Hard seltzer. Healthy opportunity.

With low alcohol, sugar and calorie contents, could this “hot trend” help put the fizz back in hospitality when sites reopen? Nick Hughes reports.

Will 2021 be the year of the permissive tipple? A growing interest in the concept of ‘mindful drinking’ is already boosting categories such as low- and no-alcohol drinks and functional products like kombucha. Now, it might be time to add hard seltzers to the list of fast-growing products with a healthy halo.

A new report from drinks brand DRTY describes hard seltzer as “one of the hottest trends in the UK drinks scene”. As a hard seltzer supplier itself, DRTY admittedly has a vested interest in talking up the category, but based on a wave of recent product innovation in the UK it’s hard to disagree. Alongside challenger brands like DRTY, Smirnoff, Koppaberg, Coca-Cola and Brewdog are among the household names to have launched hard seltzer products during 2020.

Hard seltzer originated in the USA as a ready-to-drink (RTD) version of a vodka soda. The category has been growing rapidly across the pond for a number of years but it’s only in the past 18 months the UK public has begun developing a taste for a tipple which combines sparkling water with light fruit flavouring and alcohol.

One of the key selling points of hard seltzers are their relatively healthy profile. With an average ABV of 4-6% according to DRTY, a calorie content of under 30kcal per 100ml and a sugar content of under 2g per 100ml hard seltzers compare favourably with traditional RTD spirits and wines. A 175ml glass of white wine of 13% ABV contains around 160 calories according to The Drinkaware Trust, while a study last year by the campaign group Action on Sugar found that some traditional premixed cocktails contain almost 50g of sugar per 500ml pack, equivalent to 12 teaspoons.

Suppliers looking to capitalise on the trend for health and moderation by launching hard seltzers may also have one eye on the prospect of calorie labelling becoming mandatory in the UK. A consultation on the UK government’s plan to make companies provide calorie labelling for all pre-packaged alcohol they sell, as well as drinks bought on draught or by the glass outside the home, is expected any time now (in fact it was originally promised before Christmas).

Mandatory calorie labelling on alcoholic drinks has divided opinion. At the time of the obesity plan’s launch last July, the Alcohol Health Alliance said the decision was “very welcome”, however the British Beer and Pub Association said the measures would add “burdensome red tape” at a time when brewers and pubs are trying to get back on their feet post covid-19 lockdowns.

Seven months on and the pandemic continues to cast a dark cloud over the out-of-home sector. Product innovations like hard seltzers would normally be tested in pubs, restaurants and other venues to establish consumer demand before appearing on supermarket shelves. On this occasion, the enforced shutdown of the sector has meant that hard seltzers have arrived on the shelves of retailers like Tesco and Morrisons relatively untested.

Experts, however, are confident the category will follow a similar growth trajectory to the USA where CGA research showed that by the end of 2019, hard seltzers had generated $1.2bn (£0.9bn) in sales and accounted for 1.1% of all beers, wines and spirits purchased.

“There’s risk with anything that’s unproven but the flip side of that is the likes of Tesco are making shelf space for it so what you’re doing is driving new opportunity,” Adrian Lugg, managing director of brand and marketing consultancy Hop Hut, told The Grocer recently.

When venues are finally able to reopen following the latest lockdown, owners will be hoping hard seltzers will help put a healthy fizz back into flat businesses.

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