Popping the POP-TOP

As the unofficial end of a long summer, Labor Day weekend, approaches. You’re no doubt planning what beverages will fill the cooler. I usually advocate a refreshing craft beer, but this year I propose a change of pace.

Over the last few years, there’s been an increase in malt beverages marketed as hard sodas. Perhaps the best-known among them is Not Your Father’s Root Beer, which, with $7.2 million in sales through the first half of 2015 according to Fortune, has skyrocketed to the top of the genre. Big beer companies produce many hard sodas, and craft brewers are getting in on the act.

Hard soda can trace its roots to fizzy, fruity-flavored malt beverages that had a brief popularity in the 1990s with names like Hooper’s Hooch and Zima. Citrus-flavored Zima was particularly popular for its light, lemon-lime taste and modest alcoholic kick. But the beverages fell from grace when concerns were raised that the manufacturers may have been using the sweet drinks to court underage drinkers. The claim was later nullified by Federal Trade Commission investigations in 2001 and 2003. The commission reported they “…found no evidence of intent to target minors with the FMB (flavored malt beverage) products, packaging, or advertising.”

Hard sodas derive alcohol much the same way as beer does, through malt fermentation. Unlike beer, though, hard sodas don’t have familiar beer flavors. They’re flavored with extracts and other additives, except for some root beer and ginger ale flavored hard sodas, which use botanicals called gruits for fermentation and flavoring.

The new generation of hard sodas has flavors designed to elicit feelings of nostalgia. Henry’s Hard Soda brand features orange, ginger ale and cherry cola. Marketed as “hard-ish,” the sodas – with a slight alcoholic buzz – stir memories of more carefree days. Nashville-based Wild Ginger Brewing Company has drinks designed to resemble Dr Pepper and lemon-lime drinks like Sprite and 7Up. The brewery’s Wild Docta’ is a rich mixture of vanilla, cherry and cola flavors; Wild Sit Russ is based on a citrus soda developed more than 75 years ago.

If you want to take a break from the humidity with something other than beer, try one of the many hard sodas on the market. You may be surprised how refreshing they are.

Here are hard sodas in local stores:

Wild Ginger Brewing Company Wild Docta’
A nostalgic throwback with an adult hat tip to Rock & Rye soda, this refresher is great out of the can or embellished with a shot over ice.

Henry’s Hard Orange Soda
Bright Valencia orange flavor is the highlight of this sweet refreshing quaff. And, at only 4.2 percent alcohol by volume, you can have a few and not forget those burgers on the grill.

Coney Island Hard Root Beer
Rich and full of vanilla, licorice and birch flavors, this 5.8 percent ABV is definitely not a kiddie drink.