The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of Hard Soda

Image of people grabbing soda bottles out of a cooler
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Greg Deuhs was a brewer at Pabst in 2014 when it launched Not Your Father’s Root Beer, a hard soda, into the marketplace.

“The first time, we made 40,000 cases and we didn’t know if it would sell,” says Deuhs, who now works for Sprecher Brewery in Glendale, Wisconsin. “It was crazy because within a short time we were brewing millions of cases per month. Those were some heady times there, exciting times going from zero to millions.”

Before the boom of hard seltzers, the sugary, indulgent flavored malt beverage (FMB) category of hard soda recaptured drinkers’ attention and taste buds. It was led by the Not Your Father’s brand that pushed sweet, boozy syrup into the marketplace and into the general consciousness.

Its white-hot success was short-lived as consumers quickly turned to hard seltzers, which boasted lower calories, sugars and carbs than their sugary counterparts, and promoted a “better for you” mentality. Hard sodas took a hard hit.

Mtn Dew Hard Soda, Regular, Black Cherry, Watermelon
Courtesy of Boston Beer Company

“Hard soda sales decreased 24% in 2021 and are down 28% so far in 2022,” says Jon Berg, vice president of Beverage Alcohol Thought Leadership at NielsenIQ. “As the lines between beer, seltzer [and] hard soda continue to blur, retailers will need to be mindful in creating efficient assortments that capitalize on trends and drive purchases.”

The category may be poised for a rebound as new entrants, specifically a 5% alcohol-by-volume (abv) Hard Mtn Dew that recently hit shelves in a handful of states. Based on four popular soda flavors, the hard versions clock in at 100 calories and have “zero sugar” added. The release is a collaboration between PepsiCo, which owns the brand, and The Boston Beer Company, makers of Truly Hard Seltzer and Samuel Adams beer, which is producing the hard soda at its Pennsylvania brewery.

Early sales data suggests that there was indeed curiosity behind hard Mtn Dew. The Boston Beer Company said there was no one available for an interview.

The attention from a major soda brand into the FMB arena could bring renewed attention to the other brands still in the marketplace. Not Your Father’s says it is scaling back to basics after it saw tremendous success following its launch and subsequently released a plethora of line extensions including a “mountain ale” and a Not Your Mom’s line that included flavors like apple pie.

The brand will now solely focus on hard root beer, says Emily Hoyle, brand director for the American Classics line at Pabst. “We did a rebrand in 2019 and brought the recipe down to around 200 calories to get it more in line with the FMB category. It’s not a seltzer and we’re not trying to compete there, but we did adjust the recipe to be more in line with what people want.”

Not Your Father’s is available in 12-ounce bottles at 5.9% abv. There had been harder versions at 10.7% abv and 19.5% abv that have since been retired.

“I think hard soda has its own space,” says Hoyle. “Flavor is the number one factor in flavored malt beverage and there is only so much flavor you can get from hard seltzer when you’re in the low calorie, carbs and sugar sandbox.”

Still, that doesn’t mean some companies aren’t willing to try to merge hard sodas and seltzers.

“Hard seltzer gained traction because of its correlation with health and wellness, convenience and an intriguing variety of flavors—and now, consumers can’t get enough,” says Berg. “That growth has opened the doors to an even broader array of new and bolder flavor options accompanying the base liquid, and it’s allowing manufacturers to expand the limits of what ‘hard seltzer’ means.”

Forgoing the Overly Sweet, Hard Tea Looks to Expand 

That’s why some companies are now pushing hard seltzer sodas. Think of them as hybrids between lower calorie seltzers but with familiar soda flavors. There are brands like Stewart’s, the root beer company, that has a line of hard seltzer flavored drinks in root beer, orange cream, black cherry and raspberry lime. Bud Light Seltzer recently released a hard soda variety pack with cola, citrus, cherry and orange flavors, all 100 calories and 5% abv.

In recent years, Molson Coors rebranded the Henry Weinhard Brewery brand, which dates to pre-Prohibition in Portland, Oregon, into a “gourmet” brand of hard sodas made with sugar cane.

It’s not just the big players in the marketplace. There are regional hard soda makers, including Sprecher, that offer opportunities to embrace local taste preferences.

A Simple Guide to How Hard Seltzer Is Made

Regular root beer still has small regional brands, and those recipes have been tweaked to align with consumer preferences. Hard soda makers should embrace those flavors, says Deuhs.

“For some root beers, more licorice comes through while some are wintergreen forward,” he notes. “Using specialty ingredients, not just flavorings, gives it sophistication.”

When making hard soda, he says a full-bodied mouthfeel is important, just like real soda. And keeping the alcohol in check is also critical.

“When you get above 7% [abv], the attributes of the alcohol come through a lot more and it becomes flavored alcohol rather than an alcohol soda,” says Deuhs.

Published on April 25, 2022
Topics: Drinks