABV 5% range). It can be colloquially described as either an “alcoholic soda” or a neutral beer with fruit syrup. It’s what the beverage industry used to call alcopop.

Hard seltzers can be a very critical supporting product for struggling local breweries, or they can become the tail that wags the brewhouse dog.

Is it craft beer? Definitely not: Even if the alcohol base is brewed from scratch, it retains no malt or yeast character (neutral flavor is the target) and absolutely no hops. The flavors are a late-production addition of a combination of natural ingredients (best case) or reduced commercial syrups. Even compared to modern experimental craft brews like fruit-sour beers or adjunct-heavy pastry-style ales, seltzers do not clear the craft beer standard.

Before it sounds like this is an outright condemnation of hard seltzers, history is still out on their long-term effect within the craft beer consumer space. They aren’t terrible products; to the contrary, many are quite enjoyable for what they are. But this may be a substantial shift in the craft beer market or a temporary fad that disappears in a few years. A valid case can be made either way for their overall benefit/harm (or any effect at all), and only time and consumer preferences will reveal this outcome.

PRO: Why are craft breweries jumping into this market? Sales, obviously. Hard seltzers are quick-turnaround products, and allow local craft brewers an easy alternative sale for those patrons who may not be entirely into craft beer. It is difficult to argue against anything that might keep a local brewer solvent and their doors open.

CON: Hard seltzers dilute the market, where every hard seltzer sold is one craft beer that goes unsold. This assumes a zero-sum market for craft beer products (which it is not) but it does draw effort, expertise and resources away from the craft brewing efforts that bring consumers to this industry. It is a competing product.

Of local North Texas brewers, we have these current seltzer brands with several flavor variations:

Once upon a time at the genesis of the craft beer movement, there was a very critical element of consumer education that has slipped away as the industry matures. This was an assumption that the concept of artisan “craft beer” itself was new to a public conditioned for years to national corporate products, and an effort had to be made to market to the consumer about the superiority of craft products. This seems to have been all but abandoned, perhaps because the current popularity and prevalence of craft beer convinces the industry itself that the public needs no further convincing.

Is the hard seltzer market having an effect on the local craft beers being produced? Are craft brewers educating their consumer base to prefer products other than craft beer? Is it providing a crossover between craft beer and boutique distilleries, who easily sell their own flavored hard seltzers from diluted versions of their own products? Do the simple, easy-drinking seltzers drive craft brewers away from the traditional bitter and complex styles and toward similar sweet-and-sour fruit flavored beers? Or has the kettle-sour beer trend opened the door for hard seltzers to find their own consumer niche?

There is some validity to be found in all these arguments, pro and con. Hard seltzers can be a very critical supporting product for struggling local breweries, or they can become the tail that wags the brewhouse dog. How it ends depends on how committed each brewer is to the original market into which they opened. PH

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