“The summer of hard seltzer is coming,” Maura Judkis, a food and culture reporter at the Washington Post, warned the world in March. Mere days ago, the New York Post crowned the suddenly ubiquitous beverages “the official cocktail of summer 2019.” Good Housekeeping is out with a truly exhaustive hard-seltzer ranking. Meanwhile, executives are working hard to insist this is all “not just a ‘fad,’” while Esquire is already looking forward to hard seltzer’s demise.
Maybe you have tried hard seltzer; maybe you’ve been drinking it for a few years; maybe you are hashtagging your Instagram photos #WhiteClawWasted. Maybe, like me, you have barely so much as touched a can of hard seltzer and are sort of wondering how this stuff is now both socially acceptable and everywhere.
It started in 2012, with a beer guy who wanted to sell more than beer. According to AdAge, that’s when Nick Shields, the manager for a small beer brand, was sitting in a bar in Connecticut, watching as a string of women ordered vodka sodas. That was enough to spur Shields to set out to make a vodka-soda–type beverage that could be sold in a can. Things took off from there: SpikedSeltzer was initially distributed in just more than a dozen states. But a number of copycat beverages popped up, including the now-pervasive bro-favorite White Claw, at the beginning of summer 2016. The original SpikedSeltzer brand sold to Anheuser-Busch at the end of that summer, which meant it went national.
Its growth has been rapid: Sales, uh, spiked 169 percent in 2018, alongside the growing popularity of regular seltzer, prompting Judkis to put the “summer of hard seltzer” flag in the sand. Those sales are still relatively modest, to be clear: U.S. hard seltzer sales were just under $500 million in 2018, while total off-premise beer sales were nearly $35 billion, according to Nielsen. So even accounting for additional sales growth this summer, boozy seltzers still make up a relatively tiny portion of the overall alcohol market. The rapid rise makes for a good headline, but it’s not like the average American is a hard-seltzer convert.
If you haven’t tried it, should you? Opinions vary. “If seltzer tastes like the ghost of juice, hard seltzer tastes like the ghost of vomit,” noted my colleague Inkoo Kang, a culture writer at Slate. Having consumed exactly one sip of the stuff, I agree with her. But other people seem to love it: That Good Housekeeping taste-test report calls some cans “refreshing” and “delicious” and does not use the word vomit even once.
Part of the complicated reaction is that, despite its origin story, hard seltzer is not actually bubbly water with a little liquor added. It can be made from fermented barley, like beer, or brewed sugar. Either way, these methods allow hard seltzer to be positioned as a beer alternative while still, per a beverage lawyer, being regulated as beer. It can be sold in grocery and big-box stores where drinks containing actual vodka are banned in many states. It’s a new twist on its older beer-cousins, Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and you can easily pick up a 12-pack at Target.
Buying a pack of hard seltzer is likely cheaper than picking up all the fixings for cocktails, and more transportable. It’s also a natural evolution of the seltzer trend, which in turn offers itself as a virtuous version of soda. Truly Hard Seltzer, for example, describes itself as “pure and clean,” containing “no gluten, liquor or spirits” and “a measly 2 carbs.” The tagline for White Claw Hard Seltzer is “made pure.” As the Takeout writer Kate Bernot observed in July, “Tubing down a river with friends last weekend, I saw more White Claws than beer or water.” That’s part of its appeal for a day party—you’re not drinking vodka; you’re drinking something refreshing and perhaps hydrating. Seltzer is water, after all.
That’s the sales line, anyway. Hard seltzer has fewer carbs and calories than beer, but it’s still alcohol. It fits right in with other trendy “clean” and “natural” products pitched as healthy without being exactly healthy, like aluminum-free deodorant (meaningfully different from antiperspirant only in that it is less effective) and charcoal food (actively bad!). The most important feature of hard seltzer isn’t what it contains, but what it signals—and a small but growing number of people are signaling loudly this summer.