I knew almost immediately that I had made a terrible mistake.
I told my wife I would be gone for a a half hour, maybe an hour at most. After all, how long would it take to blind taste four seltzers? A couple of quick swigs of artificiality, a few wry and witty observations, and then out the door and back home.
Not long after sitting in my chair, I realized something was off. There were suddenly a lot of plastic glasses in front of me. People energetically moved around the table, organizing water pitchers and dump buckets, and handing out a four-page informational packet. In the moment, this seemed a bit of overkill for a quick hard seltzer tasting. As I confusedly perused the handout, my error slowly dawned on me. What was supposed to be a simple tasting had morphed into a much larger and darker operation. Instead of reviewing four hard seltzers, we would be served 36 different brands over nine competitive rounds, all before selecting a handful of winners.
The collective realization by the assembled judges–a mixture of industry folks, dedicated craft beer fans, and a few interested amateurs–of our gargantuan task resulted in some mixed feelings. The audience of tasters reflected a microcosm of the consumer public at large, split evenly between men and women ranging in age from their early 20s to their 50s. The younger crew laughed with nervous energy at the prospect of tasting three dozen seltzers in one sitting. Many had never participated in a blind tasting before and even the dedicated hard seltzer lovers among them had only tried a few different brands. The older participants (myself included), quietly grumbled at their circumstances. Before we could waste any more time thinking about the situation, the first round arrived.
Hard seltzer is a force of nature in the beverage alcohol space. Not spirit or wine based in nature but also far from beer-like in character, these flavored malt beverage (FMB) products have long existed around the periphery of the beer industry. Once derided as malternatives or alcopops, FMBs have experienced many highs and lows in terms of its popularity over the years. They often appear colorless or neon hued and come across as often near flavorless in nature or cloyingly sweet. For decades, each new wave of FMBs ebbed and flowed into the drinking consciousness of younger consumers before quietly fading into the backdrop of light beer sales. And that trend continued until the rise of hard seltzer.
The category of slightly effervescent and clear beverage alcohol in 12 ounce packaging dates at least back to the release of Zima by Coors in 1993. The brand offered a vaguely flat Sprite experience, with dull lemon-lime characters and little else to offer the palate. Departing from the light beer script in play at the time, Zima stood apart as an obvious outlier. Consumers were often confused by the brand, while comedians and others poked endless fun at its differences. Zima chugged along until 2008, when it was discontinued, but like Elton John and the Eagles, it occasionally rises again to play a few sold out “farewell” tours.
More than 20 years removed from the launch and decline of Zima, hard seltzer sales started ramping up in 2016 with the launch of multiple popular brands. Similar to Zima, these new hard seltzer products offer flavors and aromas ranging from decidedly muted to artificially overblown. The modern advent of hard seltzers is defined by a perceived purity, alcohol without any filler or needless pomp and circumstance.
What the products lack in flavor or aroma compared to craft beers, however, they make up for in pure sales prowess. The numbers behind hard seltzer’s rise are hard to believe. In 2019, hard seltzer sales grew 200 percent over the previous year, snagging $1.5 billion in sales, compared to $37 billion for beer. By 2021, hard seltzer totaled more than $5 billion in sales. Critics noted that sales had slowed over its early days but this still constituted a huge and steady increase and remarkable category stability.
“I 100 percent guarantee you that number 4 is White Claw Grapefruit.”
I look across the table to the far end where a young red-headed guy in his mid 20s is clearly excited about the clear liquid filling his clear plastic cup marked by a Sharpie with the number 4. “This is the seltzer that I drink,” he says. “It’s White Claw Grapefruit for sure.”
He then strikes up a conversation with another mid 20s guy sitting next to me, with both quickly discovering they shared a love of fraternity life. My tablemate, a relentlessly optimistic mid-20s guy dressed in an investment banker uniform of starched blue dress shirt and slacks, later confides in me, “I’ve always been kind of a bro.” He is considering grad school but isn’t sure that’s the path for him. A little later in the tasting, after a few dozen seltzers, he says to no one in particular, “These are all pretty good. Turns out I’m pretty excited about hard seltzer.”
