Point-of-View: The Summer of Seltzer

This email originally appeared in the July 11th edition of The Scribble, KYC's bi-weekly marketing newsletter. You can subscribe to The Scribble at the top of this page.

Last week, I offered my thoughts about the potential (and challenges) for both the hard cider and seltzer markets. This week, I turn my attention back to this interesting trend in beer alternatives, prompted by the recent announcement by Jack’s Abby that they will now be offering small batch hard seltzer in their taprooms. It’s about to get real. It may already have been, but now it has my full attention.

Jack’s Abby’s decision to brew hard seltzer forms part of an overall narrative of craft breweries seeking alternatives to craft beer in the pursuit of engaging (and maintaining) more customers. This isn’t limited exclusively to seltzer. Breweries like Night Shift have started roasting their own coffee in a play to appeal to customers beyond the ‘socially acceptable’ beer-drinking hours of After-Lunch and beyond. 

An experience at Night Shift’s new location on Lovejoy Wharf can start as early as 6 a.m. for a cup of coffee and breakfast treat. If you’re like me (Living the Remote Work Life), you are occasionally looking for reliable WiFi and a cup of coffee to accompany your laptop. Night Shift joins Winter Hill Brewing and several others in the area that can effectively capture the remote worker’s attention from daybreak to dusk, with the option of switching from coffee to beer (and ordering food) if you want to make a day of it.

I’m writing this because, as someone who is passionate about independent craft beer, but also appreciates the need to maintain an edge in a competitive industry, I am torn. This article from the Full Pint offers one point of view that feels like something I should instinctively agree with.  As an advocate of independently owned craft breweries that pride themselves on quality and community, it’s hard to reconcile what could easily be perceived as a grab for more money. 

Still, the revenue upside of hard seltzer is difficult to ignore, with one recent projection putting it as a $1B slice of the industry by the end of 2019. If breweries decide it’s worth allocating some resources to cash in on a trend that seems to have outlived some of the more recent fads (see also, hard root beer), can we blame them?

The dilemma is not an easy one to resolve, but it’s not entirely new. Consider the New England IPA. In Massachusetts, I can think of only one brewery off the top of my head (out of almost 200) that doesn’t produce a NEIPA -- bonus points to you if you guess it on the first try. It has become an absolute necessity in this state to have at least one hazy juice-bomb to satisfy the still-strong market demand for this style. 

Many brewers that I’ve spoken with would much prefer to be brewing an increasing line of lagers, but they recognize that you have to give the people what they want -- and hope that, when those people decide to visit again, they may be more receptive to trying something else. Could seltzer prove as a way to get more people in the door who might one day evolve into craft beer lovers? It’s unlikely, but it can’t be dismissed out of hand. 

Up until now, hard seltzer has been mostly the extended arm of big beer companies like AB InBev, which are seeing a steady decline in their YoY beer revenue as craft beer steals more of the overall market share. The fact that seltzer is creeping into the lines of local craft breweries suggests strongly, in my opinion, that this is more than a mere fad. I’m just not sure of how I feel about it, yet.