Hard seltzer sales are sparkling past the summer season as they reach for $1 billion in annual sales in 2019, helping offset soft sales for mainstream and craft brewers nationwide. Major brewers like Anheuser Busch In-Bev (A-B InBev), with Bon & Viv spiked seltzer ($15 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans), and MillerCoors, with Henry’s Hard sparkling water ($15)—as well as such craft brewers as Oskar Blues, with Wild Basin Boozy sparkling water ($11 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans)—are participating in the effervescent segment. “Millennials are the ones buying hard seltzer,” says Andrew Mendez, vice president of operations at Mendez Fuel, a gas station convenience store chain with four locations in Miami. “Young adults read everything, and they care about what they put into their bodies. We sell a lot of healthy items in our stores and we have that demographic. We want to show them we have hard seltzer and will always have it.”
While off-premise retail sales of beer were relatively flat in 2018, beverage alcohol seltzer dollar sales jumped 169% to approximately $488 million on a 181% volume gain, according to Nielsen. The highly publicized segment clearly carried the momentum into 2019, with triple-digit gains being recorded again this year. “Hard seltzer is arguably the most disruptive entrant into the alcohol category since light beer in the 1970s,” says Dave Burwick, president and CEO of Boston Beer Co., which produces the popular Truly hard seltzer. “We expect the category to double again in 2020 and likely grow by 50% or so in 2021.”
The segment’s primary strength so far is in off-premise retail, where it’s typically found on cooler shelves next to beer or stacked in floor displays. Mendez dedicated a section in his coolers for hard seltzer this year and notes that it made a huge difference in sales, which have more than doubled since last year. “I was hesitant about it but once I made a section for hard seltzer in the cooler, it really took off from there,” he says.
The top-selling brands—White Claw hard seltzer from Mark Anthony Brands and Truly—are both reportedly having banner years. White Claw and Truly are the biggest-selling brands at Mendez Fuels, where they’re priced at $11 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans. “White Claw is the leader of the pack,” Mendez says. “There’s usually a White Claw shortage in Miami.”
Burwick notes that two key trends driving category growth are healthiness, especially among millennials, and flavor variety. “Drinkers are looking for great-tasting and refreshing options that aren’t high in calories, sugar, or carbohydrates,” he says, adding that Truly offers the most flavors among hard seltzers with 13 different variants. A fourteenth flavor, Truly Lemonade hard seltzer, will be hitting shelves in January 2020.
Boston Beer recently revamped Truly’s 13 flavors across the board. “We enhanced the aroma to be more fruit-forward, slightly increased the overall flavor, and created a crisper, cleaner finish, making the new Truly more drinkable without any lingering bitterness,” Burwick explains.
Room To Grow
The growth potential of hard seltzers is significant. Only about 4% of U.S. households purchased hard seltzers for the 52 weeks through the first quarter of 2019, according to Nielsen. Hard seltzer sales peak in the summer, but are gaining traction year-round due in part to support such as A-B InBev’s 2019 Super Bowl advertisement for Bon & Viv. Additionally, multiple hard seltzer sponsorships were announced in September for the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL). In September, E. & J. Gallo’s High Noon Sun Sips ($10 a 4-pack of 355-ml. cans) began airing a national ad campaign called “Things Just Got Real,” showing it during both NFL games on CBS and college football games on CBS Sports Cable, while Truly recently became the official hard seltzer of the NHL. The five-year agreement is the first national sports partnership for Boston Beer and Truly. The brand will appear on NHL digital and social media platforms throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Truly also launched a national ad campaign with comedian and actor Keegan-Michael Key in August across cable networks, online video, and social media. The brand is helping offset declines for Boston Beer’s flagship Samuel Adams beer, as well as its Angry Orchard cider. “Given Truly’s growth, and the numbers we’re seeing across the category, hard seltzer isn’t a fad—it’s here to stay,” Burwick says. “Truly is up 185% from this time last year and already bigger than established beer brands like Stella Artois and Blue Moon, and we’ve just scratched the surface.”
Hard seltzers are filling a niche for low-calorie alternative beverages in the wake of the craft beer boom. Craft beers are still growing, but gains are primarily driven by smaller brewers rather than larger regional craft operations. In the shadows of the craft beer revolution, a low-calorie, hop-free drink alternative is an industry game changer among those looking for different, lighter thirst quenchers. Mendez Fuel held a tasting of hard seltzers in mid-October that featured products such as Oskar Blues’ Wild Basin Black Raspberry.
Hard seltzers look set to continue to increase their retail presence and sales throughout 2020. “Hard seltzers are here to stay,” says Mendez. “The younger generation is going to go out drinking no matter what, whether it’s cold or hot out, and they are going to drink hard seltzer.”