When Tim Kovac, co-founder of Illinois' Small Town Brewery, decided to teach his son, Jake, how to brew beer, he had no idea how far reaching the results would be. Jake, a soda fan, asked a simple question:
Why hadn't anyone created a "root beer beer" with alcohol?
His inquisitiveness lead to the creation of Not Your Father's Root Beer, an alcoholic riff on the classic beverage that was one of the most popular craft beers of 2015. Americans spent more than $75 million on the product, according to research firm IRI.
Hard soda is the latest boozy trend sweeping the nation, due in no small part to the success of Not Your Father's. From ginger ale to orange soda and a wealth of root beers, retail shelves and bar taps have become increasingly stocked with fizzy not-so-soft drinks. And thanks to giants such as Anheuser Busch-InBev and MillerCoors getting the game, booze hounds can expect to see more flavors in the future.
Best Damn Brewing Co., a subsidiary of AB-InBev, released a hard root beer in December 2015. Though the idea had been tossed around for several years, the brewery decided to strike while the iron was hot, especially among Millennials, says Kathy Sattler, the brand's marketing director.
"The Millennial consumer has been trending toward sweeter beverages," says Sattler, adding Best Damn is slated to release a hard cherry cola in March. "We decided to get into it now that consumers overwhelming showed they were picking this up and looking for more."
Other companies, however, are targeting different demographics. A commercial for MillerCoors' Henry's Hard Soda line, which hit the market in early January, shows parents drinking the beverage, but also making sure to slip a coaster under the bottle before putting it on the table. The products, which currently include orange soda and ginger ale, are for the party people of yesteryear, who are looking to go "buckmild" or "hard-ish."
Just look at how much fun they're having:
Bryan Ferschinger, the company' senior director of innovation, told CNBC Henry's is aimed at Generation X or the "soda generation." Small Town Brewery may also be experiencing growth from this sector.
"We've been told that Not Your Father's Root Beer was the first to capture the taste of 'nostalgia' that people craved," says Kovac.
Still, some believe this trend may be part of a bigger soda revival. Abita Brewing Co. in Louisiana has been brewing root beer since the '80s, and only recently created an alcoholic version at the encouragement from a distributor who saw the market growing. Though the brewery does not have plans to make more hard sodas, it launched a seasonal soft drink program with the debut of King Cake Soda in February.
Director of brewing operations Jaime Jurado says Abita recently expanded its brew house and now has the capacity and staff to sustain the new soda line. Despite record declines in soda consumption, Jurado says sales of Abita's flagship root beer has been growing year over year.
"We look around and see what's happening with beer, wine and whiskeys, why not soda?" he says.
Whether or not the trend sticks, drinkers can expect to see new recipes in the near future. Best Damn is planning to release a cherry cola in March, and Coney Island Brewing Co., a Boston Beer Co. subsidiary that released a hard root beer last year, is adding a hard ginger ale and hard orange cream soda to its lineup.
With so many options flooding the market, which ones are worth your buck?
I sat down with my sister and avid soda drinker, Nicole Ricciardi, to taste some of the most popular you'll find around D-FW.
Battle of the hard root beers
Root beer is certainly the most popular hard soda flavor. Most are brewed and fermented like a regular beer; some are aged on vanilla beans or flavored with cane sugar. But not all satisfy the craving for a traditional root beer.
Of the five we tried, Not Your Father's Root Beer (Small Town Brewery) stood out above the rest. It smelled and tasted most like root beer soda, and boasted a mild vanilla sweetness. It wasn't as carbonated as a soda, but that didn't keep it from edging out the competitors.
Bayou Bootlegger (Abita Brewing Co.) was a close second, though it's not a soda substitute. The alcohol is apparent in the aroma and aftertaste, which lingers and continuously warms the palate.
The rest battled for last place. We decided Coney Island Brewing Co.'s Hard Root Beer was the most palatable, even if the consistency and taste were comparable to cough syrup. Best Damn Root Beer's sugary effervescence reminded us of the synthetic taste of Double Bubble gum, while Mission Brewing Co.'s Hard Root Beer reeked of licorice -- and that wasn't a good thing.
Orange soda and ginger ale
Henry's Hard Soda is considered a malt beverage like Smirnoff Ice, but it currently dominates the flavor market outside of root beer. Both the orange soda and the ginger ale tasted nearly identical to their sober counterparts; however, the orange drink was overly carbonated, almost shocking to the palate.
My sister and I disagreed when it came to the ginger ale -- she loved its sugary sweetness. I preferred the Not Your Father's Ginger Ale (Small Town Brewery), which was a drier, spicier expression that tasted like actual ginger.
Tried a hard soda lately? Tweet me your thoughts at @tineywristwatch.