Led by boozy root beer, 'hard soda' trend now in full swing

At a Towson liquor store, 35 to 40 cases of Not Your Father's Root Beer are sold each week.

When Not Your Father’s Root Beer first landed at Total Wine and More's shelves last spring, the alcoholic soda was a minor hit, selling roughly five cases per week — on par with the Towson store's popular India Pale Ales. But after a month, word had clearly spread.

"Over the summer, we were doing over 100 cases a week when it was available," said manager Tom Becker. "They couldn't keep up with the production, so they ended up sending it in cans to supplement the bottles."

Since signing a distribution deal with Pabst Brewing Co. last March, Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer from Illinois has launched the latest alcoholic trend — hard soda. (Think gourmet sodas often seen at delis, but with a kick.) The initial rush has cooled to a mere “35 to 40“ cases a week, Becker said.

As more products arrive to chase the success of the buzzy root beer, Baltimore-area bars and liquor stores have found room on their crowded shelves to accommodate demand.

The Owl Bar in Mount Vernon has had Not Your Father’s Root Beer on tap for three months, said manager Jackie Chandler, because patrons were searching for it.

“People were super excited when we got it,” Chandler said. “Now, for the very few who haven’t heard about the hard sodas, when they see it on our menu, they certainly want to try it.”

Hard sodas are another way for alcohol companies to appeal to customers eager to try new products and flavors, according to Ken Albala, professor and founding director of the University of the Pacific’s Food Studies program.

“People have gotten bored with standard mass-produced beer, and that explains the whole craft-beer revival,” Albala said. “They got bored with only beer, and that’s why cider just came out of nowhere.”

“For the same kind of crowd ... this is another niche,” Albala said.

The hard-soda market has expanded in recent months. Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale is now available in bottles, while other companies have tried to differentiate their own root beers from the pack.

Then there’s Henry’s Hard Soda, the new brand from behemoth MillerCoors. Henry’s’ marketing targets Generation-X consumers who want an alcoholic beverage at home, said Melissa Wagamon, brand manager.

“Your life changes a little bit as you get older,” Wagamon said. “Your first thoughts are to your responsibilities and you want the beverages that you drink and your lifestyle to fit with that.”

Henry’s decision to launch with orange soda and ginger ale is a signal of the market’s eye toward diversification. Becker said Total Wine sells 10 brands of hard soda, and Wagamon said Henry’s is always considering new flavors.

I taste-tested some hard sodas. I walked away intrigued for the market’s future, and certain I needed a break from all that sugar:

Not Your Father’s Root Beer and Ginger Ale (Small Town Brewery)

Backstory: The alcoholic root beer that got everyone talking.

Verdict: If you’re like me, your first-ever sip will cause a double-take. Last year, I was shocked by how much it tasted like the soda. Sarsaparilla and vanilla notes hide the alcohol (5.9 percent alcohol by volume) scarily well. The ginger ale upheld the brand’s standard of delivering a flavor similar to an actual soda, though ginger ale does not lend itself as well to a “hard” version as root beer does.

Try it: Many Baltimore bars and liquor stores carry bottles of the root beer, while some bars — including the Owl Bar (1 E. Chase St., Mount Vernon) — have it on tap. Small Town’s Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale is also available at liquor stores now, with local keg distribution coming soon.

Henry’s Hard Orange Soda and Ginger Ale (Henry’s Hard Soda)

Backstory: For more than a year, MillerCoors has worked on its own hard soda. Now it’s pushing alcoholic orange soda and ginger ale via a national campaign.

Verdict: The orange soda (4.2 percent ABV) satisfied, especially in its first sips, as it delivered the bright, familiar flavor of a non-alcoholic soda. By the end, though, the sweetness overwhelmed me. The ginger ale (4.2 percent ABV) had a different effect: I wouldn’t confuse it with actual ginger ale, but its flavor — mellower and subtler than the orange soda — grew on me.

Try it: Bars like The Horse You Came In On (1626 Thames St., Fells Point) and Smaltimore (2522 Fait Ave., Canton) carry it. So do liquor stores including Loading Dock Liquors (2101 Fleet St., Canton) and Total Wine and More (8727 Loch Raven Blvd., Towson).

Best Damn Root Beer (Best Damn Brewing Co.)

Backstory: Launched in December, this is Anheuser-Busch’s first attempt at a hard root beer (5.5 percent ABV).

Verdict: Where’s the punch of vanilla, sarsaparilla — anything? The name appears to be wishful thinking.

Try it: Sliders Bar & Grille (504 Washington Blvd., downtown) and Shotti’s Point (701 E. Fort Ave., Riverside) have it behind the bar, while liquor stores like Eddie’s Liquors (3109 St. Paul St., Charles Village) and The Cellars (1800 Whetstone Way, McHenry Row) have it in stock.

Sprecher Hard Root Beer (Sprecher Brewery)

Backstory: Since 2013, this Milwaukee brewery has produced its own hard root beer (5 percent ABV) that it ages in oak bourbon barrels.

Verdict: This had the creamy vanilla finish I look for from a high-quality root beer. It also tasted more like a beer and not like a novelty trying to disguise itself as soda. Future competitors, take notes.

Try it: Liquor stores including Bo Brooks Lighthouse Liquors (2701 Boston St., Canton) and Wells Discount Liquors (6301 York Road, Cedarcroft) have it.

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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