Sorry, hard seltzer — beer companies are into canned cocktails now

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Boxes of Cutwater Tiki Rum Mai Tai canned cocktails in a retail store in Pleasant Hill, California, February 11, 2022.
Gado | Archive Photos | Getty Images

Hard seltzer has lost its fizz. Now canned cocktails are all the buzz.

Also known as ready-to-drink, or RTD, cocktails, the canned drinks were the fastest-growing spirits category last year, with $1.6 billion in revenue. That’s a 42% percent increase from the year before, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. To compare, sales of hard seltzer declined 5.5% in the past year, according to data from NielsenIQ, a market research firm.

More beer companies are getting in on the canned-cocktail craze, too, churning out premixed versions of margaritas, pina coladas and daiquiris.

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On Thursday, Molson Coors — the brewer of Coors Light, Miller Lite and Blue Moon — announced it’s developing Topo Chico Spirited, a new line of canned cocktails made with spirits like tequila and vodka. The company hasn’t revealed what three flavors will be hitting shelves next year in markets across the U.S., but said the beverages will be modeled after “familiar cocktails” already found in “bar and restaurant menus.”

In a recent report, DISCUS shed light on why so many companies, especially legacy beer manufacturers, are entering the space. The report found 94% of consumers choose RTDs because they offer their preferred flavor choice, and 92% said it was because they were convenient. Eighty-two percent said, simply, it’s because they taste better than beer.

“American consumers are increasingly prioritizing convenience, taste, variety and quality in their choice of beverages,” said Robert Blizzard, a partner at the research firm Public Opinion Strategies, which collaborated with DISCUS on the report.

Though the market for canned cocktails still accounts for a relatively small percentage of total liquor sales in the U.S.— just 4.6% in 2021, the report found — the category’s expected to see more growth as beer companies continue to enter the space and offer consumers even more variety in full-flavor cocktails they can drink at home or on-the-go, without mixing and measuring. (Beer sales haven’t declined, according to DISCUS, but the drink is losing market share.)

Over the summer, Heineken along with tequila maker Dos Equis, debuted a classic-style margarita canned cocktail made with Blanco Tequila and lime juice.

“Bringing a big brand into a fast-growing category where not all the brands are immediately recognizable is a big opportunity,” said Heineken Chief Marketing Officer Jonnie Cahill.

Cahill said the cocktail is a hit.

“The rate of sale per store is beating our expectations. It’s almost double what we expected,” Cahill said, adding that the company hopes to expand to more states and introduce more flavors following this “promising start.”

The world’s largest brewer, Budweiser owner Anheuser-Busch Inbev, is also enjoying success with its foray into the space. The beer maker — also known for its Stella Artois and Michelob Ultra brands — announced in March it would be expanding its “beyond beer” portfolio through its acquisition of Cutwater Spirits. Its three new cocktails include ranch water, rum-based mojito and vodka soda.

Fabricio Zonzini, the president of Anheuser-Busch’s beyond beer unit, said that while the company hasn’t given up on hard seltzer “fast-growing RTD spirits continue to become a bigger focus area for us, with Cutwater being our top priority.” 

Hard times for hard seltzer

Beer companies have their sights set on spirits as sales for hard seltzers, which typically contain malt-based alcohol, taper off.

Chris Swonger, the CEO of DISCUS, said more beer companies “recognize that beverage alcohol consumers are gravitating toward spirits and choosing convenient ready-to-drink products made with premium spirits.”

The DISCUS report found that for the 12th consecutive year, these spirits and others gained market share over beer and wine, rising 1.7 points to 41.3% of the total beverage alcohol market.

Boston Beer Chair Jim Koch said in an interview on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” last year that the boom for hard seltzer “wasn’t going to grow forever.”

At the time, Boston Beer, which is known for Sam Adams, was forced to throw away millions of cases of excess supply of its Truly hard seltzer, the biggest competitor of Mark Anthony Group’s White Claw, citing slowing sales across the industry. The company, which also makes Angry Orchard, said it “overbought” materials for its Truly hard seltzer.

“Hard seltzer’s lost its novelty as consumers have been distracted by many new beyond-beer products entering a hyper crowded marketplace,” Boston Beer CEO Dave Burwick said in a July conference call with investors.

Still, some companies think there’s hope for hard seltzer. While Molson Coors is ramping up its efforts in the canned cocktails space, there’s room for both its Topo Chico hard seltzers and its Topo Chico Spirited line, according to executive David Coors.

“I think [hard seltzer’s] proven to have staying power. I think it’s proven that it’s a large, sizable and stable category,” he said.

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