On a recent Thursday night at New York City’s West End Lounge, a handful of Upper West Side locals filled bar seats in the low-lit room. Several sipped from pint glasses wet with muddy milk stouts or bright straw-colored pilsners; others chased shots of well whiskey with Pabst Blue Ribbon from tallboy cans. A few of the late twenty- and thirty-something patrons, however, had chosen an atypical drink for a non-frat bro in a casual setting: hard root beer.
"I’m really surprised at how much people love them," says West End Lounge bartender Chris Plank about sales of Not Your Father’s Root Beer, the house hard root beer brand. "Most nights I have to run back and restock the fridge with them."
During the 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s, the beverage industry saw the rise and fall of a ready-to-drink category reminiscent of hard root beer: alcopops. Easy to chug, sugary, yet alcoholic, beverages such as Coors Brewing Company’s Zima Clearmalt and Mike’s Hard Lemonade were marketed and consumed more often by adolescents chasing a good time. These libations were also stigmatized as "girly drinks" due to their saccharine flavors geared towards underdeveloped palates familiar with juice and sodas, as well as the pervasiveness of alcopop advertisements in targeting the female teenage market. In a 2010 U.S. study by the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that advertisement time slots "where adolescent audiences were 55 percent female had, on average ... 58 percent more alcopop ads than did time slots where adolescent audiences were 45 percent female."
Yet by the turn of the millennium, the alcopop industry began to waver. In the United Kingdom, the beverages fell out of fashion almost completely, whereas in the United States, several companies’ attempts to cash in on the alcopop trend were simply discontinued.
Fred Gambke of United States Beverage, which handles sales and marketing for small brewers, told CNN Money back in 2004 that an over-saturated alcopop market played a role in the category's malaise; others point to the disapproval of sipping on overly sugary alcoholic beverages, with drinks analysts such as Darby Hughes, the Brand Strategy Director at food and drink brand-building boutique Quench, claiming that it was just the trend's timing that created a stigma towards alcopops.
"Culturally, we weren't as ready for those alcopops then as we may be now," says Hughes, adding that the maligned perceptions of alcopops, such as bros "icing" each other, or shaming themselves into ironically drinking Smirnoff Ice, "may have been so ingrained in culture that it would be hard for those products to continue to grow."
Yet, in Illinois during April 2012, Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer soaked the beer community with a no-brainer phenomenon: root beer. Sprecher Brewery in Glendale, Wisconsin, attempted to tap into the classic soda’s alcoholic counterpart with its small-scale Hard Root Beer release in January 2013, and Chicago's Forbidden Root followed with its eponymous recipe, although more botanical and herbaceous in July 2014. But by sheer luck, Small Town’s buzz-friendly brew quickly expanded beyond its own cult status in the Chicago metro area by July 2015, just as The Boston Beer Company began to jump onboard with its subsidiary brand Coney Island Brewing Company’s Hard Root Beer. By December, even Anheuser-Busch had a version called Best Damn Root Beer, with more to come. Yet, unlike their spiritual alcopop predecessors, hard root beer has taken off with extreme hype, upsetting the two-dimensional stereotypes that snubbed alcopops: attracting both sexes, age groups, and even craft beer snobs, all across the board.
Hard root beer has taken off with extreme hype, attracting both sexes, age groups, and even craft beer snobs.
Although there’s no clear definition, all parties involved claim that their hard root beers are "spiced ales." According to All About Beer, a beer that's classified as an ale typically means it is brewed with malt grains, hops, and top-fermenting yeast. A "spiced ale," per BeerAdvocate, means that during the brewing process, adjuncts like clove and nutmeg are thrown into the mix (think: pumpkin beer). According to the label, Not Your Father’s Root Beer is brewed with "vanilla extract, other natural and artificial flavors and caramel color," while Best Damn Root Beer and Coney Island Hard Root Beer add real vanilla beans.
Alcopops, on the other hand, are fermented with grains and sugar. Those which are classified as malt beverages (Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Redd’s Apple Ale, Smirnoff Ice) use the same basic ingredients that go into brewing beer: water, hops, malt, and yeast. "Malt Beverage," according to the Brewer’s Association, is a blanket term that can be attributed to any alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverage that is brewed with malted barley, hops (in certain proportions), water and can include other additives. With malt beverage alcopops, these drinks typically start unhopped, and the flavors resulting from the fermentation processes are stripped afterwards, leaving behind a tasteless alcohol that is then re-flavored artificially with juices, syrups, and other sugary additives.
Not Your Father’s Root Beer, Coney Island Hard Root Beer, and Best Damn Root Beer all attempted, from the outset, to avoid being cornered into the gender and age biases that had been thrust onto alcopops during their golden years, particularly those that stemmed from their extremely sweet and child-like flavors.
Dr. Lawrence Wenner, the Von der Ahe Professor of Communication & Ethics at Loyola Marymount University, says that "at the end of the day something that's lemonade, hard or not, doesn't tend to fall into the archetypal 'real man' characterization." In 2008, California even passed a bill requiring alcopops to carry a warning label that these beverages, like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and (the then-soon-to-be discontinued) Zima Xxx Hard Lemon Lime, contained alcohol.
