When hard-seltzer brands like White Claw and Truly started showing up on store shelves in 2016, I admittedly paid them little attention. By then, the drinks industry, having mostly survived the era of flavored beverages like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice, had mostly moved toward an appreciation of local wines, craft beers, spirits and cocktails.
Why go backwards?
Many craft-beverage professionals were similarly skeptical. Little did we know how much the category would expand in subsequent years, making hard seltzer hard to ignore.
Also known as spiked seltzer, it was what it sounded like: carbonated water, alcohol and flavoring. Low in calories and sugar, it was popular with dieters. Some brands in this flavored malt beverage category did use malted barley to produce the alcohol. Most, however, were infused with alcohol from fermented cane sugar in order to produce a gluten-free product.
By 2019, hard seltzer had become hugely popular, as the Washington Post noted in declaring it “the summer of hard seltzer.”
Then came the pandemic, which kept people at home, where cans could be brought in without worry. Indeed, hard-seltzer sales in 2020 more than doubled those of 2019. By 2021, the number of hard-seltzer brands in America exceeded 150, pumped out by giants such as Molson Coors, AB inBev and Boston Beer Company, which owns Samuel Adams.
This rising wave eventually snagged the attention of craft producers—especially craft breweries, which were able to utilize their brewing equipment to produce hard seltzers. First on the scene in New Jersey was Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing in Cherry Hill. In April 2019, it released J’aime Sparked Seltzer in tangerine, hibiscus and white tea flavors.
“We wanted to be in the market, and we wanted to create a really good one,” says Forgotten Boardwalk owner Jamie Queli. Not lost on Queli was the marketing opportunity of hard seltzer being naturally gluten free. “We thought there was an opportunity for craft seltzer beyond White Claw and Truly,” she says. Later that year, at Fizz Fight, the first American hard-seltzer competition, J’aime won a silver medal, beating out national competitors.
And yet, the hard reality of hard seltzer is that the small producers hardly stand a chance against the conglomerates. Here in the Garden State, just two brands, White Claw and Truly, account for 75 percent of the hard-seltzer market, with Bud Light Seltzer, High Noon and Bon & Viv accounting for much of the rest.
That level of market saturation has convinced some Jersey brewers that it makes no sense to can their own hard seltzers. While Battle River Brewing in Toms River offers three to four seasonal flavors at a time, such as pomegranate, elderflower and strawberry, “they are only available in the tasting room,” says co-owner Gary Morrison. The competition for shelf space in stores squeezes out boutique operations “as the mass-market companies come not only with malt-based seltzers, but a variety of ready-to-drink products.”
Says Queli, “In terms of popularity in stores, I’ve seen a massive decrease.” That aligns with national figures showing a decline in sales of hard seltzer last year for the first time.
But national figures obscure the reality that people drink locally, even if the brands they buy are available everywhere.
As Morrison of Battle River Brewing puts it, “The demand [for hard seltzer] in our tasting room has not waned. Sales remain slightly above 2020.” At Forgotten Boardwalk in Cherry Hill, Queli takes in the scene and says, “They still sell just as well as they always have.”
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