The U.S. beer business has always been defined by tectonic shifts, massive sea changes that happen slowly, then all at once. Prohibition. The rise of the macrobrewers. Corona’s northerly invasion. Craft beer’s “movement.”
The spectacular, sustained success of hard seltzer is proof positive we’re living through another generation-defining shake-up in the beer aisle. But the evolution of consumer packaged goods is notoriously unpredictable. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
Here’s mine: hard milk.
Wait, please don’t go. Consider the facts:
Hard seltzer has supercharged the entire flavored malt beverage category, vaulting it from saccharine backwater to mainstream money-printer
There are hundreds of hard seltzer brands on the market, with more entrants crowding in every day
The American drinking public is reliably dazzled by old flavors presented in new formats
This country’s massive, flailing dairy industry desperate for new markets
There are no sure shots in this crazy business (just ask the folks behind Tequiza, Zima, Not Your Father’s Root Beer, brut IPA…) but when it comes to good gambles, boozy dairy is a doozy. Place a bet on hard milk, dear reader. It just might pay off.
I know what you’re thinking: milk is sorta nasty. The only adults drinking dairy discharge these days are meatheads, moral degenerates, and Allison Williams in Get Out. “There’s something kind of horrific about milk,” director Jordan Peele told the Los Angeles Times when asked why he chose the creamy fluid to amplify the dread during the film’s infamous Froot Loops scene. “Think about it! Think about what we’re doing. Milk is kind of gross.”
Big Dairy’s boosters surely took umbrage with Mr. Peele’s creative vision. But they’ve got bigger problems to ponder. Namely: milk sales are in the trough. Kids still drink it dutifully at their mothers’ behest, but the category has been spilling volume since the ‘70s. Americans have lost their taste for milk, and explanations abound. New plant-based competition. Environmental and political pitfalls. Lactose intolerance, both real and imagined) Those viral videos of neo-Nazis chugging gallons of the stuff in the early days of the Trump administration probably didn’t help.
The pandemic actually did help, briefly, but milk’s future remains sour. Hard seltzer could be a booming new market to save dairy from doom. Imagine: instead of losing all those milk drinkers once they hit their teenage years, present them with an adult version to take them drunkenly into college—and beyond.
Talk about a retention strategy. The slogans practically themselves:
Strong bones. Stronger buzz.
Don’t tell Mom—she’d have a cow.
An udderly new way to party.
The surgeon general might call this “marketing to underage drinkers” or “flatly illegal and ethically indefensible, you sick dairy freaks.” But I call it innovative. Besides, hard milk is strictly for adults ages 21 and up, doc. Adults love the stuff. Haven’t you seen Get Out?
Haters will argue that bovine lactation and beverage alcohol is a palate-curdling combination and a gastro-intestinal wrecking crew. Which, yes. But think about it: we already drink this pairing. White Russians. RumChata. Bailey’s Irish Cream. Eggnog is almost pornographically rich thanks to its dairy base, yet we guzzle it by the gallon every holiday season.
Bud Light Seltzer recently rolled out a nog flavor. It’s dairy-free, but directionally revealing. The age of hard milk cometh, friends.
Craft brewers, take note. You’re poised to cash in on this literal and figurative white space, and at a fortuitous moment: craft beer sales are down, and most “craft” hard seltzers suck. Meanwhile, drinkers adore pastry stouts, thick porters, cream ales… see where I’m headed with this? And don’t think for one second that introducing hard milk would be a betrayal of artisanal principle. Lactose is one of the trendiest adjuncts in contemporary craft brewing, and hardly a year goes by without a new Lucky Charms- or Trix-flavored beer making the rounds on social media. What’s the logical next step?
And after that?
The only question now is which bold beverage visionary makes it to the land of milk and money first. Will it be a mid-major macrobrewer like Pabst, which has seen solid sales on its hard coffee line? An rBGH-free Blue Ribbon could be a terrific complement: hard cream to go with your malt-based cuppa.
Or maybe it’ll be a reigning hard seltzer heavyweight. I can see the supermarket displays now: cases of Truly Dairy and Really White Claw piled high into the shape of a dairy barn. (Related: hire me, White Claw.) And of course, there’s always the liquor conglomerates angling for a foolproof off-proof play. Hard milk could be it; Diageo, bang my line.
Keep an eye on the alternative-milk upstarts here. Toasted Oatly, anyone? Califa Farms Fermentables? Those plant-based bastards are already horning in on the liqueur lane, so don’t put hard “mylk” past them.
But don’t sleep on Big Dairy’s bruisers, either. They’ve got a powerful thirst for new customers, plenty of distribution muscle, and a long track record of selling beverages regulated by percentage. Milk, booze, what’s the difference? Swing by the dairy aisle for a gallon of the soft stuff (1% fat) and a 12-pack of the hard (5.5% ABV.) Makes sense to me.
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Remember, malted milk, which they’ve manufactured for like 150 years, is just powdered dairy, plus ground barley and wheat. It’s practically a mash bill already! Add some water, run a few test batches through the brewhouse, and slap a trendy label on it. Violá: a lifestyle booze brand with a “health halo” and a supply chain backed by bipartisan federal subsidies. Your favorite FMB could never.
Now, I know isn’t easy to digest (neither is hard milk), so I’m not asking for your money today. (Well, actually, I am.) But give it some serious thought, wouldja? And soon, too, because we don’t have all the time in the world. Eventually, someone is going to drink our milkshake.