How Hard Seltzer Won Over American Taste Buds

Hard seltzer’s popularity shows no sign of fizzing out.

Traditionally, beverage trends started when a bunch of executives put their heads together, decided what would be the next hot thing, and then invested enough in advertising and promotion to make it happen. The wine industry repeatedly wreaked havoc with that model, spawning consumer-led trends that ran counter to product supply.

Hard seltzer, the success story of 2019, didn’t fall neatly into either playbook. Its refusal to fade away has also confounded experts. Last year’s growth in the category exploded, with retail sales reaching nearly $1.3 billion. Analysts believe it will be worth $2.5 billion by 2021.

Contrary to the artistic aspects of making wine or the technical expertise required for distilling spirits, the recipe for hard seltzer is simple: sparkling purified water, alcohol, and flavorings. Some versions add malted barley, attempting to echo the success of Zima (an early entry into the category, created by Coors in 1993). White Claw, the undisputed leader in the field, dominates 60 percent of the market. Its 12-ounce cans contain 100 calories and 5 percent alcohol, and it is available in nine flavors. If you’ve been in a supermarket recently, you’ve probably seen massive displays of White Claw in high-traffic aisles.

The success of hard seltzer has hit beer producers the hardest, and the biggest brewers are launching their own brands: Molson Coors (Henry’s Hard Sparkling), Boston Beer Company (Truly Hard Seltzer), and Anheuser-Busch InBev (Bon Viv, along with the recently released Bud Light Seltzer). Spirits conglomerates are also getting in on the action, with Diageo introducing a line of spiked seltzer and Constellation promoting Corona Refresca, a malt-based beverage in a variety of fruit flavors. Sanjiv Gajiwala, vice president of marketing at Mark Anthony Brands (makers of White Claw), sees unlimited market growth due to the fact that the majority of Americans have yet to try the product.

To someone who appreciates craft beer, fine wine, or high-end spirits, the appeal of hard seltzer may be baffling. Compared to brewing, winemaking, or distilling, the process of creating it requires no special talent. Nor is it dependent on terroir; the product will taste the same whether it’s made in Beaune or Buffalo. There are no exotic, small-batch versions that deliver bragging rights to the buyer who found them, nor are there expensive examples that bestow peer-group approval.

Some hard seltzer producers market their product as healthy, stressing the natural fruit flavors, low sugar, and alcohol (it is roughly as strong as the average craft beer and has one-third the kick of a typical Napa Cabernet). Even so, it’s difficult to equate the drink with yogurt or granola. There’s also no data to suggest that hard seltzer is more
popular with any single generation of consumers. While the portability of ready-to-drink cans seems to suggest an active, outdoor lifestyle, sales remained strong during the coronavirus lockdown.

It may well be that the hard seltzer phenomenon is a rejection of connoisseurship and a return to convenience. Prior to the 1970s, there was very little wine culture in America; beer and spirits were prized more for their alcoholic wallop than their aesthetic overtones. All that changed with the Paris Tasting, the rise of craft beer, and the appearance of super-premium spirits such as Grey Goose. If the current trajectory continues, we may be entering a period when fine distinctions in quality are less important than the ability to open a pop-top and enjoy yourself.

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