Hard times

Louise Crane peeks into the UK’s nascent Hard Seltzer market, including some home-grown hopefuls


What do you imagine when you hear the phrase “hard seltzer”? A crunchy indigestion tablet? A specialised beauty treatment featuring limescaled water? You’re getting warmer... hard seltzers are a sales-figure-busting drinks category from the US. Made from sparkling water (“seltzer”), alcohol (the “hard” element) and various fruit flavourings, they are the grown-up version of the notorious 1990s alcopops and the stripped-down cousin of ready-to-drink cocktails in a can. 

To say that hard seltzers have taken the US by storm would be a gross understatement. The category is currently valued at $2.5bn (£1.9bn), having grown sales by more than 240% in 2019, and analysts agree the only way is up. The impact on other drinks categories has been felt across the board; despite their image as a relatively cheap, mass market product, hard seltzers have hit a spot for craft beer lovers too. 

Alongside the ubiquitous and much-maligned White Claw, a number of smaller brands have sprung up with a distinctly craft-like emphasis on provenance and quality ingredients. New York’s Fountain, for example, explicitly describes itself as a craft brewery, and uses water from the Adirondack Mountains, infused with natural fruit – passionfruit, blueberry and lime – and a touch of alcohol. It even has a cute origin story.

The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed some US hard seltzers, including Fountain and long-standing US brand Mike’s (of Hard Lemonade infamy) have already reached the UK. Not to be outdone, a number of British entrepreneurs – mindful of hard seltzers’ meteoric success in the US – jumped straight in with their own home-grown offerings. Brands like Long Shot use only natural ingredients and play up their drinks’ low calorie, gluten-free and vegan credentials. Bodega Bay and DRTY joined the race to lead the market around the same time, and there are now at least twenty brands available to UK shoppers via supermarkets, online retailers and independent convenience stores, as well as off-licences.

With the current focus on ‘wellness’, many drinkers are looking for a low-calorie alternative to wine and beer, as seen by the rising popularity of no-to-low alcohol beers and reduced alcohol wines. “Healthy hedonists are crying out for this delicious and moderate option,” says Charlie Markland, founder of Bodega Bay. Charlie has worked in the drinks industry for more than 15 years, had always wanted to launch a vodka fresh lime and soda for convenience and low-calorie, and was inspired to go ahead after surfers in California’s Bodega Bay, USA, told him about hard seltzers. “It’s the perfect convergence of the wellness consumer trend and convenience,” he says.

Healthy hedonists are crying out for this delicious and moderate option

Bodega Bay launched in Europe at festivals in June 2019, the first brand in the EU to call itself a hard seltzer. Its varieties are apple, ginger and acai berry and elderflower, lemon and mint, both 4% abv, 73 kCal per 250ml can. In December, it launched in Harrods and Harvey Nicholls, “Straight into premium,” explains Charlie. “We were at Turf Games, Vegan Live Festival, Balance Festival, we’re the sole alcohol sponsor of BodyPower, the biggest fitness event in Europe.” 1% of Bodega Bay’s sales go to the Thirst Project charity, meaning every can delivers 17 litres of clean drinking water.

One of the key decisions hard seltzer producers have to make is what alcoholic base to use. The seltzers are sold on their clear but fruity flavour, so the alcohol has to taste neutral. The obvious option is to use diluted neutral grain spirit (NGS), which can be distilled up to 97% alcohol and cut back with water as needed. Charlie at Bodega Bay finds this to have a bitter after taste, which you have to overcome by using sugars - not the desire in a drink marketed for its healthy, low calorie status. Bodega Bay uses fortified apple wine, fermented up to nearly 22%, which is then coal filtered, coming out very clear with fewer impurities and sugars. Whereas White Claw (which uses NGS) adds up to 2g of sugar per can, Bodega Bay adds no sugars or sweeteners. 

When making the decision, producers are aware that products made with named spirits will pay 40p more on tax and alcohol duty. Herd Seltzer, founded in May 2020 by Nick Wilson and launched online only in July 2020, is one of the brands that uses actual spirit bases; currently the range is vodka lemon soda and gin, cucumber and lime soda, both 5% abv, 108 kCal per 330ml can. Nick moved to the UK from New Zealand two years ago, where hard seltzers (more commonly known as RTD cocktails locally) were a newly successful drinks category, and Nick decided they had to come back to the UK with him.

Nick’s choice of real spirits is that dreaded NGS aftertaste, and an experience in NZ that took him by surprise: “We call it ‘the berroca aftertaste’. When I first heard of these drinks, I was so skeptical, thinking they’re going to be so sugary and they’re not going to taste very nice.” But on a visit back to NZ in February, he found his strictly IPA-drinking friend slugging back an RTD. Nick was shocked, but agreed that this RTD brand had nailed it, and the reason for this was they had faced up to the taxman and gone with real spirits. “We want to make the best product possible that people are gonna want to drink, we don’t want to compromise on taste. We try to keep the price point the same as our competitors. We just know that if people try ours over the others, they’ll come back to us.”