The aspiring grad student is also jazzed about the plate of candy in front of him that the tasting’s organizers assembled for attendees. Bits of Twizzlers turn out to be the best candy to pair with many of the sweeter seltzers, with the occasional candy heart—with its LOL or LMAO inscriptions—pairing well with the more acidic offerings. With every sip of seltzer or bite of candy, the possibility of sugar spikes and eventual crashes draws nearer. I eye the water pitcher used for cleaning our cups and contemplate chugging it.
But for the beer lovers at the table, things are not going so well. One of the co-sponsors for the event, Kate Baker of Craft Beer Cellar, has buried her head in her hands. With every new round of seltzer, she shakes her head, rolls her eyes, or throws up her hands. She is about as pro-beer a person as you will ever meet and she fundamentally does not understand the appeal of hard seltzer despite selling several iterations of it in her store. This is a pretty common refrain from beer people, including those attending the tasting. Another CBC employee, a tall, stoic looking 20-something in a black hoodie who also has experience working as a professional brewer, seems even less happy. When forced to choose seltzers to send through to the next round, he shakes his head and has trouble deciding. It’s an experience shared by other tasters. The seltzers quickly lose their fizz on being poured into a glass and with few exceptions they are largely clear and impossible to distinguish between. Divorced from their packaging and with very little in distinguishing visual character, the focus narrows to the flavor and aromas. And the flavors and aromas are often a total mess.
Two early entrants into the space continue to dominate the hard seltzer category. The industry leader has long been Mark Anthony Brands (MAB), maker of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and its virally potent White Claw brand. The established and persistent challenger is Truly from the Boston Beer Company. White Claw once controlled about 60 percent of the hard seltzer market, with Truly making up a good portion of the remaining market.
MAB released White Claw in 2016, where it quickly grew to include six different core flavors, including Black Cherry, Ruby Grapefruit, Natural Lime, Raspberry, Mango, and an unflavored Pure Hard Seltzer. Each White Claw brand is gluten-free, contains 100-calories per 12 fluid ounces and clocks in at 5 percent alcohol by volume. The brand will receive an infusion of three new flavors in 2020, including lemon, tangerine, and watermelon. The success of White Claw in the category relates as much to its success in viral marketing (or even pure luck) as it is from entering the category early. In the summer of 2019, calls of “Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws” and “White Claw summer” rang out on every social media app and site. The organic marketing done by White Claw drinkers propelled the brand, and the hard seltzer category, into triple digit growth rates.
Truly also first hit the market in 2016, releasing thirteen flavors. From the beginning, Truly has not enjoyed the popular success or viral consumer support of White Claw. Boston Beer has long enjoyed diversity in its beverage alcohol offerings, including Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard hard cider in addition to its original Samuel Adams line of beers. After hearing criticism of its flavors, Boston Beer decided in 2019 to reformulate every one of its 13 brands in an effort to make them “crisper and more refreshing.” And that worked. Truly’s growth curve ticked up and it started to challenge White Claw for fizzy hard water market supremacy.
While seltzer sales continue to grow, despite downturns from their once triple digit levels, the Big Two players have seen plenty of competition from the likes of Corona Seltzer, Arctic Chill, Bud Light Seltzer, High Noon, Malibu Splash, Wild Basin, Vizzy, not to mention Topo Chico.
Hard seltzer challenged competitors across all classes of alcohol, from macro light lager players to craft brewers and Vodka producers. It remains conventional wisdom that hard seltzer stands in for vodka tonic drinkers while peeling off of some light beer drinkers as well. And the transition to the light, bubbly, and clear product is understandable. There is something to be said about the simplicity and ease of seltzer. When done well, hard seltzers hit a mark while offering a little alcohol accompaniment. And seltzer does not require a lengthy and boring explanation of the brewing process. It also does not require a particularly sophisticated or experienced palate to enjoy. It is cold, wet, lightly effervescent, and Instagram ready in crushable, slim and tall 12 ounce skinny cans.
Hard seltzer drinkers also do not divide across gender lines as happens with most other beverage alcohol products. Instead, both men and women enjoy the drink at roughly equal numbers, further cementing the importance of a less alcoholic, less caloric, and more lifestyle friendly beverage.
