In early September, CNN broke grim news that sent young Americans into a panic: There was a nationwide shortage of the hard seltzer, White Claw.
For those who aren't in the know, hard seltzer, and White Claw in particular, is the beverage craze that took over this last summer. The low-ABV drink is basically an alcohol-infused LaCroix, and people love it.
Hard seltzer brands, led by White Claw, hit the market in 2016 but saw an unparalleled surge this summer. White Claw sales alone grew more than 283% in July 2019 compared to the previous year. While other communities have been hit hard by the White Claw shortage, Idaho has been spared, mostly because buyers saw where the trend was heading, and stocked up accordingly.
"Idaho kind of embraced the seltzer category early so we were able to buy enough product to get us through the summer, and heading into the fall we're not experiencing any shortages here," said Mike Kopp, vice president of beer sales for Hayden Beverage Company, which distributes White Claw and other seltzer brands throughout most of the state. For once, Idaho was ahead of a trend.
"It was actually 2018 towards the back end of the summer, we're sitting there going 'this is something different' and it just exploded," Kopp said. "We definitely had inventory issues in 2018, but having known that we prepared for it this year."
It's unclear why the mountain west hopped on the hard seltzer train before the rest of the nation. To the north, Montanans drank more White Claw per capita than any other state in the country last year, which helped clue in industry experts on what to expect this year.
According to Hayden Beverage's IRI data through the end of August, White Claw was the number-two brand family in the state in dollar sales, beating out Bud and just barely behind Coors. Overall, hard seltzer made up 13% of dollar sales in the beer category—only premium beer (Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors Light and others) was higher, at nearly 20%.
Kopp said that with the growth rate in Idaho, it's possible that seltzers could match, or even exceed, premium beer dollar and case shares.
"The trend is undeniable, the category is up 100%, so even though we're coming into these lulls in the cooler months where people just consume less, it's still going to continue to grow in market share," said Kopp. "The question is how big it will get, and there's room to grow."
The trend is hot enough that craft breweries have taken notice, realizing that tapping into just a sliver of the market would be a smart move.
"Near our annual planning meeting for 2019, we sat down and kind of thought about the possibility," said Tyson Cardon, marketing director for Sockeye Brewing. "We hadn't actually made any [seltzer] before, but we thought, 'OK, the craze is here.' We saw the writing on the wall."
That meeting spawned Simply, the first mass-produced hard seltzer from an Idaho brewery.
It may be the first in Idaho, but Sockeye's entry into the market isn't the first nationally. That honor goes to Big Sky Brewing in Missoula, Montana, which has released several flavors in a variety pack, as has 2 Towns Ciderhouse in Corvallis, Oregon.
"We're targeting just the home market, not going for the whole Northwest," said Cardon. "Just having shelf space next to White Claw, and having that Idaho brand behind it, in and of itself is its own way of marketing that, and it's exciting to be the first."
The Idaho branding is key. Pick up a can of Simply Idaho, and you will find no reference to Sockeye Brewing anywhere. The only clue is in the slightly tilted state silhouette that appears on the can.
"Sockeye is kind of known as Dagger Falls, that's our number-one seller and a lot of our beers have a following; we know seltzer has a totally different kind of drinker," said Cardon. "If someone says they don't like Sockeye, but then they see Sockeye seltzer, they might not give it a shot, so in rebranding that aspect of it, we gain a lot of traction with those kinds of drinkers."
With the marketing ploy figured out, Sockeye began the process of actually making seltzer early in 2018. For nearly five months the breweries worked to dial in the seltzer base and figure out the perfect ratio of flavoring—essential when dealing with the popularity of the larger brands.
Simply launched in mid-July with just 100 cases on the market. The second release bumped up to 1,500 cases, and now the Idaho brand can be found in stores around the state. Plans for two new flavors—Limoncello Basil and Pomegranate—are in the works for early spring.
"I think we'll find out really how well [Simply] will do when things warm up next year," said Kopp, noting that craft brewery seltzers had 2% of Idaho's seltzer market this year. "It's doing okay, but relative to the category, they're just really small."
When Todd Marshall, Sockeye's director of sales, was asked about the hardest part of breaking into the seltzer market, the answer wasn't sales related at all; it was tasting notes.
"With beer, I can tell people, 'These are the base malts, these are the hops, these are the flavors you're getting off the hops,'" said Marshall. "For this though, here's the deal: It's seltzer water with a hint of huckleberry and I think the huckleberry is more prominent than the key lime. That's it."