Stu Burkemper walks down a row of brand-new tanks ready for installation in a warehouse north of Columbia. Burkemper says he’s the “chief beer guy” for Rock Bridge Brewing Co., which recently sold this production facility to Root Sellers, Inc.
Rock Bridge, a craft brewer that sells beer across the state and around the Midwest, was bought by Root Sellers, a Kansas City-based brewer that makes alcoholic ginger and root beers.
Burkemper says Root Sellers’ alcoholic root beer, Row Hard Root Beer, has been in high demand among customers.
“The last six months,” he said, “they’ve really started pushing for (it).”
Root Sellers is not alone in feeling the effects of the rise of hard root beer.
Not Your Father’s Root Beer and its main competitor, Coney Island Root Beer, arrived in Missouri this summer to go with Row Hard. Liquor dealers said the beverages have been a popular item.
The Mac-A-Doodles liquor store in Columbia sold almost $2,000 of hard root beer in both September and October, according to beer manager Jeff Weaver.
Customers have been asking Jon Steffens, co-owner of the Craft Beer Cellar in Columbia, for Not Your Father’s since he opened his shop in December 2014. A few weeks after Craft Beer Cellar began to stock it, the beverage had become one of the store’s top sellers.
“It was definitely in our top five,” he said. “Not Your Father’s already had a following. We had a wait list a month before we even got it.”
So how do you explain the popularity of these hard root beers?
According to an August report from Euromonitor International, the beverages appeal to drinkers from multiple generations due to not only the old-school root beer taste and sweet flavor, but also the way the drinks hide the taste of alcohol.
“It’s a little sweeter than most of the stuff I drink,” said Lee Morehouse, a customer at the International Tap House, a bar in downtown Columbia. “I like to drink hop beer. (Hard root beer is) good; it goes down smooth.”
The novelty of the drinks also helps, the Craft Beer Cellar’s Steffens said.
“Right now, it still fits into that idea of something new and novel and they want to try it,” he said. “It tastes just like root beer. Because it is emulating root beer, it’s more accessible to every generation, every consumer that we’ve had walk in here.”
Not Your Father’s, Coney Island and Row Hard all have a distinct taste, consumers say.
“Coney has kind of that old-school, vanilla, creamy soda flavor to it,” said John Whitaker, the general manger of the International Tap House in Columbia and St. Louis. “Row Hard is a little sweeter — more of an alcohol burn to it. And Not Your Father’s has those little spice notes in it — super old-school, traditional tasting root beer.
“I was pretty surprised to see how distinct how they are.”
Not Your Father’s turned its owner, Small Town Brewery of Wauconda, Ill., into the No. 6 U.S. craft brewer by sales for a time this summer. The product accounted for $8.1 million of the $245.8 million in craft beer sales during the period from June 21 to July 12, according to retail tracking service IRI.
Craft beer — the category hard root beer falls into — was the No. 5 beer genre by U.S. sales for the 12-month period ending Oct. 4, according to IRI. Craft beer accounted for roughly $2.77 billion of the $32.9 billion in beer sales over that time.
Sales started out strong for Not Your Father’s and Coney Island in other states, and hard root beer in general accounted for 7.1 percent of total beer sales during Labor Day weekend, according to an October report from Goldman Sachs.
Though early sales of hard root beer in Missouri have shown promise, some wonder if the early popularity of hard root beer is sustainable.
Still, Steffens said he has seen signs that hard root beer is here to stay.
“Not Your Father’s has already ascended to that level in the beer world that checks any top five list or “beers you must try before you die” thing.” Steffens said. “We’ve noticed that once something hits a certain stratosphere in public awareness and the beer industry, it stays there for years.”