All summers are defined by a single drink. In 2016, it was rosé. Twenty-seventeen gave us the Aperol Spritz, and then 2018 charged back with frosé. This summer, the summer of 2019, is unquestionably the summer of hard seltzer. Cases of White Claw and Truly are currently stacked floor-to-ceiling at most supermarkets and liquor stores. It dominates millennial social media feeds, was served alongside Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby, and, as a category, outsold craft beer during the July Fourth weekend. And it seems no one predicted that hard seltzer’s sales would soar by 210 percent this summer, including hard seltzer fans themselves.
“I wasn’t really looking for a new drink and was actually a little skeptical of the new ‘category’ from some bad experiences with malt beverages,” says Carrie Keller, 35, a recent hard seltzer convert who works in sales in Illinois. “Plus, I am not a huge fan of La Croix or vodka sodas, so I assumed that this would not be the drink for me.”
Of course, as we head into the dog days of summer, we may soon learn hard seltzer is merely a seasonal trend, no different than scenic Hawaiian shirts or retro-ironic fanny packs, destined to be snuffed out of relevance by the fall, like, say, hard root beer was after the summer of 2015. Or, we may see it hold onto some serious staying power, like rosé. What we can almost certainly predict is that the spiked seltzer we know won’t be the official drink of summer 2020. What will be? Major players are already trying to figure that out.
The brand White Claw currently accounts for more than half of the entire hard seltzer market. It would rank as the eighth best-selling beer in the entire country and has become the favored hard seltzer among younger drinkers, who say that they’re “clawing” when they pound cans while day-drinking—it certainly feels more glamorous than swigging your way through a bucket of Coronas.
“We refer to [it] as ‘sexy water,’” says Chanteal Reichle, a 35-year-old Tampa resident who came to the drink by way of being a “La Croix addict,” an origin story repeated by many.
White Claw’s owner Mark Anthony Brands—which made Mike’s Hard Lemonade the sensation it remains to this day—plans to continue riding the wave of its Black Cherry and Ruby Grapefruit 18-packs.
“I know it feels like this summer was a tipping point,” says Sanjiv Gajiwala, White Claw’s senior vice president of marketing. “But the amazing thing is, only 4 percent of households have ever bought a White Claw.”
He still thinks there is room for the brand to grow, without it necessarily needing to do much besides make more hard seltzer. But it will have to pay attention to the monster nipping at its heels.
In late April, I was invited to Anheuser-Busch’s hip Manhattan offices to have a look at its latest innovations. Though the massive beverage conglomerate owns the brand that actually started the spiked seltzer trend, Bon & Viv, it currently lingers in third place in the alcoholic seltzer wars behind White Claw and Truly, commanding less than 10 percent of the market. (Surely a tough pill to swallow for a brand that literally created the market just a few years back.) Perhaps that’s one reason why Anheuser-Busch is searching for other distinctly non-beer products that could capture consumer “throat share” (its term) in this so-called fourth space.
“Generally, we think of a Venn diagram of three circles—wine, beer, and spirits as the traditional categories,” says Chelsea Phillips, vice president of the “Beyond Beer” division at Anheuser-Busch. “What’s happened is the circles have started to become ovals and have begun to merge into a fourth space, with flavor as the primary attraction.”
With Bud Light tanking and the world rife with what Anheuser-Busch calls “beer rejectors,” the company finds itself spending a lot of time and money trying to invent new fourth categories of alcohols, like spiked seltzer, that might soon be as commonplace as wine, beer, and spirits. Luckily, young drinkers seem amenable.
“People that are just entering legal drinking age, they don’t have a pre-set disposition to only drinking beer or spirits,” says Phillips. “You really have to leap in blindly to try some of these [new products], and they’re more willing to experiment.”
Then again, it’s not necessarily a massive leap, as most of Anheuser-Busch’s current experiments mimic the hard seltzer trend—they’re merely alcoholic versions of common “soft” beverages we’ve all been drinking for ages. Like Kombrewcha, the “original hard kombucha,” which was launched from a Brooklyn WeWork space (no kidding) in 2016. It sells mainly in the Pacific Northwest, which already has the country’s highest density of kombucha drinkers.
There’s also LQD Creative Liquids, which is “naturally fermented and blended with fruit juices and purees for an unexpected drinking experience.” More bluntly put, that means hard coconut water and hard green tea. And how about Golden Road Spiked Aguas Frescas, a product launched just this February? The alcoholic version of the classic Mexican “street” beverage comes in flavors like mango and cucumber lime. Anheuser-Busch is banking on it becoming popular with Latino drinkers, more than half of whom drink fourth-category products but who are typically ignored by the big brands.
Still, the new-fangled beverage Phillips thinks might have the best chance at conquering the fourth category, and perhaps unseating White Claw among twenty-somethings, is a product Anheuser-Busch launched in New England this March that comes with no “soft” counterpart. Called b (that’s intentionally lower-case), it’s made with just three ingredients: water and fruit, with a meager 3.5-percent alcoholic kick produced from fermented honey. Phillips believes that because Anheuser-Busch is forced to spend more time explaining to drinkers what it actually is—as opposed to just calling it a “hard” version of this or that—it resonates more.
“What we’re seeing is, when you’re just creating alcoholic analogs, brands struggle to create a unique role for themselves,” she says, meaning that all hard seltzers seem to get lumped together. “In the case of b, the brand leads the story, as opposed to what people can compare the drink to. I think it’ll be hard [for other companies] to replicate that if we get the story right and become the owner of that story.”