36 seltzers later, we head into the championship round. Most of the seltzers we tasted were pretty innocuous, even yawn-inducing. A lot of them tasted very artificial, with flavors ranging from cardboard to teeth clatteringly sweet. In reflecting back the dozens of seltzer cups littered around the table, the assembled beer folks had little praise to offer. Collectively, we viewed many as tasting like dull, flat off-brand grocery store 7-Up or Sprite knock-offs. We muttered that folks should just take a shot of vodka and then chase it with regular non-alcoholic seltzer. Of course, mixing alcoholic seltzer with other forms of booze is one of the category’s great forms of versatility. And our snobbery was especially laughable in light of the near absolute popularity of the category, something that left us scratching our heads while others blissfully enjoyed their slim cans. The brands I was most excited to try, including ones from smaller craft brewers, were especially disappointing, usually resulting in particularly soulless and insipid offerings.
As the room hummed, a faint smell of sucralose in the air, and judges picked at the last bits of candy and pretzels, anything to fill their grumbling stomachs, the event’s co-organizer, Suzanne Schalow of Craft Beer Cellar, stepped forward to announce the final results. We all went silent, not really sure what to expect. As Schalow revealed each entrant in the final top five, the judges exclaimed both surprise and then nods of understanding and acceptance.
In the final tally, the revealed winners mirrored the larger consumer marketplace. Truly Pineapple, one of the company’s less appreciated brands, took top honors. Clear with light effervescence and an aroma lightly of pineapple and sweet citrus, this Truly standout avoided the dreaded cloying character. The flavor is mild, shifting from quick tropical and coconut notes, ending like a watered down pina colada with a slight acidic kick mid-palate that transitions to a longer, dryer finish. We could not perceive any noticeable alcohol in either the nose or the flavor but the drink was less artificial tasting than most others in the competition.
The next two top finishers were among the most popular individual brands on the market, with White Claw Raspberry and Truly Wild Berry coming in second and third respectively. These drinks offered clean aromas and flavors, both strongly of sweet berries. Those in attendance who regularly drank hard seltzer were confident during the blind tasting that they had enjoyed these products before. And it turns out they were correct.
The final top offering was Willie’s Superbrew Sparkling Pomegranate & Acai, a slightly more upscale brand produced with acai as well as pomegranate and lemon concentrate. The company recently laid off a majority of its employees as it restructures and contemplates its place in the evolving seltzer space.
What I presumed would be a quick ride through a handful of seltzers turned into a broader opportunity to sample not only dozens of individual brands but also to gain a greater understanding of why hard seltzer is popular. In the craft beer space, it is sometimes challenging to peer outside the bubble and attempt to appreciate greater social and consumer trends.
When it comes to seltzer, we have somewhat unwittingly entered into a new era of lower alcohol beers. While craft beers spent the better part of a decade trying to explain and promote the concept of session beer to the masses, hard seltzer and brands like Michelob Ultra have done it with simple imagery and easy messaging: less alcohol, fewer calories, more athleticism, and more lifestyle friendly. And above all, more welcoming, with a gender neutrality that is absent in the marketing and consumption of everything from light beers to the thickest craft stouts. That the beverages are easy, breezy, and fun, especially compared to the often uptight and insular world of craft beer, does not hurt.
In tasting the seltzers blind, I expected to avoid much of the judgment and negative associations I may have developed towards certain brands in the style. But I am not sure that was the case. Seltzer is actually not about flavor, aroma, or character in the way craft beer is. There is certainly some brand loyalty and flavor preference, but consumers are not buying seltzers because they love the flavor. If anything, the lack of story, the absence of character, and the ability to free oneself from the baggage of knowledge, education, and understanding beyond the mere appreciation of something light, refreshing, and mildly alcoholic is a large part of the draw.
Nearly four hours after slipping into our chairs, we attendees finally stood up, stretched, and congratulated one another. It was a bonding experience, one full of laughs and jokes at the absurdity of it all. The beer lovers among the group wasted no time in heading upstairs to the bar where they ordered a few rounds of clean lager and wondered just how far seltzer would rise.
Among the seltzer fans, one in particular was beaming. The red-headed fraternity brother at the far end of the table basked in his foresight. Among 36 seltzers, it turns out he correctly called his shot: Number 4 was White Claw Grapefruit.