"Not Your Father's Root Beer, Coney Island and Best Damn all tend to use more traditional masculine cues in their aesthetic and language, perhaps a way to ensure that this is no longer just a drink for females or for beginners," Hughes says. "It appears to be working, too. A quick glance at their respective Facebook pages and you are just as likely, if not more likely, to see big, burly men enjoying the product."
Hughes believes that the marketing strategies implemented by this second generation of alcopop brewing companies directly addresses the problem of the "feminine" or "childish" aesthetic behind drinking a sugary alcoholic beverage, thereby aiding the growth of the male market for hard root beer.
According to several beer experts and drinks analysts, the gradual settling of machismo-minded individuals into being comfortable with the idea of swigging bottles of sweetened alcoholic beverages at bars, however, took off long before the hard root beer trend kicked into high gear.
Bryan Roth, a Durham-based contributor to All About Beer magazine, explains that during hard cider's debut in 2013, the sweeter beer substitute—originally perceived as the women’s alternative to hops and suds—implanted itself in the male palette. As such, cider, now perceived as a sophisticated beer substitute, could fill the the alternative low-ABV alcoholic well that dried up with alcopops' decline.
"With cider, that gender split is fifty-fifty, and that, I think the assumption for a lot people was 'Oh, cider is what women drink,'" says Roth, who describes cider—particularly local craft cider—as complex and abundant in subtle flavors beyond apple. "But once it started to catch on, people started to realizing that was not the case ... down at the local craft cider bars, you will happily see just as many men—if not more men than women."
One aspect that has pervaded as a draw for the male hard root beer market is the 'craft' angle.
But beyond just beard-friendly beer label design and a growing appreciation for sweetened alcoholic beverages amongst the male drinking community, one aspect that has pervaded as a draw for the male hard root beer market—as well as circumventing the "girly drink" stereotype—is the "craft" angle. In an interview for Roth’s blog, several female craft beer experts described the sort of male bias towards craft beer that they’ve experienced, despite the fact that over past few years, statistics have revealed a significant number of female drinkers entering the craft beer market.
"I have had the experience more than once of having the cider my husband ordered placed in front of me because, obviously, it was the woman who ordered the cider and the man who ordered the IPA," says Molly Kinne of Tap Dancer blog in an interview with Roth.
In New York City bodegas, one can find a six-pack of Coney Island Hard Root Beer or Best Damn Root Beer chilling right next to craft beer posterchildren such as Harpoon IPAs or Brooklyn Lagers. Yet, these hard root beers seem to straddle several different gray area, both in terms of their legitimacy as "craft," as well as whether or not they’re actually textbook-definition beers. Small Town Brewery’s story has the one-man army appeal, but a little digging by previous investigations leads to questionable business connections for an alleged "craft brewery": Not Your Father’s Root Beer is distributed by hipster-friendly Minneapolis legends Pabst, and the label for NYFRB was registered by Phusion, the same company that’s behind Four Loko. (Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Coney Island are already in the open about their macrobrewery connections, although nowhere, except for the fine print on the labels, does it mention them.)
Even so, "craft-style" beer brands that are subsidiaries of massive brewing companies—MillerCoors’ Blue Moon and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Elysian Brewing—have demonstrated that these connections in no way hinder the beers’ appeal to the male or, simply, all-gender audience. Per Beth Bloom, a food and drinks analyst at the marketing research group Mintel, the craft marketing aspect of these beers works for the new generational wave of legal drinking age consumers.
"We’ve seen this kind of interest in artisanal products and craft brands, and that sort of thing—so, this idea that consumers are trying to figure out what it is that they’re drinking or eating, what goes into it, what the actual ingredients and flavors are, where it comes from," Bloom says, referring to the conception that craft and artisanal producers are considered to be more transparent about what's going into the product in comparison to their large-scale counterparts.
But beyond the legitimacy of the craft connection, there’s the tenuous factor amongst beer experts of whether or not these "hard root beers" are, in fact, beers rather than alcopops, the label which, in and of itself, has proven to be the downfall in popularity for previous brands.
"They [the staff at Not Your Father’s Root Beer] say it's a craft beer," Michael Agnew, the owner of Minneapolis-based brew shop/brew school Perfect Pint, states. "Craft beer folks say it’s an alcopop."
Agnew cites the now-defunct Chicago-based beer podcast Strange Brews’ two part investigation to determine the chemical composition of Not Your Father’s Root Beer that could prove whether or not NYFRB is actually beer. Unfortunately, the results came back inconclusive. Like the guys at Strange Brews, Agnew himself expressed some skepticism towards the authenticity of hard root beer being a beer versus a malt beverage alcopop. Ultimately, there is no definitive evidence pointing to anything other than what the breweries are labeling their product as: an ale brewed with spices.
Therefore, the craft beer aspect remains as one more cinch in the hard root beer category’s self-affirming masculinity complex (attempts to determine its proper categorization continue to this day, however).
Much of this report has focused on the fact that hard root beer has, in several ways, attempted to distance itself as far possible from the feminine stereotype, but therein lies the question of female imbibers. Despite all of the aforementioned marketing tactics geared towards attracting male consumers, this seems to have in no way hampered women from drinking hard root beer. West End Hall bartender Daniel Caballeros explains that a large number of women order Not Your Father’s Root Beer, even though it’s not on the menu. For him, the trend still has some legs, with a reach in varying demographics.
"It’s going to be the new easy-to-drink beer," Caballeros says. "It’s going to be like Blue Moon and Shock Top."