The false equivalence of beer versus hard seltzer

Beer commentator Stephen Beaumont has been watching the battle between his specialist category and hard seltzer for long enough now to ask: Why is beer bearing the brunt? 

“Another generation-defining shake-up in the beer aisle.” That's how drinks writer David Infante described the hard seltzer category in a recent post on his ‘Fingers’ website. Regardless of whether you view hard seltzer as an industry blessing or a consumer curse, Infante's right. 

Except for the ‘beer aisle’ part. 

For someone who spends a lot of time railing at false narratives in the media, Infante was quick to embrace the notion that hard seltzer is the enemy of beer - an interloper intent on stealing market share and crushing lesser brands. And, for most of its existence as a powerhouse beverage category, that's exactly how it has been depicted, in both the general and specialist drinks media. 

There's no evidence that hard seltzer has been growing exclusively - or even in the majority - at the expense of beer

At the heart of this alleged competition between seltzer and beer is, I believe, the mistaken inclusion of seltzer in the beer category, when it should actually be grouped with, and seen to compete most strongly against, other RTDs. When the dust settles and analysts look back on the period beginning with the ‘Summer of Seltzer’ in 2018, and likely stretching well into the middle years of the 2020s, it may very well be that the big growth category they’ll be researching will not be hard seltzers or even FMBs as a whole, but all RTDs, including canned cocktails and hard teas and likely some thematic variations we are yet to recognise. 

Indeed, it's only a quirk of ingredients and packaging that led to seltzer being grouped with beer in the first place, when in fact the two beverages have precious little in common. Sure, both are built off a base of barley malt plus assorted sugar sources - or at least were, prior to the entry of spirits brands into the seltzer arena - and both were (and are) generally packaged in cans and often consumed directly from their container. But, I'd suggest that there's where the similarities end, at least when seltzer is compared to conventional beer styles and flavours. Anyone thinking that a regular consumer of light beer comes to a mango-flavoured seltzer in search of the same experience is deluding themselves. 

So, what actually is similar to a hard seltzer? Why, a vodka and soda, of course. And, here's where we see a more logical organisation of product categories begin to assert itself. 

Far more than being in any significant way beer-like, hard seltzers are basically RTDs much like premix cocktails or even wine coolers; drinks that don’t necessarily carry any assertive flavours of their base source of alcohol. Building on that, it becomes easy to see that the real surge in interest these days isn't in hard seltzer alone, but RTDs in general, with the rather remarkable growth in canned cocktails and other related drinks obscured only because of our insistent focus on the seltzer juggernaut. 

The real story, however, is not RTDs alone, or the ‘battle’ between beer and hard seltzer, or the spirits industry’s return to the RTD space, or even wine’s tentative steps into canning, both with and without extra flavourings, but the blurring of the lines between all product categories. 

This goes back to some of the early research into the purchasing habits of Millennial consumers, which suggested that not only was brand loyalty dead, but beverage category fluidity was the new rule in consumer behaviour, with drinkers moving easily from beer to cocktails to wine to spirits. Add canned and bottled RTDs into this mix, then force consumers to stay at home for a couple of years, and you have a recipe for a wholesale change in the way we gauge beverage alcohol sales, evidenced by not just the above, but also by the easy movement of drinks brand owners between categories. 

With brewing companies stepping into spirits, either on their own or through strategic partnerships, spirits companies embracing all manner of RTDs, and even wineries crossing into spirits, beer and RTDs, it’s easy to envision a future - possibly one nearer than we might expect - when the old categories fail us completely and we track sales in an entirely new fashion. 

How that ‘new way’ might be organised remains unknown for now. But, like the current growth in the RTD market, expect it to be led by consumer behaviour rather than corporate intent. 

Main image: Los Angeles, California -Popular brands of hard seltzer at a local grocery store
Credit: TonelsonProductions / Shutterstock