On Christmas Eve, my cousin handed me a curious bottle of booze—"Not Your Father's Root Beer," read the label. That evening, I became one of many drinkers who propelled Small Town Brewery's flagship hard soda to more than $75 million in sales last year alone.
Distributed by Pabst Brewing Company, Not Your Father's Root Beer became one of 2015's best-selling craft brews, overtaking stalwarts like Samuel Adams Boston Lager and New Belgium's Fat Tire in sales. This success was especially impressive since Not Your Father's Root Beer landed on the market in June, giving it just six months to surpass so many favorites.
Competition arrived quickly. Samuel Adams's parent, Boston Beer Company, launched its own rival hard root beer, Coney Island Hard Root Beer. F.X. Matt Brewing Company, which makes Saranac, countered with Jed's Hard Soda. MillerCoors jumped in with the Henry's Hard Soda line, Anheuser-Busch with its Best Damn Root Beer.
The craze is easy to understand: with a mix of savvy, nostalgia-baiting marketing and a taste that summons memories of good ol' A&W, just with an alcoholic kick of six percent or so, Not Your Father's Root Beer and its ilk proved novel for beer drinkers and gave people who can't take beer's bitterness a sweet-sipping alternative.
Maybe, though, it's too sweet.
Indeed, finishing that bottle of Not Your Father's took some work. The first few drinks delivered a fun throwback, but the syrupy sweetness left me feeling weighed down by the time I'd drained the bottle. The same holds for most of the other hard sodas I've tried since, and it seems I'm not alone in finding most hard sodas—or standard sodas, for that matter—too sweet. One of the area's most popular breweries has responded to the hard root beer boom with a less cloying brew of its own, while a soda-making Durham artisan wants to cut the sugar and add unexpected flavors to his new concoctions. Some even say this recent wave of craft beverages could eventually break the soda hegemony of major players like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Big Boss Brewing Company's brewmaster, Brad Wynn, thinks he knows why.
"I don't think my customers like sweet beer," he says. "I don't think my customers are drinking Not Your Father's or the other ones, but they like the idea."
In response to the craze for hard soda, Big Boss recently released a limited Root Beer Stout, an attempt to evoke the same nostalgic flavors sans the sugary overload. When Big Boss co-owner Geoff Lamb suggested a root beer-based beer, Wynn was reluctant, but head brewer Bobby McInerny took the lead.
"He has a very good palate," Wynn says. "I was like, 'All right, give it a shot. Just don't make it eight-and-a-half or nine percent, and don't make it sickly sweet.'"
Research suggests that people lose some of their sweet tooth with age. According to a study from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, children are, in general, more attracted to sweet tastes than adults and are more sensitive to bitter flavors; coffee and beer aren't "adult" beverages simply because of the caffeine or alcohol they contain. In adolescence and adulthood, we tend to seek out more complex flavors.
Or, as Wynn puts it, "I like beer that tastes like beer."
And Big Boss's new stout does. It earns both elements of its root beer label. A rich soda-fountain aroma greets your nose, but it drinks like a semisweet, well-balanced stout. There are vanilla and chocolate notes on the finish, but the root beer taste and sweetness never overwhelm the malt. At 6.75 percent, it packs more wallop than most hard sodas, but it balances that alcohol content with a smooth texture and complex taste.
"We didn't want to make a heavy stout. We wanted to make one that finished easy," Wynn says. "One thing we want you to do is drink one more."
For Big Boss, this experiment may only be the start, as Wynn wants to expand into non-alcoholic sodas, too. The brewery has tested small batches of old-fashioned root beer before, and Wynn's background in crafting soda goes deep. Back in Pennsylvania, Wynn's father and grandfather would brew their own root beer in hard and soft varieties.
"I want to be a beverage company," Wynn says, "not just a beer company."
If Big Boss enters the soft-drink business in earnest, it will be the latest in a line of breweries, like Saranac and the Pennsylvania-based Appalachian Brewing Company, to turn its expertise in craft beer into vintage-style sodas—root beers, ginger ales, and the like. But, Wynn promises, these versions won't be syrupy.
"There's a more grown-up way to look at this stuff," he says. "I want it to be consumed straight, as an alternative to a really sweet soda. My root beer's not going to be sickly sweet; it'll probably have half the sugar."
In Durham, Jon Lehman has been making craft sodas that are less sweet for several years, and business is bubbling up. When Lehman moved to Durham in 2012 after leaving his job as a real estate lawyer in Florida, he soon started working on what would become Brood Soda. Like Wynn, Lehman had brewed his own soda as a hobby, making alternatives to the sugar-stocked standards.
"My criticism of the well-known colas—Coke, Pepsi, RC, anything off the shelf—is they were too sweet," he says. "That was my entry into soda making myself: to make something that's enjoyable and not so overkill."
Eventually the hobby turned into a vocation. Lehman still taste-tests each batch of Brood, which he makes using all-natural ingredients. He assists in a bottling process that's still done mostly by hand, too. This attention to craft extends into the flavoring. Unlike mass-market sodas, which Lehman says often make up for missing flavor with more sugar and chemical sweeteners, Brood delights in unusual combinations. "Ram" fuses peppermint and white grape, for instance, while "Spicy" incorporates the heat of Thai chilis and ginger.
"I made a deal with myself that I'm not going to follow recipes," Lehman says. "I can't ignore that I've had a lot of ginger ale and cola and root beer in my life and so I know these flavors, but my intention was to make a new and different flavor. That ethos is consistent across the brand. All our flavors are hopefully different from anything that is well known."
And Brood has begun to find a niche among consumers who are eager for new flavors and handcrafted refreshments—in other words, craft-beer drinkers. To wit, some of Brood's best customers are breweries looking to add a non-alcoholic option to their taproom menus.
"It's not just an overlap," says Lehman, who estimates his industry is a decade or so behind the craft-beer market. "I'd say it's pretty direct in our sales that the buyer of quality beer is the same buyer—or the same family."
Still, operations like Brood remain a small niche in a shrinking market. Sales of carbonated soft drinks have fallen steadily during the past decade, and craft makes up an estimated 1 percent of it.
But Lehman sees potential. More craft soda makers are popping up, and the big players are scrambling to catch up. Pepsi has introduced "Throwback" lines, using real sugar instead of corn syrup in Pepsi and Mountain Dew, and it recently launched Stubborn Soda, with flavors like lemon berry acai and orange hibiscus, and 1893, a vintage-style cola line. Coca-Cola has acquired brands like Hansen's and Blue Sky.
If craft soda can continue to find a foothold, the trend can fundamentally alter the industry, much like craft beer. Today, anywhere you go to eat, whether McDonald's or a high-dollar restaurant, the soft-drink menu is likely to feature Coke or Pepsi.
"There's no reason for that. If you're looking at higher-quality food, there has to be a higher-quality beverage," he says. "A lot of restaurants are realizing that."
Finding a balance between novelty and nostalgia may prove challenging, however. Where Brood mostly eschews the word "soda" for "carbonated greatness" and names its flavors ambiguously in an effort to encourage experimentation, hard sodas are marketed on vintage appeal. A Jed's label promises to "capture the essence of days past." Appealing to memory, Wynn says, is a fail-safe strategy, but not for Lehman, whose success depends on those changing taste buds of adults—not too sweet and not too ordinary.
"New and different is as important as vintage," he says. "There's an enormous place for creative and different products."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Not-Too-Sweet Spot"