“From the first time I had one, I was hooked,” says Christopher Warenkiewicz, a financial analyst from New Jersey, about hard seltzer. “The low carb count is huge, plus it’s light, it’s refreshing, you can add ice cubes to it, or add something else if you want. I’ve noticed that even with having a few, I’m not putting on the weight like I would [with] beers.”
Warenkiewicz is in good company. Hard seltzer sales are booming, up a reported 255% over the course of one week in early June.
It’s hardly an outlier, though. Hard seltzer is part of a cultural shift in which people who enjoy booze also prioritize their health, or the perceptions around it. As baby boomers and Generation X get older, and millennials and Generation Z come of age amid wellness marketing, consumers watch calories, carbohydrates and sugar content like never before.
Beverage makers are paying attention.
“Consumers have evolved and are taking a more holistic view [to drinking],” says Mary Jo Hardy, associate vice president of insights and commercial strategy for FIFCO USA, which makes beers like Genesee and Magic Hat, and Seagram’s Escapes flavored malt beverages. “It’s not just about calories, but it’s about carbs, and sugars and clean labels. The fewer ingredients, the better.”
As low-carb diets became popular in the 1990s, many drinkers turned to vodka and club soda. Hard seltzer meets that same need and provides an endless combination of fruit flavors, like the citrons and vanilla vodkas of previous years. As appeal has risen, other drinks like sugary hard sodas and hard teas have waned. Such trends are reflected in the non-alcoholic beverage industry as well.
Caught in the middle of all this is the beer industry.
In the last 40 years, the U.S. craft beer industry grew to more than 8,000 breweries and production volume rose. Many brewers avoided calling attention to the calorie count of their beers. India pale ales (IPA), imperial stouts and Belgian-style quads did little to help keep waistlines in check. A typical barleywine, for example, starts at around 300 calories.
Meanwhile, domestic light lagers like Michelob Ultra shared calories openly on their labels. They marketed themselves as a way to avoid beer guts. Styles like session IPAs and milk stouts now show off their low-calorie chops to entice drinkers, and most do not have a “light” identifier in their names.
“Consumers are strategic and want to have a social occasion and let loose with a drink, but still hang on to the aspiration of being a healthy person,” says Hardy. “They get what they want from these drinks. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Many U.S. brewers have also entered the low alcohol by volume (abv) and non-alcoholic categories. Low-abv products, those with 0–3.9% abv, have grown 8.4% over the past year, while the rest of beer and flavored malt beverages saw 7.4% gains. According to industry tracking firm IRI, low-abv products now comprise 1.4% of total beer purchases.
Brooklyn Brewery and Heineken are among the major brands with low-abv and nonalcoholic offerings, popular during periods like “Dry January” and “Sober October,” when some drinkers curb alcohol consumption.
Startups in the nonalcoholic category include Connecticut’s Athletic Brewing, which has a number of beers like an IPA, blonde ale and stout. The brand aligns itself with athletes, especially marathoners and triathletes. The company has grown steadily since its 2016 inception. Recently, it announced it would take over another brewing facility on the West Coast to meet demand.
Japan-based Suntory began to promote ALL-FREE recently, which the brand calls “an alcohol-free, beer-like beverage.” The world’s largest beer makers, like Heineken and Budweiser, also push nonalcoholic versions of popular brands. The latter began a media blitz for its non-alcoholic offering in recent weeks.
There’s also a middle ground. The Stiegl-Radler Grapefruit, a blend of beer and fruit juice soda with 2.5% abv, has a cult-like following.
Jack Hendler, one of the founders of Jack’s Abby, announced the 2% Beer Initiative, a line of low-abv ales and lagers. Hendler made the first five-barrel batch of a 2% abv beer, a mild ale, without sharing what he was doing with the rest of the team first.
“I was surprised how much interest and support it got from everyone here from sales, marketing and front of house,” he says. “Everyone wants to see it grow.”
The first batch was released in May and sold out within weeks, even though the brewery’s taproom was closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. A blonde ale, a Pilsner and a New England-style IPA are all planned for the 2% abv treatment.
Though they’re low in alcohol, Hendler says that they cannot be flabby in flavor. There’s an expectation about how beer should taste, and these low-alcohol options have to meet that.
“I don’t know if this will be a success commercially or not, but it is something we’ll be doing regularly in the beer hall for sure because it’s something I’m passionate about,” he says. “I think brewing 2% beers can help change some perspectives.”