Hard seltzer: A not-so-hard sell
It’s the simple, inoffensive drink that’s taken Instagram (and the wider world) by storm, and with sales projected to reach $2.5 billion by 2021, it looks like it’s here to stay. But what exactly is a hard seltzer? And how did it become such a, well, easy sell?
Bubbles plus booze
For those unfamiliar with the word, seltzer is the name commonly given to sparkling or soda water in the US. Hard seltzer, put simply, is seltzer with added booze – usually fermented cane sugar with some fruit flavouring. Most hard seltzers hover between 4 and 6% alcohol by volume (ABV), which is about the same as a standard beer.
Although Coors created Zima, the first mainstream but poorly-received hard seltzer, in 1993, it took another 20 years for the current class of seltzers to hit the shelves. Inspired by their wives’ love of sparkling water, in 2013 two Boston friends decided to homebrew their own alcoholic version. The result, Spiked Seltzer, was a huge success (and has since been acquired and rebranded as Bon & Viv).
A not-so-hard sell
Bon & Viv sits with Henry, Nauti, Natty Light and Press as names to know, and Corona is one of the big names to have recently thrown their crown into the ring, but the $550 million hard seltzer market is dominated by two big leaders – White Claw (owned by Mark Anthony Brands of Mike’s Hard Lemonade) and Truly (owned by Boston Beer Company). Combined, the two make up a mind-boggling 85% of total sales.
And it seems Boston Beer Company are onto something – as of 2019, every major US beer company has at least one hard seltzer on the market. And as beer continues to lose market share in favour of less alcoholic and less caloric alternatives, it’s an opportunistic move. So why is the hard seltzer market booming? Why now?
Lean, clean drinking machines
With the cult status of healthier, soda-alternatives like LaCroix and Spindrift, it was only a matter of time until someone added booze. The little or no additional sugar means most hard seltzers are around 100 calories – about the same as a single shot of vodka. It’s a drink that effortlessly slots into the growing lifestyle trend around health and wellbeing. Some are even marketed as post-workout refreshments, and fit popular diets like keto and Paleo.
Calorie content aside, there’s a growing sober-curious movement which has led to a rise in low- or no-alcohol drinks (a category that’s expected to grow 32% by 2022). With its low ABV and single-portion serving a hard seltzer is the perfect partner for mindful sipping.
The ultimate canned convenience
While price is the main driver for people to make a purchase, convenience comes in at a close second. A recent Nielsen survey shows 55% of people will buy canned cocktails because they’re convenient.
Cans in general have been having a bit of a moment, with a rise in canned wine and ready-to-drink cocktails like Mezzo Spritz and Pampelonne. They’re cheap, easy to pick up in grocery stores and can be disguised as regular soda. While this makes them perfect for the park or the beach, the most popular occasion to enjoy a ready-to-drink beverage is at home. Hard seltzers are providing people with something they historically had to be at a bar or restaurant to enjoy. If staying in is the new going out, then staying in with a seltzer is the best of both worlds.
No (gender) laws when you’re drinking Claws
Spirit mixers like vodka, lime and soda and old school wine coolers (or alcopops) are typically associated with female drinkers. But hard seltzers are just as, if not even more, popular with male drinkers – specifically bros.
Perhaps this is down to the lifestyle hard seltzers like White Claw are selling, it’s upscale, care-free and something everyone can aspire to, whatever their gender. This is, by no means, indicative of a long-awaited shift in the way brands use gender-specific marketing, but the success of White Claw is perhaps in its popularity with the more evolved bro. The type of man who isn’t afraid to take pride in his appearance or indulge in self-care, and share it on social media.
Cultural movement in a can
There’s almost a performative aspect of people buying into this lifestyle and posting proudly about it on their feeds. Drinkers of hard seltzers are shaping a whole new social movement, there’s catchphrases (“Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws”) and memes (White Claw summer), not to mention the Instagram-worthy cans.
Whether people are choosing them for their low calorie content, single-serve convenience or simply “doing it for the ‘gram,” hard seltzers have nailed delivering the right drink to the right crowd at the right time – turning a simple spirit mixer into a whole cultural movement.