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Loverboy Sparkling Hard Tea. LOVERBOY

When you think about tea, you may think of kicking off your day with caffeine. You’d be less likely to think of a cocktail or a canned drink, right?

Well, that might be about to change. Hard teas are popping up and gaining traction across the country from several brands, including LoverboyOwl’s BrewMerchant’sVraiBest DamnTUCK & TeaCrown Royal and LQD, among others.

Hard tea is not a new concept, but it’s a growing category. The hard tea category encompasses ready-to-drink varieties of brewed tea, including sparkling beverages, malt beverages and more – all spiked with alcohol.

Consumption of hard tea increased by 26% in 2020, Adam Rogers, North American research director at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, told USA TODAY, noting that Twisted Tea, which is about two decades old, still holds the “majority share” of that market. Twisted Tea brand director Erica Taylor told USA TODAY the drink continues to grow as the popularity of hard tea grows.

But a new generation of hard teas is emerging and the number of brands is rising. Rogers said that according to IWSR research, there are more than 60 hard tea brand lines in the U.S. And that’s only predicted to increase with hard tea consumption to “more than double” by 2024.

That said, he doesn’t expect to see hard tea having the same kind of boom the hard seltzer sector has enjoyed with hard seltzer sales quadrupling year over year as of last June, according to Nielsen.

“The options for tea flavors are limited in comparison to the infinite seltzer possibilities,” Rogers added. “Though it’s interesting to note that we are seeing some hard seltzers borrowing the trend and getting into tea flavors.”

People want their favorite drinks with alcohol

Jenna Behrer, vice president of marketing innovation for Heineken USA, which has regionally distributed hard tea and lemonade called Merchant’s, told USA TODAY she thinks the trend is bigger than a tea flavor itself; it’s about finding what you like outside of the alcohol space.

Merchant's Hard Peach Tea
Merchant’s Hard Peach Tea
HEINEKEN USA

“I think if you look at what’s happening to alcohol in general right now, what’s happening is consumers are looking for hard things they enjoy in non-alcohol,” Behrer said, pointing to hard seltzer’s explosion.

Jennie Ripps, co-founder of Owl’s Brew and tea sommelier, told USA TODAY she believes there is a “natural progression” from refreshing iced tea to spiked, iced, sparkling tea.

Plus, hard tea boasts a “more robust flavor,” according to Ripps.

That flavor profile provides an alternative to hard seltzer – which is exactly what Kyle Cooke, of Bravo’s “Summer House,” sought to do when he founded Loverboy, a sparkling hard tea brand that comes in Orange Chai Tea, Hibiscus Pom and White Tea Peach flavors.

“Now it’s like a rising tide,” Cooke said about hard tea.

People who are trying hard tea like it

Phil Lentini, a 27-year-old from Boston who reviews gluten-free drinks and food on Instagram, posted a video about Loverboy in July and created his own version of rapper Juice Wrld’s “Come and Go” featuring a lyric praising the drink: “I don’t want different hard iced tea / Loverboy white tea peach is the GOAT.”

Lentini told USA TODAY that he “was always turned off about hard teas.” Now, Loverboy has become a warm-weather go-to for Lentini that he frequently recommends.

“It isn’t as sugary or as alcoholic tasting as Twisted Teas,” he said. “I don’t like to drink unhealthy, sugary things, so it was a nice way to feel healthier while drinking something delicious.”

And @peaceteageereviews posted a video on Instagram reviewing Owl’s Brew last week giving it a five out of five rating and recommendation. “Dare I say it? It’s better than White Claw,” @peaceteageereviews wrote, noting it has the “best ingredients.”

New hard teas tend to be low-sugar, low-calorie

The hard teas that are emerging now are frequently offering a lower-sugar, lower-calorie alternative to their more mature counterpart, Twisted Tea. Twisted Tea Original contains 194 calories and 23 grams of sugar per 12 oz. serving.

With Loverboy, Cooke wanted to outpace other “healthy” options such as seltzers already in the space. “Where (hard seltzers) are 1 or 2 grams of sugar and 2 grams of carbs, we are zero sugar and 1 to 2 carbs and 90 calories,” he said. Loverboy is 4.2% alcohol by volume.

Other hard teas are lower calorie and lower sugar, too. Owl’s Brew contains between 4 and 10 grams of sugar and between 110 and 120 calories, depending on the flavor, and is 4.8% ABV. And Merchant’s clocks in at 6 grams of sugar per 110-calorie can with 4.5% ABV.

Owl Brew's Par-Tea pack.
Owl Brew’s Par-Tea pack.
OWL’S BREW

Owl’s Brew is also focused on making sure its hard teas are made only with real ingredients. The company co-founded by Ripps and Maria Littlefield, makes gluten-free and vegan hard tea seltzers and cocktail mixers in a range of flavors, including English Breakfast Tea, Lemon & Lime; Matcha, Pineapple & Chamomile; and Jasmine, Blueberry & Lemon; among others.

Ginger Hultin, nutritionist and owner of Champagne Nutrition
Tea is hydrating and has a lot of unique antioxidants, so there’s a little baseline of benefit, even when alcohol is added.

Hard seltzer brands are jumping on the flavor trend

Already trendy hard seltzer companies are capitalizing on the flavor palette, too. Truly Hard Seltzer released an iced tea seltzer pack in January. And White Claw also hopped on board with its White Claw Hard Seltzer Iced Tea, announced last month.

And, in launching Smithworks Hard Seltzer Lemonade in March, country artist Blake Shelton included a peach tea flavor.

But is hard tea a healthy option?

Ginger Hultin, a nutritionist and owner of Champagne Nutrition, told USA TODAY that hard tea may have some redeeming qualities that other hard beverages don’t.

“Tea is hydrating and has a lot of unique antioxidants, so there’s a little baseline of benefit, even when alcohol is added,” Hultin said.

Those benefits are part of why Ripps and Littlefield started Owl’s Brew. “The reason we started making cocktails with tea is if you fresh brew the tea, (then you) get something back,” Littlefield said.

But Hultin cautioned that the added alcohol could impact the nutritional baseline of tea.

“While drinking plain tea is associated with lots of potential positive health outcomes, those may lessen when alcohol is added because there are a lot of negative health associations with alcohol consumption – especially at high levels.”

Source: White Claw challenger? Will hard tea be the next big alcohol trend?