Herd’s marketing focuses less on wellness and well-being than other brands. “Our main focus is to create the cocktail you would make at home, but also with the convenience of the can.” In terms of the competition, DRTY is the one to beat, says Nick, having started six months ago and already in the shops. Getting a new category into a supermarket can be tricky, especially if the terminology is not one we’re used to. In the early days, when Mike’s launched around November 2019, it called itself “alcoholic sparkling water”, but Nick feels people in the wine and beer industry will know what this category is, because they will have been following it from abroad. “Stores are seeing the hard seltzer trend and we want to fit in with that. Herd means join the herd!”

Charlie from Bodega Bay has one complaint about the way the market is developing: when beer companies do seltzers, it’s “disrespectful and they’re jumping on a bandwagon,” one that is loaded with some very small-time players. Ferment spoke to BrewDog about what it’s like to be on the wagon, with its new Clean and Press brand (5% abv, 90 calories, zero carbs and zero sugar per 330ml), which launched at the start of June. 

The basis for its three products, including white peach and mango, and crushed black cherry, is BrewDog’s Rogue Wave, a single malt vodka, that’s “filtered just once so the spirit keeps its soul”. Although a neutral spirit, it does lend flavours of icing sugar to the drink. “We make everything from scratch,” says Steven Kersley, Head of Distillation for BrewDog Distilling Co. “We use sparkling Scottish water and pay close attention to the carbonation levels to ensure it works perfectly to elevate the natural flavours of the seltzers. The individual botanical distillates are all natural. The raw materials are sourced from around the world depending on where each botanical grows; the cactus for example comes from Mexico.”

Mike’s uses five-times distilled French winter wheat spirit alongside the real fruit flavours in each of the varieties: lemon, lime and black cherry, all 100 kcal per 330ml can, 5% abv. It uses 2g of added sugar per can, more than any other brand mentioned so far, though Mike’s argues this doesn’t run counter to the wellness ethos: “The category taps into all the megatrends of the moment. Consumers are more and more looking for lighter, more refreshing, lower in calories drink alternatives but they don’t want to compromise on the taste. Hard Seltzer is the right solution for them,” states Alexandre Wellens, Marketing Manager at Mike’s Hard Seltzer.

At the other end of the growth scale is Eulis Byass, with his yet-to-be-named product. Developed out of an East London warehouse, freelancers Eulis and his business partner Jack were drinking alcopops like Smirnoff Ice and WKD while under lockdown and out of work this summer. Jack saw more natural alternatives at their local off licence and thought with their sudden glut of free time, they’d try making their own. They’ve been brewing a neutral wash using a syrup base, which comes out at 13-17%. “We found it to be hassle free as we don’t have to distill it, or counter the flavour of the wash with another flavour,” Eulis divulges. Mixed with natural, healthier alternatives to dextrose and table sugar, like monk fruit sugar, and natural fruit flavourings and carbonated water (via a device like a Soda Stream) their drinks are sweeter than most seltzers but very refreshing. 

It takes a lot of effort to craft the most simple things perfectly

So, the big question: are hard seltzers a threat to craft beer sales? Fans might complain there is little craft in these alcoholic sparkling waters, and that they’re over-priced. Nick Wilson counters, “It takes a lot of effort to craft the most simple things perfectly. It’s easy to make something simple bad, it can easily be done wrong.” Bodega Bay is not targeting the craft beer consumer, but rather a consumer who wants to manage what goes into their body, not necessarily a result of craftsmanship and depth of thought around a wide range of ingredients. BrewDog contends that they make their Rogue Wave vodka from scratch; “Everything starts in our brewhouse by creating a non-hopped beer which we then distill into our own vodka. The comparable price with beer is in part due to the fact that there is a higher rate of duty on spirits compared to beer,” says Steven Kersley. And Alexandre Wellens at Mike’s observes, “Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the craft beer drinker go from a staunch four-ingredient purist to drinking Mango Lassi Sour IPAs. Absolutely we see craft beer drinkers enjoying seltzers – it’s all about flavour & refreshment!” 

Hard seltzers could be a threat to the beer market in an age when “wellness” and “wellbeing” are such big buzz words. Drinkers can get a buzz without worrying about piling on the pounds, and with an injection of healthy fruit flavour, hard seltzers fit these “well” trends hand in glove.

“If UK breweries aren’t already worried about this, they really should be…” Next issue, we dig deeper into the seismic impact of hard seltzers in the US, and ask whether British brewing is ready.

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