Author: Lucy Corne
About 25 years ago, my dad came up with an idea that he reckoned was going to make us rich: alcoholic water. They make non-alcoholic beer, he said, so why not alcoholic water? We laughed at him, in much the same way that we laughed at his idea to create a circular snooker table. Turns out he was actually a bit of a visionary. It’s just that his idea came a couple of decades too soon.
Fast forward to 2020 and the biggest beverage trend to hit the US in years is hard seltzer – otherwise known as fizzy alcoholic water. Hard seltzer was last year’s big success story, with sales increasing by 200% in the USA over the course of 12 months and pundits predicting equally impressive growth over the next three years. In 2019 there were festivals dedicated to it, blogs inspired by it and there was even a shortage of the country’s biggest brand, White Claw, leaving thirsty millennials in a panic.
Low-carb and gluten-free
Although the beverage appears to have a wide customer base, its popularity is largely being credited to health conscious millennials and others seeking to live a low-carb lifestyle. At about 100 calories per can and with around 2g of carbs per serving, it does indeed provide a slim line and generally gluten-free drinking experience. But to actually call it healthy would be a stretch. Hard seltzer has virtually no nutrients and can contain ingredients like cane sugar and corn syrup alongside citric acid and sodium citrate. The seltzers are almost always flavoured with fruits and herbs, with most brands claiming “natural flavours” on their label.
But despite its not-exactly-natural ingredient list, hard seltzer has become a growth category in the increasingly stagnant alcohol industry. And the first to embrace this have been brewers. In the USA, hard seltzer is taxed in the same way as beer, meaning that brewers can produce and sell the stuff without any need for an extra licence or more equipment. While craft beer is still experiencing growth in the USA, this growth has slowed down considerably and brewers are justifiably looking for alternative ways to attract young drinkers. And you can understand the appeal – hard seltzers can be produced in a much shorter time frame than beers, being fermented and ready to sell within a week.
Some brewers have commented that they can actually be quite tricky to make – there is no high hop character, big alcohol or full flavoured maltiness to hide behind. Some do use malt though, starting out with a mash that any brewer would be familiar with. More commonly, the alcohol is derived from fermented cane sugar. In the States at least, they are never made with vodka or a similar spirit.
One of the earliest producers, Spiked Seltzer, was bought out by AB InBev in 2016 and since then, other breweries have jumped on the bandwagon. Boston Beer Company – known for their Samuel Adams brews – own one of the country’s largest hard seltzer brands, Truly. At the larger end of the scale, Miller Coors, Pabst and Constellation Brands have all launched a hard seltzer. Perhaps most interesting is how the large breweries have aligned their hard seltzers with their existing beer brands: AB InBev released Bud Light Seltzer in a range of flavours, Constellation has just launched Corona Seltzer and later this year Miller Coors will unveil their latest offering: Coors Seltzer.
A global trend?
So what about the rest of the world? Is hard seltzer set to catch on outside of the US? The answer is yes, almost undoubtedly – and it will likely be in places with thriving craft beer scenes. The UK is set to see a seltzer boom this summer, with the local launch of White Claw guaranteed to be a catalyst. Australia has already seen a number of brands launched and the first few versions have hit South African shelves. Back in Europe, another beer giant seems to have set its sights on this thriving new category. Danish brewery Carlsberg have announced that they are investigating hard seltzer and look set to launch something in the first half of 2020.
It’s difficult to say whether the trend will see any love in Germany though. While Germans are big consumers – and lovers – of sparkling water, it’s tough to imagine a long-established brewery churning out fruity alcoholic water alongside their Helles, Dunkel or Weissbier. And it’s perhaps even tougher to imagine a German beer drinker swapping their Maß for a can of fizzy water, even if it does offer a similar alcohol percentage (hard seltzers are usually in the 4—6% ABV range).
As for me, while I understand people’s reasons for reaching for a can of hard seltzer, I will undoubtedly be sticking with my beer. It might have a few more carbs, but I’d rather enjoy a pint or two and hit the gym a little harder. I might send a case to my dad though, with an apology note and a promise to support his next seemingly silly idea.