Over the past decade in America, soda’s popularity has gone flatter than an opened can of Coke.
Sure, back in the day, kids couldn’t be more thrilled to be guzzling down these sugary, carbonated beverages in super-sized jugs the size of their heads. But a list of restrictive health proposals, plus a growing health-conscious movement near the turn of the millennium, has dissuaded consumers from continuing to crack open the pop and pushed sales to their lowest point since 1985.
But with the advent of hard soda — alcoholic beverages almost identical in taste to their soft-drink counterparts — legal-age drinkers are more than happy to toss these healthy-vegan-yoga philosophies out the window. For the members of generations who grew up chugging a steady stream of Coke or root beer, it’s almost like they’re kids again.
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“My mom is like a total health nut and would never let me drink soda or anything,” said Abi Kinne, a bartender in Kansas City, Mo. She added that “having hard soda is kind of like having more of an indulgent experience.”
In the late ‘90s and early aughts, flavored malt beverages like Zima and Smirnoff Ice functioned as popular “malternatives” among party and club goers, as well as underage drinkers who had yet to develop a mature taste for beer and wine. Despite these FMBs’ absurdly sweet and artificial flavor profiles, their main purpose was pretty obvious: Get the imbiber drunk as fast and painlessly as possible. Since then, these brands have fallen out of fashion, leaving flavored malt beverage imbibers to endure the butt-end of jokes among people in their 20s and 30s.
In 2012, however, Small Town Brewery helped reopen the floodgates to the flavored malt beverage market with its flagship “Not Your Father’s Root Beer.” The drink, which is now categorized as a flavored malt beverage, helped kick start the hard soda boom, shocking consumers with the fact that it tasted almost exactly like your regular non-alcoholic root beer, but with none of the hyper-saccharine flavor profile. Since then, competition has emerged among Big Beer companies, as well as craft-y, artisanal startups. In 2015, A-B InBev launched its Best Damn Brewing Co. specializing in hard soda brands while Boston Beer Company’s Coney Island has experimented with its own hard root beer. IRI, a market research company, reported that in 2015 alone, the hard soda category’s rough sales totaled approximately $116 million.
This year, however, imitations and a variety of new line extensions have inundated the market, including riffs on iconic soda flavors like ginger ale, cherry cola, and orange soda. Hell, even hard seltzer is now a thing, with Massachusetts’ Nauti Seltzer hocking its product to consumers as a “healthier” alternative to hard soda. The growth has spiked so much that industry insiders have now designated these hard sodas under their own subcategory in the flavored malt beverage market. Even though drinking FMBs had so long endured a stigma by millennials and some Gen-Xers, for them hard soda has become a cool thing to drink.
According to Johnny Forsyth of Mintel, a food and beverage market analysis group, flavored malt beverages jumped 57 percent in growth between 2010 and 2015. He tied much of the growth to “a Millennial consumer base with a bit of a sweet tooth, as well as to innovation that’s matched the demographic’s interest in product trial.” Given that millennials grew up with treats like Pop-Tarts, Lucky Charms, and Happy Meals paired with a soda, it’s no surprise that a new, sweet offering like hard soda would be easy picking for them.
“They have grown up with lots of variety,” said Chris Funari, an editor at the beverage industry trade website Brewhound. “They’ve grown up with sweeter offerings in their sort of food and beverage sets. Cereals when I was growing up were just loaded with sugar—like candy in your cereal. So they’ve already sort of been conditioned to seek out a sweeter taste profile anyways.”
Although Gen-Y’ers have proven themselves as suckers for variety (see: craft beer, makeup at Sephora, ten different kinds of hot sauce), a large part of hard soda’s success is the result of the modern, and free, advertisement. Social media-savvy millennials are more than happy to share on Twitter and Instagram photos of their hard soda experiences, #humblebragging about their new discovery and the surprise “kick.” Since hard soda is being spread around through word of mouth, Brian Sanudo, managing partner of Beverage Marketing Corporation, believes social media hype plays a key position in amplifying the thirst for this new product.
“You get a product out there…and the next thing you know, someone says, ‘Oh, I got this cool new beverage that no one’s ever seen before: Soda with alcohol!’” said Sanudo. “And then it ends up going viral through social media, and everyone’s trying it, and it’s the new hip thing.”
Keeping with the millennial generation’s craving for all things “craft” and artisanal,” we’re already beginning to see the emergence of the high-end sector of the hard soda market. Garden Party Botanical Hard Sodas, a startup based in Indianapolis and founded by husband-and-wife team Erin and Stephen Edds, has branded itself as offering the “softer side” of the hard soda market. The company will launch at the end of this summer with its lofty-named Ruby and Violet flavors, which tap into an appetite similar to what craft cocktails have done.
“I think millennials in general have an insatiable drive towards whimsy and irony,” said Erin Edds. “We like quirky, we like interesting, we like the humor in things. We can see the humor in things.”
Like the cocktails that hearkened to earlier medicinal days when unfamiliar herbs provided flavoring for teas and remedies, Garden Party’s hard sodas utilize ingredients like lavender and hibiscus. These ingredients aren’t typical for flavoring agents in a sugary soda but, according to Erin, the retro aspect of 1600s botany and the degree of playfulness in experimentation with uncommon flavors is the sort of nostalgia that proves attractive to potential millennial consumers.
Although many of the brands have geared themselves towards the millennial demographic, Bryan Ferschinger, MillerCoors’ director of innovation, claims that his company is attempting to tap into the parched Gen-X market, or those typically between their mid 30s and early 50s. Online advertisements depicting your typical, dad-bod individuals trimming the hedges or turning the music down for the kids sleeping, end with the tagline “Live Hard-ish.”
“We’re definitely seeing Gen-X’ers pick this up, but we’re also seeing millennials as well because you know millennials are very interested in flavor variety,” Ferschinger said. “But we’re getting a lot of great response from our products and our advertising from our Gen-X consumers, saying ‘you know what, this really resonates with me.’”
Despite signs of hard sodas’ growth, including several companies starting up their own lines and flavors to enter the hard soda market, as well as extending distribution to restaurants, Sudano of Beverage Marketing maintains a strong skepticism. Unlike the optimistic predictions of the brewers and distributors, Sudano looks to the history of short shelf lives of alcoholic beverage market trends. In his view, hard soda will see itself flattening out in the next few years.
“We’ve been going through these iterations. There was [Bud Light] ‘Ritas, cider, now it’s hard soda, and they all last for about two years,” Sudano said, frustrated. For him, there was only one question that could answer how long hard soda’s longevity will last: “What’s next?”