The reports on the death of hard seltzer are greatly exaggerated, but a slowdown in overall sales has created an opening for beverage makers to push into an emerging category fueled by innovation and an ancient ingredient. Get ready—hard tea is coming for your glass.
“This is a big opportunity space,” says Robin Gregory, director of communications for Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Under the Chico Fermentation Project banner, the company recently launched Tea West into several test markets and plans to roll out to 11 states in the spring. “We are seeing hard seltzer consumers turn towards more beverages like hard tea that have newer, complex and fuller flavors,” she says. “What they are not looking for is a lot of sugar.”
The hard teas that are being released are taking some plays from hard seltzer. Many are focusing on gluten-free, low-calorie and low-carb offerings, but are leaning into specialty teas that bring forth familiar flavors and can complement the addition of fruit to the drink.
Where the Sierra Nevada brand has long focused on ingredients and process to connect with customers, Gregory said that Tea West will focus on lifestyle and occasion.
“We can meet folks in the gap in the market,” she says.
Of course, there is already a dominant player in the space: Twisted Tea, a 5% alcohol-by-volume (abv) malt-based hard tea made by Boston Beer, the company behind the Samuel Adams and Dogfish Head breweries, Truly hard seltzer, and Angry Orchard cider. It is an enormously popular brand with a fan base that is dedicated to its pronounced sweet tea flavor. Calorie counters have put Twisted Tea around 195 calories per 12-oz serving, with 23 grams of sugar. A “light” option is also available.
Led by Twisted Tea, the category is already big business. According to Nielsen, in October 2021 the category was up in value more than 24% from the year before and accounted for more than $693 million in sales.
That it has taken this long for other brewers to embrace or experiment with hard tea is surprising. For many in the industry, regular iced tea, both unsweetened and sweetened, is a go-to shift beverage. Tea has also been added to beers over the years and used in a variety of ways, including as a replacement or complement to hops.
Tomme Arthur, brewmaster of the Lost Abbey in California, recalled using tea several years ago with a tart blonde ale that was heavy on citrus flavor to create a beer akin to an Arnold Palmer (half iced tea, half lemonade).
In 2019, his brewery created Khárisma Hard Tea, focusing on a real tea base and building upon familiar flavors like chai, peach and hibiscus.
“I think the evolution of beer was light lager to full-flavored,” says Arthur. “I believe that hard tea will evolve from sweet and yucky and diabetic to well-balanced, crisp, and refreshing.”
As newcomers to hard tea enter the scene, companies like Firsd Tea North America, a wholesaler, are educating as they sell. From exploring the flavors of white tea, black tea, oolong tea, green tea and others, as well as what they can bring to a beverage or complement, Chris Cason, director of operations for Firsd Tea, also regularly talks about process.
“A lot of brewers think that tea should be used on the hot side [of the brewing process] because they think of tea being dipped in hot water,” says Cason. “I’ve been trying to push people to use it on the cold side, because if you let tea steep for too long in hot water the bitter stuff is going to come out. Using it in the cold side tames that beast.”
Bitter is a word that many would like to avoid when it comes to hard tea descriptions, citing a reluctance by some to avoid hoppy beers because of that sensation.
“People who like IPAs might never like our teas,” says Russell Pinto, the CEO of Wild Ohio Brewing, which makes a variety of hard teas. “They are used to bitterness and ours is sweet, but for people looking for an alternative to beer, like college students, they like this option.”
Pinto has several hard teas on the market and uses an all-tea beverage as the base before brewing. He said one of the best performers in the category is the 9% abv black cherry bourbon barrel flavor.
Arthur sees hard tea as a stand-alone beverage as well as one that can be slotted into a night out, breaking up a beer-drinking session. He, and others, just need the customers to give it a chance and to look past previous experiences.
At the company’s tasting rooms, the bartenders are regularly offering tastes of the tea to beer drinkers.
“The cool part is seeing people try it and they like the way it tastes,” says Arthur. “There’s a reaction these beer drinkers have when they discover it’s not the diabetes they thought was coming.”