Category On the Rise: Hard Alternatives
Spurred by the success of hard seltzer, hard kombucha, tea, and lemonade are on the rise. Here are the trends and brands to watch in 2021
There’s no denying the runaway success of the hard seltzer category, which made up 21 percent of Drizly’s beer sales in 2020 and saw a year-over-year sales increase of 495 percent. But with an increasing number of hard kombucha, hard lemonade, and hard iced tea products—also known as “hard alternatives”—entering the market, seltzer is no longer the only game in town for consumers seeking single-serve, low-ABV beverage options.
“The solidified position of hard seltzer as a popular, mainstream beer category has helped spur the success of alternative subcategories,” says Liz Paquette, the head of consumer insights at Drizly. And with leading hard seltzer brands getting in on the act, like the new hard seltzer lemonade SKUs Bud Light and hard seltzer iced tea from Truly, these products are poised to gain share as 2021 unfolds.
Despite making up a small percentage of Drizly’s overall beer sales, hard alternatives are among some of the platform’s fastest-growing beer subcategories year-over-year. Combined sales of hard kombucha, hard lemonade, and hard iced tea accounted for less than three percent of Drizly’s 2020 beer sales, but the products are making big relative gains. In 2020, hard kombucha sales grew 2,134 percent over the previous year, while hard iced tea sales increased 462 percent and hard lemonade grew 440 percent.
Sales were similarly impressive in the wider off-premise market. For the 52-week period ending Dec. 26, 2020, Nielsen data shows that off-premise hard kombucha dollar sales surged more than 128 percent, while hard tea increased 34 percent, and hard lemonade grew nearly 15 percent. The hard tea category outpaced other hard alternatives in total off-premise dollar sales, tallying more than $582 million in 2020.
To help retailers take advantage of the continued growth of hard alternatives, dive into 2020 data from Drizly and explore ongoing trends for hard kombucha, hard lemonade, and hard iced tea.
Who Is Drinking Hard Alternatives?
While the desire for “better-for-you” alcohol products has been a major driver behind the hard seltzer craze, consumers’ motivations for seeking out hard alternatives vary by product category. According to Dave Williams, the vice president of analytics and insights at drinks industry consulting firm Bump Williams Consulting, hard kombucha consumers are attracted to the products’ “health-conscious attributes,” such as probiotics and natural ingredients.
Hard lemonade and hard tea drinkers, on the other hand, are slightly different to categorize. “I would imagine that these consumers are primarily flavor-driven,” says Williams. “They’re less concerned about caloric content or sugar, and more concerned about the ultimate taste profile.”
However, these categories are evolving. “Previously, hard lemonades and teas were associated with sugary and syrupy beverages,” explains Paquette. “However, new products in the space are now being marketed as lower-sugar and lighter alternatives. In the past year, these alternatives have begun to appeal more broadly to hard seltzer consumers.”
Drizly data provides further insights into the demographic profile of hard alternatives consumers. “Similar to the hard seltzer category, sales skew younger than overall beer sales, with the 21 to 27 and 28 to 34 age groups accounting for the largest share,” says Paquette. Reflecting younger generations’ desire to explore new products and categories, more than 73 percent of hard alternatives consumers are under the age of 42.
Though the products are gaining popularity across the United States, the San Diego market—home to the popular hard kombucha brands JuneShine and BoochCraft—stands out as a Drizly sales hotspot for hard alternatives.
Top-Selling Hard Alternatives
Hard kombucha sales spiked in 2020 on Drizly, growing more than 2,000 percent and the number of SKUs offered on Drizly nearly tripled during the last year. “The category’s positioning as a healthier alternative has played a big role in its success and will likely continue to attract new consumers,” Paquette notes. In 2020, Drizly’s top-selling hard kombucha brands included (in order of largest sales share) JuneShine, Boochcraft, Flying Embers, NOVO Easy Kombucha, and Kombrewcha.
Within the hard lemonade category, longtime players Mike’s Hard and Mike’s Harder held the No. 1 and No. 2 positions on Drizly last year. However, new entrants such as Loyal 9 Sons of Liberty Lemonade (No. 3) and Crook & Marker (No. 5) gained popularity, suggesting that consumers are looking to try new brands beyond the big players. The growth in organic spiked lemonade Crook & Marker, may indicate consumer interest in natural products.
Likewise, category pioneer and longtime leader Twisted Tea took the No. 1 spot in Drizly’s 2020 top-selling hard tea ranking. However, newcomers like Lover Boy (No. 2) and Owl’s Brew Boozy Tea & Botanicals (No. 4) increased their share as consumers explored the category.
In the coming year, Paquette predicts that more brands will invest in the hard alternatives space—including the hard coffee and hard soda subcategories. “We have seen signs of this movement in 2020 and 2021, with new product releases like Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, Truly Iced Tea, and Strainge Beast Hard Kombucha by Sierra Nevada,” she says. “We also expect more craft offerings to emerge in the hard alternatives category, similar to the trend which has begun in the hard seltzer space.”
As for potential headwinds, Paquette says, “The aluminum can shortage may impact the hard alternatives category, as well as the broader hard seltzer and RTD categories, as the shortage persists through 2021—particularly in the craft space,” she notes. “This may lead to new formats being tested in the space like glass bottles, pouches, or cartons.”