The head of Australia’s peak craft beer advocacy body says that the controversial new Hard Solo is “one of the most damaging things that has happened to alcohol for a little while”.

Kylie Lethbridge, CEO of the Independent Brewers Association, which represents more than 450 craft brewers around the country, says that the new alcoholic lemon drink has caused disquiet in the industry.

While brewing giant Asahi, which owns the brand, has rejected claims that the 4.5 per cent ABV beverage is aimed at minors, Lethbridge agrees with Independent MP Kylea Tink, who has said that it “looks like a soft drink, tastes like a soft drink and has the name as a soft drink”.

“That’s our position in regard to Hard Solo,” says Lethbridge. “I call it a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It doesn’t matter if it’s black and yellow instead of yellow and black. It is absolutely alcoholic Solo. Obviously, a company like Asahi can do whatever they want but we think it’s probably one of the most damaging things that has happened to alcohol for a little while. We’re unsure of what those ramifications are going to be but we’re trying to work through them at the minute.”

The rise of ready to drink options and seltzers – and the drop in overall beer consumption – will be just one of many hot button topics up for discussion at the IBA’s annual industry gathering BrewCon, which will be held on the Gold Coast next week.

Lethbridge says that the program is designed to “poke the bear a little” and tackle thorny subjects such as the changing drinking habits of Gen Z, the effect that the Covid-pandemic and the cost of living crisis has had on the industry, and the ongoing challenges brought about by rises in government excises, the most recent of which was last month.

This year’s BrewCon will be first in-person event since 2019 and comes at a time when many in the industry are doing it tough. Lethbridge says that while many independent breweries just limped their way through the pandemic and associated lockdowns with the help of government assistance, their depleted reserves were not equipped to deal with the economic pressures of the past year, leading to a spate of recent closures.

Compounding the fact the producing and freighting beer is more expensive than ever, is the reality that drinkers are also tightening their belts and choosing cheaper options.

“This year, we’re seeing that concertina effect come into play,” Lethbridge says. “And because of inflation, consumers have got less money to spend on anything. They’re worried about their electricity bill and feeding the kids. So they’re certainly not going to buy a premium product, which is what we effectively are given the cost. And so we’ve seen large, medium and large groups go into voluntary administration this year.”

Despite the challenges, however, Lethbridge says she’s expecting this year’s BrewCon to be a positive affair, particularly the peer-voted Indies Awards, which celebrate the best brews in a range of categories. To reflect the ever more eclectic tastes of Australian drinkers, six new trophies have been added this year and the competition is as fierce as ever to nab the top gongs such as the Champion Australian Indie Beer (won last year by the White Bay Lager), and the Champion large, medium and small brewery (won by Moon Dog, Moffat Beach and Wheaty Brewing Corps respectively).

Lethbridge says that last year’s top winner reflects a return to prominence of lager, which has long been Australia’s top beer style thanks to mainstream brands such as VB, XXXX and Tooheys New, but had largely fallen out of favour with craft brewers.

“I think we were leaving that to the big guys,” says Lethbridge. “But last year we were like ‘whoa look at the increase in lagers that have been entered into the Indies awards’ and it stood out. And this year we have the same which is why we looked at that category introduced some new sub styles because of that. People are making some good lagers.”


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Originally published as Craft beer boss says new Hard Solo alcoholic soft drink is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’

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