Hard seltzer market creates buzz in CT alcohol industry

The national beer and alcohol industry is buzzing over the wave of hard seltzers on the market, and Connecticut businesses are looking to capitalize on the latest trend.

Sales of hard seltzer surged almost 200 percent in the past year to $488 million, as estimated by Nielsen. The market behind the fizzy beverage is poised to reach $2.5 billion by 2021, according to national reports.

The drink retails for about $6 a can.

Connecticut already has roots in the budding industry, with Norwalk-based Spiked Seltzer — now Bon and Viv —among the earliest purveyors.

Beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev’s acquired Bon and Viv in 2016.

Since then, the hard seltzer category has boomed with major companies buying up brands like Smirnoff Spiked Sparkling Seltzer, Henry’s Hard Sparkling and White Claw from Mark Anthony Group, which is currently leading the market in sales.

“The whole market is on fire right now,” said Kevin Fitzsimmons, director of operations for restaurants Prime 111 in Trumbull and Barra Itallian Street Kitchen in Shelton.

Fitzsimmons used to be general manager and part-owner at Eli's in downtown Milford where bars have wasted little time in incorporating spiked seltzers into their happy hour promotions. He said hard seltzers have evolved from a drink for college kids last summer into a drink of choice for an array of customers.

“You have to have it all the time now…this summer everyone has to have them,” he said.

Opportunity presented

For roughly a decade, Connecticut brewers have benefited from the boom of consumer interest in craft beer. The $746 million industry has surged to almost 100 businesses offering not only a mix of brews but also experience.

Part of that experience has traditionally meant a variety of beverages for customers who aren’t beer drinkers, including cider and wine. Pappas said the recent growth in hard seltzer brands can be another alternative to beer that can get consumers into breweries statewide.

“At this point in time, it’s hard not to be aware of it, and it’s hard to not recognize a growing trend and growing segment in a new category,” said Phil Pappas, executive director of the Connecticut Brewers Guild.

It’s unclear whether predictions of growth in the hard seltzers segment will continue, but if it their popularity continues into the new year, Connecticut brewers may have to figure out how recent law changes will affect their ability to sell or make them.

It’s been a month since Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation that, among other things, tripled the amount that brewers could sell from their businesses for off-site consumption and allowed distillers to sell individual servings from their sites.

Starting next summer, fees under a new permitting structure will gradually increase while nine manufacturer permits will be consolidated into three and a “Connecticut cafe permit” will be established, allowing the cross-selling of alcoholic products as long as they have Connecticut roots.

Also under the new permitting structure, brewers will have to get another license to sell anything other than beer — which they’ve been able to do since 2012 without a special permit.

Hard seltzers aren’t defined in Connecticut new laws right now, according to Pappas, which he said presents an opportunity for brewers.

“The easiest category you can put it under is beer,” he said. “It’s a business. If you want to keep up with market trends, I think that it’s smart to get into the seltzer game.”

Testing the waters

Connecticut Brewers have already begun dabbling with seltzer recipes, with more companies expected to follow throughout the year.

Stratford-based Two Roads Brewing Company recently released its own hard seltzer in the beginning of August. Dubbed “H2ROADS Craft Hard Seltzer,” the offering is made from 100 percent cane sugar and real fruit, according to a press release.

Black Hog Brewing in Oxford developed a new category altogether with its Citra Seltzer beer in response to the growing seltzer market.

Black Hog co-founders Jason Sobocinski and Tyler Jones developed the drink at the Extreme Beer Festival in Boston as part of a challenge to make the lowest alcohol by volume — ABV — beer as possible.

“We still love beer, and so we decided to give our go at a super light beer,” said Sobocinski. “It’s something that everyone is paying attention to because everyone is watching what people are enjoying right now. And if the stores and bars that we sell to are all looking for seltzers, then we are going to react and check it out and see if it is something we can make our own.”

Touting a 2.2 percent ABV and 69 calories per can, Tyler said their seltzer beer is brewed similarly to their beer with no extra sugar added.

“The big difference between making a seltzer and making beer seltzer would be using the mash tun to create the sugars that we use to make beer,” he said.

The tun, a brewhouse vessel used to mix malts and other grains and convert the ingredients into sugars that are used in the brewing process, also adds to the flavoring of the beer.

Tyler said making hard seltzer doesn’t require a mash tun or grains. Instead, brewers can mix water and sugar with yeast in a kettle and let it ferment into the boozy concoction.