Nick Shields, manager of a small but historic Massachusetts brewery, is largely credited with the development of hard seltzer in 2012 after seeing five women one after another order vodka sodas at the bar. Anheuser-Busch bought his brand Spiked Seltzer four years later, taking it nationwide the same summer as Mike’s Hard Lemonade parent company Mark Anthony Brands released White Claw hard seltzer.
The category has grown in popularity since its inception, with Nielsen recently dubbing it “the most resilient alcohol segment” in the country and on July 4, announced that hard seltzer saw its biggest sales ever that week. The research firm also found that during the 15-week period ending June 13, hard seltzer off-premises sales in the U.S. quadrupled on a year-over-year basis with an increase of $900 million.
Last year, New Jersey breweries started taking a crack at brewing the concoction. Forgotten Boardwalk was the first local brewery to produce its own hard seltzer in June 2019, after founder Jamie Queli and her team worked for nearly a year and a half to create something refreshing rather than “cloyingly sweet,” she told NJBIZ at the time. Nielsen reports that off-premises sales for hard seltzer the week she released J’aime Sparked Seltzer were $28.4 million.
Fifty-three weeks later, the number hit $104 million.
The appeal of hard seltzer is manifold. For one thing, it’s gluten free, inviting scores of New Jersey’s gluten-free and gluten-sensitive residents into taprooms for what could be the first time. Jersey City brewery Departed Soles even has designated gluten-free machinery, as one of their specialties aside from the seltzer craze was and is gluten-free beer, in honor of owner Brian Kulbacki’s late friend who lived with celiac’s disease.
It also has a broad appeal, attracting cocktail enthusiasts and non-beer fans who want to drink alongside their friends in the brewery atmosphere but can’t stomach beer themselves. The second most common question at Man Skirt Brewing in Hackettstown, according to owner Joe Fisher is, “I don’t drink beer, what do you have for me?” (The first, for reference, is “What’s under your kilt?”)
Zed’s Beer in Marlton launched its first two craft seltzers in January and has since launched four more, with two each highlighting fruit flavors, botanical flavors, and southwestern flavors. Four are currently on draft, allowing folks to order flights as they would craft beer. With one of, if not the most, extensive hard seltzer programs in the state, owner Lori White said people come from Philadelphia and further to try flavors like green apple elderflower and prickly pear hibiscus.
Though two of Zed’s beer taps were transitioned to seltzers, two are served out of a jockey box, and White said the introduction of seltzer has been incremental rather than subtractive. “They haven’t taken away from the beer by any stretch of the imagination … we’ve introduced a whole new customer to our tap room,” she said. Sixty to 75 percent of Zed’s seltzer sales are takeaway.
Hard seltzer’s third appeal is that it tends to have lower carbohydrates and lower calories than beer. Crook & Marker, the product of a Hamilton-based hard seltzer company that hit the market nationwide last year, has just 80 calories, zero sugars and zero net carbs per can. The brainchild of Bai Brands founder Ben Weiss has the world’s first fully USDA Organic alcoholic beverage portfolio and has experienced 300 percent year-over-year growth.
In April alone, one million households in the U.S. bought hard seltzer for the first time, and almost twice as many households bought hard seltzer in April than in an average month before April, Nielsen found.
“I think as craft beer has moved toward these pastry stouts and milkshake IPAs and higher alcohol content beers, it’s harder to drink those in session, and people are looking for something that if they’re out at a tailgate for hours, they want something that’s a little lighter and won’t make them feel bloated later on,” Kulbacki said.
With that writing on the wall, Departed Soles started piloting batches of hard seltzer in February. Made with champagne yeast and real fruit, the brewery’s fan base has received it well.
On why a brewery would get into the hard seltzer market, Fisher said, “It’s a multi-billion dollar market for one thing. It’s a huge flying trend right now and it’s kind of cool to actually get in on one of those instead of being the cranky old man with beer that I usually am. We have men drinking it, beer drinkers enjoying it, women enjoying it, it’s got an appeal for everyone. Right now, in the high summer, when people just want to get the hell out of their houses, its [very profitable]. It’s such a great place to be in business right now, in the seltzer market.”
“Everybody’s bringing one out,” he said. “We’re still doing it with the same kind of care and integrity that we do our beers with.”
Though the segment is booming right now, Crook & Marker Chief Marketing Officer Daniel Goodfellow sees the seltzer spike as indicative of a bigger “better for you” movement in alcohol. Much of Crook & Marker’s year-over-year growth is fueled by its innovation products like spiked lemonade and spiked coconut lime; and Goodfellow believes that seltzer’s popularity is just the tip of the iceberg for health-conscious consumers.
“While the seltzer category is booming, we believe this is just the start of an even bigger movement in alcohol which we call ‘better way to drink.’ In the last few years, consumers have woken up to the lack of transparency about what’s in their alcoholic beverages. So, they fled to seltzer to escape the calories, sugar and carbs and along the way created enormous growth for hard seltzer,” Goodfellow said. “But in 2020, we believe the category is beginning to mature and consumers are ‘looking up’ toward greater flavor and variety, so long as it offers the ‘better for you’ attributes that attracted them to hard seltzer.
“At Crook & Marker, our goal was to always create a full ‘better for you’ portfolio with bold flavor delivered by ingredients they can trust. So after launching with Spiked & Sparkling last year, we’ve now expanded our portfolio to also include spiked teas, lemonades and sodas that are all USDA Organic, zero sugar, 80 calories, zero net carbs and gluten-free,” he explained.
On a national level, New Jersey’s hard seltzer ranks among the best. At the inaugural national hard seltzer competition, Forgotten Boardwalk and Crook & Marker each nabbed a second place spot in different categories.