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Written by Lesli Gegen

While tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, trailing only behind water, today’s tea-based beverages aren’t your grandma’s steeped concoctions. Three craft makers in the space – Jiant, Owl’s Brew, and Hoplark – have set out to change the way we enjoy the centuries old beverage. 

One on hand, tea, the age-old elixir, has transcended its traditional boundaries and taken a spirited turn – ushering in the rise of hard tea. It’s a flavorful, boozy revolution that’s making waves in the alternative beverage scene.

Just how big are these waves, though? Hard tea is currently the top-selling segment within the US Flavor Malt Beverage (FMB) category and, according to research done by Owl’s Brew, the category has experienced an astonishing 52 percent growth year-to-date through the end of Q3.

Of course, hard tea isn’t brand new on the market. There’s a major player in the game that’s been at the forefront for more than twenty years. However, what is new is how brands like Owl’s Brew and Jiant are approaching hard tea, focusing on real, clean, high-quality ingredients, and bringing transparency to consumers.

Owl’s Brew co-founders Maria Littlefield (left) and Jennie Ripps (right). Photo courtesy Owl’s Brew.

Founded by Jennie Ripps and Maria Littlefield, the idea for Owl’s Brew was sparked by a quest for healthier beverage options. Jennie, a tea sommelier, initially developed an interest in the health benefits of tea and botanicals when caring for a sick family member, which evolved into crafting immune-boosting teas for coworkers and eventually mixing up tea cocktails with Maria after a happy hour where they were both left wondering, “why is everything so sweet? And why does everything taste fake? And why do we feel awful the next day?” The duo realized that the market lacked transparency in ingredients, with many beverages containing additives that left consumers feeling unwell.

Maria emphasizes the brand’s philosophy by saying that “the whole idea is to drink wise” (hence the name Owl’s Brew). This ethos reflects Owl’s Brew’s commitment to providing consumers with beverages that not only taste good but also make them feel good about what they’re putting into their bodies. The brand remains deeply rooted in a handcrafted approach, with Jennie personally blending and creating all flavors in her kitchen.

Owl’s Brew utilizes organic teas sourced globally, ensuring premium ingredients for their beverages. The brewing process involves scaling Jennie’s kitchen version, using gigantic tea bags in kettles. A splash of juice, typically citrus, is added, followed by spiking and carbonation – akin to making a cocktail at home but on a larger scale. The brand offers two distinct lines – a lighter, more refreshing hard tea seltzer line and a cocktail line that returns to their roots of crafting tea-based cocktails.

Jiant Hard Tea co-founders Aaron Telch (left) and Larry Haertel Jr. (right). Photo courtesy Jiant Hard Tea.

Similar to Owl’s Brew, the founders of Jiant also leaned on their extensive knowledge of tea to dive into the hard tea scene just over a year ago. After founding the company in 2019 with hard kombucha, a fermented tea drink, founders Larry Haertel Jr. and Aaron Telch identified an opportunity to leverage their expertise in tea and botanicals to expand their product line-up to hard tea. “Essentially we wanted to make a boozy Snapple, but give it to consumers in a different way, which is low sugar and crafted with clean, simple, high-quality ingredients,” shared Larry.

One of the things that Jiant was very intentional about while in development was striking the balance between being low sugar and providing some sweetness, without the use of artificial sweeteners, which they found to have an off-putting aftertaste. The combination of real fruit juice, cane sugar, and fresh-brewed tea allows them to craft a refreshing beverage with a touch more sweetness than the mere four grams of sugar in the can might imply.

Jiant’s hard tea not only packs the sweetness, it also packs a punch. Coming in a 7 percent ABV, it’s a stronger beverage than their core hard kombucha line, which lands at 5 percent, providing a fuller mouthfeel and classic tea experience, alongside more bang for your buck.

Notably, Jiant has observed an interesting trend in the hard tea market – a reduced seasonality compared to other alcoholic beverages. While hard kombucha follows a similar path to beer, peaking around summer holidays, hard tea continues to garner consumer interest into the colder months, making it a versatile choice for fall activities like tailgating and mountain adventures.

