Hard Sodas: More Like Your Grandfather’s Root Beer

Sure, you’ve seen the six-pack on the shelf at your local bottle shop, but you might not have been brave enough to pony up for hard root beer. “Not Your Father’s Root Beer” is perhaps the single most recognizable version of what’s becoming a national trend – hard soda. What’s it all about, though? Why the shift from good old beer to something that most consumers are now trying to avoid just to cut some excess sugar out of their diet? Actually, there’s a lot to know about hard sodas.

The Historical Context

First and foremost, if you think that root beer has traditionally been a nonalcoholic, carbonated beverage, you might want to revisit the history book. Root-based beverages (mostly teas and tinctures) have been around since the dawn of humanity. Actual root beer had to wait until Colonial times in the US. 

When European colonists first started immigrating to the shores of North America, they found it very hard to brew their traditional beers. Wheat and barley weren’t widely available yet, so they turned their search elsewhere – sassafras root is one of the most common options, but they also used birch, ginger, sarsaparilla and many other options to create “small beer”. 

Small beer was consumed by adults and children alike (because of the difficulty in finding reliable sources of clear, clean, uncontaminated water). The alcohol content could be as low as 2% ABV, or it might be as high as 9% depending on the farmstead where it was brewed. One thing they shared in common was that roots were often used as flavoring ingredients and sugar sources. 

So, hard sodas aren’t new. They’re old. But they’re making a big comeback today.

More than Root Beer

Today, the most common hard soda is root beer. There are several different examples on the market at the moment, with the most widely available being the aforementioned “Not Your Father’s Root Beer” from Small Town Brewery in Wauconda, Illinois. (As an interesting note, they’re actually owned by Pabst.) However, there are other options that you can explore if you want to try something else.

For instance, Richmond, Virginia based Isley Brewing Company has Drunken Uncle Hard Root Beer, but this isn’t really root beer in the sense that you’re thinking. It’s actually a porter that’s been spiced with sassafras root and vanilla. Other companies putting out hard root beer include:

  • Coney Island Brewing (owned by The Boston Beer Company)
  • Sprecher 
  • Berghoff (Rowdy Root Beer to differentiate if from the company’s soft drinks)

You’ll also find hard orange soda, lemon sodas and other options on the market.

Why the Rise of Hard Soda?

So, what’s behind the increasing popularity of hard soda? Is it going to overtake “actual” craft beer? 

First, put your hackles down. Soda isn’t going to replace beer, not by a long shot. However, it does give people who don’t traditionally like the taste of beer an option that’s not wine or liquor. 

Second, the case can be made that hard soda from innovative craft breweries should actually be embraced as just another example of their ingenuity and dedication to going outside the norm, which is really what craft brewing is all about. After all, if we all wanted to drink the same thing, we’d all raise one of those insipid red and white cans, right? 

Truth be told, hard soda has become incredibly popular. So much so, that Big Beer is getting in on the act (beyond the popularity of the brew from Pabst-owned Small Town).

Big Breweries Getting into the Act

The rising tide of hard soda offerings hasn’t escaped the notice of Big Beer. There are quite a few brewers who are intent on getting their slice of the pie. One of the most recent is MillerCoors. The company announced in late August 2015 that they’d be opening a line of hard soda offerings, and that they’d be going outside the root beer norm.

MillerCoors is starting out with two offerings from their Henry’s Hard line. They include Henry’s Hard Ginger Ale and Henry’s Hard Orange. Both will come in 6-packs and 16-ounce cans, and should be available in the first few weeks of 2016. The brewery is banking big on this being a factor in rebuilding their losses due to the popularity of craft beer, and will be launching a national advertising campaign to promote their sodas.

Anheuser-Busch/InBev is also planning to get into the act, although their product won’t hit the market until after Henry’s Hard from MillerCoors. AB/InBev is developing what they’re calling the Best Damn Root Beer, which will rollout sometime in 2016, although the company hasn’t specified a particular date. 

The Impact on Other Beverages

For those concerned that the rising popularity of hard soda will have an adverse impact on the craft beers they love, rest easy. However, that might not be the case for ciders, which have had an uphill battle for a long time. Predating beer, hard cider was once an American staple but it disappeared during Prohibition. It’s regained some of its acclaim in recent years thanks to a number of different brewers, but hard soda might have enough clout to decimate sales for cider makers. In addition, as the CEO of Vermont Hard Cider pointed out in an interview, it’s not just consumers who need to be aware that ciders still exist – distributors and retailers have to realize it too. 

In the meantime, it’s an interesting marketplace with lots of sweeter options for anyone who doesn’t like beer that much, or who just wants to explore their options. Have you tried any of the hard sodas currently on the market? Love NYFRB? Prefer something else? Anticipating any particular hard soda that’s coming out in the next few months?