EDITOR’S NOTE: For a first-person viewpoint of how the coronavirus and politics surrounding it are impacting local breweries, please check out this post on the Bagby Beer website.
I had heard of hard seltzer before I saw it, or even tried it. Memes were flying around declaring it to be White Claw Summer. When I found out they were talking about alcoholic seltzer water, I blew it off.
Likely a fad like Smirnoff Ice or the Jersey Shore, I thought.
However, I realized it was more than a flash in the pan while traveling last year. A burly Oregonian brewery owner offered me a Lime Truly Hard Seltzer to cool off after we toasted a triple IPA.
Since then, hard seltzers have appeared in the fridge at a relative’s place in Wisconsin, and it was in every cooler at San Diego barbecues. In fact, it was in our cooler at MLB spring training just a few weeks ago.
In 2019, U.S. drinkers purchased more hard seltzer than vodka, and growing demand for Truly Hard Seltzer boosted Boston Beer Company’s annual revenue to 1.25 billion dollars, a 25% jump from the previous year. Overall, hard seltzer sales increased by 226.4%, and now commands an estimated 5% of the entire alcohol market in the U.S. By comparison, beer growth was approximately 1%, with wine sales accounting for about 11% of the alcohol market.
ABInBev made hard seltzer one of their five key components for growth worldwide, backing it up with a Super Bowl ad campaign for Bud Light Seltzer. Most of your favorite teams in all sports have some sort of hard seltzer sponsorship. Even airlines have gotten behind the drink. Both American and JetBlue exclusively serve Truly Hard Seltzer. Today, every major domestic beer brand has released a comparable drink into the market.
While hard seltzer has been booming in popularity across the country primarily due to the efforts of major brands, it has also been growing in the craft sector here in San Diego County. An unofficial count has at least 18 local breweries now producing a hard seltzer.
Belching Beaver is canning two different versions, and hard seltzer is on draft at each Culture Brewing location. I also recently tried Rouleur Brewing’s Sunday Spin Spike Seltzer Mango Pineapple at 7 Mile Kitchen in Carlsbad. My nearest local liquor store is currently carrying 11 different brands with 38 different flavors.
While stocking up for some social distancing at Sprouts, I noticed a tower of Ashland Hard Seltzer near the register, which eventually made its way into my cart. Ashland was started by serial entrepreneur Josh Landon, who co-founded previously sold Saint Archer Brewing and Harland Brewing. Ashland is produced at Mission Brewery in downtown San Diego. Landon has credited the universal appeal and ease of drinking as part of hard seltzer’s recent success.
It is clear that touting the health and wellness aspect when compared to beer is a key component to the success of hard seltzer. Most hard seltzers contain between 90-110 calories and claim some sort of infused fruit flavoring with low sugar and carbs. The branding on a mixed 12-pack of Ashland Hard Seltzer says it was “CRAFTED WITH ALKALINE WATER,” and is organic, gluten-free and contains no sugar. That doesn’t mean it is healthy, but it is easy to drink.
When I tried that first fizzy lime hard seltzer it tasted fine. I didn’t savor it. I didn’t text anyone about how great it was or consider the flavor profile. I just opened my lips and poured it down.
I didn’t have another that day, but it has become a staple in our fridge. It’s is drinkable to most of the people visiting the house, and the light flavors make it enjoyable for most palates. There is one on my desk right now. At more than one summer party, I’ve reached for a hard seltzer as a refreshing treat between pilsners or IPAs.
Now would be a good time to note that college kids have been icing each other with Smirnoff Ice since 1999, and the Jersey Shore had eight spinoff shows after it’s run, and versions of it are still running across the globe. Hard seltzer has gone viral. It has big money and branding, and local, craft breweries are experimenting with their own versions.
The rapid growth of craft beer over the past few decades has provided a template for hard seltzer makers to hone and improve upon. The market has spoken. We may not be passionate about a hard seltzer the way we are our favorite craft beer, but when it comes to hard seltzer, the answer is, “Yes, we are doing this.”
Social Distancing Pro-Tip: Check out the North County-based ThreeBzine.com for continually updated lists of which local breweries are selling to-go or online so you can keep your fridge full while responsibly staying home. Be safe.
Ryan Woldt is a Food & Beverage management consultant, writer and entrepreneur based in Southern California. His first craft beer was a New Glarus Spotted Cow at John’s Bar in Columbus, WI, given to him by his future father-in-law. It changed the trajectory of his life and career. If you see him there is a 100% chance he has a notebook and pen on him somewhere.