Craft alcohol taps into our love of nostalgia. Spirits popular in the past — whiskey and gin — have made strong comebacks, both as sippers and in the resurgence of classic cocktails.
So too has another retro drink returned: hard soda.
This has been driven in large part by root beers. Customers cannot seem to get enough of these brands and other hard sodas. The category has exploded in recent time, after being all-but nonexistent not that long ago.
Blasts From the Past
Nostalgia is at the center of the hard soda craze. One of the first brands — if not the brand — to jumpstart the movement, Not Your Father’s Root Beer, came about from that angle.
“We developed Not Your Father’s Root Beer because we recognized people’s craving for nostalgic flavors they loved from childhood,” explains Tim Kovac, founder and brewmaster of Small Town Brewery, which makes the product. (Kovan first experimented with hard root beer with his son in 2011, brewing for fun after their vacation plans got canceled.)
Fresh fizzy root beer comes into many people’s minds as being poured in the soda shops of the mid 20th century. But our love of root beer dates back even further.
“Root beer is a classic American flavor, and it was actually made with alcohol in colonial times, so it’s really an authentic product that was exciting for us to try to reinvent in our own way,” Kovac says.
Not Your Father’s Root Beer brings the classic recipes into modern times. Small Town Brewery adds in botanical ingredients like vanilla, oak, wintergreen, sarsaparilla and spices. In this way, hard soda is a meeting point between two current drink trends: contemporary craft and classic revival.
Brewer James Grocer wanted to develop “nostalgia” products. So he and his Wild Ginger Brewing launched a self-titled ginger beer early last September, followed in November by Wild Root, his hard root beer.
“I didn’t know a bomb was about to go off with root beer,” Grocer recalls. “All of a sudden there were a bunch of hard root beers. I said, ‘We gotta get ours out.’”
Around the same time, Anheuser-Busch launched their Best Damn Root Beer. Then the company expanded their hard soda line in February with Best Damn Cherry Cola, another classic flavor that harkens back the soda shops of decades past.
Move To Mixology
Nostalgia is not the only thing going for hard sodas. The category has also tapped into modern trends — like mixology.
The Best Damn line was recently showcased at a Manhattan event. The sodas came in cocktails crafted by bartenders from the Brooklyn restaurant and mixology destination, Extra Fancy. This included a Rum Java Root Beer Float, which topped off the traditional dessert drink with a shot of spiced rum.
“Mixology has been a major focus for us,” explains Kathy Sattler, Brand Director, Best Damn Brewing Co. “Customers nowadays are always thinking variety, and they’re open to having beer in a cocktail.”
Grocer of Wild Ginger Brewing had in mind the popularity of Moscow Mules and other cocktails when creating his Wild Ginger. He has also found fans of his Wild Root among cocktail lovers.
“People are having a shot of Rum Chata in it,” Grocer says. “Hard root beer lends itself to drinks with sweeter profiles. A lot of liqueur companies are trying to ride the wave of hard root beers. I’m seeing a lot of Jägermeister and root beer.”
Not Your Father’s Root Beer has also been mixed into all sorts of cocktails, Kovac reports, including with vanilla vodka.
Hard sodas are like alcoholic ciders. They appeal to all ages and genders.
“We’re seeing a clear 50/50 split between men and women who buy our products,” Grocer says. One reason, he believes, is that the recent surge in hard sodas is “the only innovation in this otherwise stagnant category in the last 20 years. It’s been Mike’s Hard and cider and then nothing else but us.”
“Everyone is excited because it’s something new,” he adds. “They’re going on the internet and talking about it.”
Other brands have discovered similar customer demos. The target market for Not Your Father’s Root Beer “is wide and diverse,” Kovac says. “We have customers from 21-80, and they include women, men, craft drinkers, beer drinkers, spirit drinkers, non-beer drinkers, wine drinkers.”
It’s this mass appeal that has helped spread the word about hard sodas. Parents are talking about them with their LDA kids. They in turn suggest the products to friends.
Kovac reports that his brewery has done little to no marketing. Not Your Father’s Root Beer has climbed up sales charts largely on the back of social media and word-of-mouth.
Hard soda has also benefitted from wider audience by filling a niche. Sweeter drinks are hot right now in America. Millennials in particular are trending in this direction.
And hard sodas, especially the root beers, allow males of this generation to have a sweeter option that also allows them to “keep their man cards,” Sattler says with a laugh.
In this way, hard soda again reflects the appeal of cider.
Modern drinkers — again, particularly Millennials — crave variety. Cider and hard soda offer sweeter, lighter, lower-ABV alternatives to more bitter beers, or heavier and boozier cocktails and spirits.