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The hard seltzer category has seen extraordinary growth in the UK in recent years. Tapping into the US trend, British brands have seen volume growth of more than 1,000% since January 2020 to 1.57 million litres, according to data cited by The Drty Hard Seltzer Handbook. By 2023, it predicts the UK hard seltzer market will be worth £75m, up from £10.4m today.
How can retailers take a slice of this market, and is there any end in sight to its stratospheric growth?
“The UK has always had a bit of a soft spot for canned drinks – whether that’s Pimms in a can at Wimbledon, or a G&T at the picnic, and we see hard seltzers being the next natural step in this space,” said George Blurton, founder of Long Shot drinks. Ready-to-drink beverages, or RTDs, have started outperforming the overall alcohol market, and saw significant growth in 2020, with an 8.6% increase in sales while the overall alcohol market declined by 10%, George added.
“Perceptions about the quality of canned drinks are improving, and the signs are showing that hard seltzers can appeal to a more health-conscious generation who are looking to try something new,” he told Speciality Food. In fact, he says the biggest factor going against hard seltzers is the language barrier, as the term ‘hard seltzer’ is angled at the American market.
Heather Morris of food and drink product developers SHFoodie, agreed. “Hard seltzers got off to a slow start in the UK, mainly due to the term ‘seltzer’ not being a word commonly used in the UK, so consumers weren’t sure what they were, but they have now been gaining popularity over the last year. At SHFoodie, we have seen a proliferation of requests from entrepreneurs wanting to launch hard seltzers this year,” she explained.
With many big drinks brands also creating their own versions, the term is becoming increasingly mainstream.
In the US, there is a worry that the hype for hard seltzers could be too high. In the US, Boston Beer president and CEO Dave Burwick recently warned that the company had “overestimated the growth” of the hard seltzer category, stressing that there were too many brands and not enough differentiation, according to Food Dive.
George wasn’t surprised to see that the US market is reaching its tipping point, “given that hard seltzers have been one of the most spoken-about, and hottest new drinks trends in the States for the last five years or so”.
“Here in the UK however, we’re typically a few years behind the US when it comes to adopting these new trends, and in fact the signs are showing that we’re just about to enter the ‘honeymoon’ period for hard seltzers, similar to what the US saw in 2018 and beyond,” he told Speciality Food. This means that for retailers, stocking up on hard seltzers can still be good for business.
While it may still be early days for UK hard seltzers, brands have started positioning themselves differently in order to stand out on the shelf. To do this, they’re “shouting about calorie or sugar counts, opting for unheard-of flavour combinations or simply being the cheaper option,” George said.
However, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently warned hard seltzer brands against unauthorised health or nutrition claims and misleading customers about the amount of alcohol they contain, for example by claiming that any drink with more than 1.2% ABV is “low alcohol”.
The perception of hard seltzers being healthier may not always be true, Heather said. “The popularity of hard seltzer has coincided with a rise in consumers, particularly Millennials, seeking products that fit in with a lighter, healthier lifestyle, as they are perceived to be lower in alcohol and less sweet; the older established ‘alcopops’ being usually pretty sweet offerings. However, the alcohol content of hard seltzers often mirrors alcopops, between 4-6% ABV despite being viewed as being ‘healthier’”.
Hard seltzers also have been seen as more appealing than low alcohol beer, but as the beer sector creates more impressive low and no alcohol options, this may take a bite out of hard seltzer sales, Heather warned.
In order to stand out, fine food brands like Long Shot have sought to highlight their premium ingredients list and their use of local ingredients. For brands, transparency can be key. “We’ve found that the bulk of our customers reach for a Long Shot simply because it is a ‘cleaner’ alternative to other canned options. We are fully transparent about what goes into our drinks – proudly showing the nutritional information and ingredients list on the side of our drinks, something that (for some reason) you’re not obliged to do,” George said.
While navigating the market for hard seltzers can be tricky, finding the right offering for your customers now will pay dividends in the long run. “Hard seltzers, we believe, will continue to grow in the UK and they certainly haven’t yet reached their peak,” Heather said. “New products are coming out all the time and each one is adding a further USP that will draw in consumers.”