Looking forward, both Jiant and Owl’s Brew are excited about hard tea on draft in the coming year. “We’ve had a lot of success and a lot of interest in hard tea on draft,” shared Larry. “Because we use real fruit and real tea, it pours beautifully in the glass.” Jiant will be expanding their program and Owl’s Brew will launch a draft option this spring.

Innovation with tea hasn’t been restricted to hard teas though. Boulder-based Hoplark is changing the way we enjoy both tea and hops through with their Hop Teas. In 2017, Hoplark founder Dean Eberhardt, a craft beer lover and homebrewer, was at a brewery with a friend amid taking a month off drinking when, in smelling the hops, he wondered why you could only get that experience with a beer.

Over the next eighteen months, Dean embarked on a journey to create something that could fill in that gap. He put his homebrewing background to work and tinkered with a formula of hops, tea, and water that would eventually become Hop Tea. The concept was that you could get a beer-like experience with the flavor of the natural hops, using the tea as a body, to craft a zero calorie, zero alcohol, zero sugar product. After perfecting the formula, Hoplark launched with their first four products, what’s now known as their core line – The Calm One, The Citra Bomb One, The Really Hoppy One and The Green Tea One.

Betsy Frost, chief executive officer of Hoplark. Photo courtesy Hoplark.

Hoplark’s revolution is that they’ve unlocked the flavor of hops in a way that people can enjoy it at any time. “For folks who love a hops experience, we hear consumers tell us it brings this ‘naughty but good for you’ ability to enjoy hops throughout the day and bring that sensory beer experience to occasions where they may not have been drinking alcohol before,” shared Betsy Frost, chief executive officer of Hoplark. “Now they get to have that experience consistently.”

Hops aficionados will appreciate that Hoplark takes their hops seriously. Just as a brewery would, the Hoplark team goes to hop selection every year and handpicks their hops for flavor. However, because the hops stand alone as the flavor in their teas, making sure they have the right batches and lots is extremely important. Hoplark developed a process to take to hop selection that allows them to make hop waters live so that they can see how the lots will perform beyond the traditional methodology for hops selection.

While most of their hops come from the Yakima Valley, Hoplark also does limited release program through their direct-to-consumer business every month, where they’re using specialty hops from around the world. They also get creative with collaborations, recently producing one with Frisco-based Outer Range Brewing, and products, crafting up hop sodas this past summer like hop root beer and cream soda.

At the end of the day, Hop Tea is really about providing new opportunities for hops fans to enjoy the flavor. As Betsy explained, “Hoplark was born out of this idea that there is this really cool plant that’s only been used for this one thing historically and how can I unlock that from beer to get that kind of joyful expression of it in other ways?”

Of course, alternative beverages and surges in popularity aren’t new on the market either. Remember when hard seltzers were on top?

Maria reflects on hard tea’s rise to the new alternative beverage fan favorite, saying, “[the seltzer experience is] not a flavor-forward experience like, say, an IPA is. It all got stripped away.” People are reclaiming their palates, seeking beverages that burst with flavor and are hyper-aware of what goes into their drinks. Maria notes this change, “People are going toward that next thing, putting flavor back into their beverage.”

Larry is equally as bullish on the growth of hard tea. “Hard seltzer was a little bit of a black swan event where it came to nowhere and got really big, really quick. And, despite its challenges, it’s still a massive category. However, what we saw with seltzer is that there wasn’t a ton of differentiation. Many were making similar products, with similar flavors and the sea of sameness was really tough for brands to stand out, even though there were some great ones,” he explained. “Twisted Tea has been around for more than twenty years, and it’s been really growing ever since. Despite the popularity, there are a lot of places that you still can’t find hard tea, so I think we have a long way to go before we hit any sort of ceiling on capacity and there aren’t many brands in the space right now.”

At the end of the day, it’s clear that craft makers like Jiant, Owl’s Brew, and Hoplark are revolutionizing tea-based beverages with their commitment to real, clean ingredients and innovative approaches. The surge in hard tea’s popularity, experiencing a remarkable 52 percent growth year-to-date, reflects a shift towards flavor-forward, high-quality alternatives. With Jiant and Owl’s Brew leading the charge and Hoplark pioneering Hop Teas, the market for authentic, unique, and health-conscious tea experiences is poised for sustained growth and differentiation.

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