What is It? And Why Haven't I Heard of It?
In September, the online newsletter The Daily Beast reported, "Millennials are drinking staggering amounts of hard seltzer instead of beer. In the most recent reported sales figures, White Claw outsold every craft beer brand. In July, White Claw claims it outsold Budweiser. Yes, Budweiser."
The article goes on, "The category has been growing at a triple-digit annual rate since 2016, and is expected to grow by about 300 percent in 2019. Amazingly, even that number is limited to some extent by production capacity. In other words, if there was more White Claw available, people would buy it."
When I heard about the stratospheric growth of a product that has slipped under my radar, I thought, holy crap, am I so out of touch that I don't recognize the hottest thing in the beverage business? Am I still fixated on classic wines like Beaujolais, Chablis and Rioja to notice that Millennials are drinking swimming pools full of White Claw?
Indeed, wine sales dropped in 2019 for the first time in 25 years. Yes, after a decade of craft beer and craft cocktail sales chipping away at its relevance, the beloved elixir of Boomers seems like it's losing its grip on what's cool to drink.
Even young sommeliers are turning their attention away from past prestige stalwarts like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in favor of Pet-Nats, Orange Wine, and anything else that has face-ripping acid in it.
In short, it's the latest example of a generation not drinking what their daddies drank.
Hard Seltzer's popularity with millennials is largely driven by the perception that it is a healthier option (just 5% alcohol by volume) than cocktails, wine or craft beer. One argument put forth in an online forum is that the hydrating effects of the "water" in hard seltzer helps eliminate hangovers. That, like all alcoholic beverage consumption, depends on how much of it you drink.
Recently, I decided to order a glass of hard seltzer to experience for myself what all the hoopla was about. Basically, the label ingredients looked like any other flavored soda water except for the word "alcohol" in the middle of the list. At 100 calories because of the added sugar, it is higher than a can of light beer or a 4 ounce glass of wine, but lower than a Jack and Coke.
It tastes like a lightly flavored sparkling mineral water, like San Pellegrino berry or lemon, without alcohol astringency. The only giveaway that this was an adult beverage was when I got up from the bar stool and had a lightheaded moment.
A New-ish Millennial Ritual
A rather newish millennial ritual is "Dry January." The theory is that a month of abstention will atone for the excesses of the holidays. I new a guy in the 1980s who did this, but now it's a movement, supposedly in the interest of good millennial health. What it really is: a modern version of Binge and Purge.
Is there a middle ground that makes more sense? The French Paradox taught us that moderate consumption of wine, particularly consumed with food (which tempers the intoxicating effects of wine), extends people's lives compared to non-drinkers. (See Stress, Elimination Of.)
Good health was, of course, one reason boomers have always given for drinking wine instead of their father's booze. Similarly, a lot of beer drinkers have believed that the lower alcohol in beer is preferable to the higher alcohol in wine. Again, it depends on how much of any of it is consumed. Drinking a 12 pack of light beer every night or downing three bottles of wine a day kind of negates those particular health claims, don't you think?
I hate to sound like your old man, but there is a more sensible, more obvious answer: don't binge so much during the holidays and you won't need a Dry January.
Chasing a Fad, or Here to Stay?
Is Hard Seltzer here to stay? Remember Smart Water? I still don't know what's so smart about it.
It's easy to be cynical when Big Booze and Big Beer come out with products like honey-flavored Bourbon or lime-flavored lagers. They are the Captain Crunch of adult beverages. Hard Seltzer is just the latest in a string of hybrid products designed by food scientists inventing concoctions designed to move your brain into the pleasure zone.
A few years ago we resisted the hottest item in booze at the time--whipped cream flavored vodka, which actually tasted more like Kool Whip vodka. Even my dog wouldn't eat Kool Whip. She preferred real cream.
I always thought, rather than carry Absolut Lemon, isn't it better to squeeze a fresh lemon into your plain vodka?
OK, OK. I know I'm sounding a bit too fussy and way too paternalistic. I have to keep reminding myself, if these products bring people pleasure, what's wrong with them? As an independent retailer of fine beverages, should I reconsider offering hard seltzer or Fireball or honey Jim Beam, now staples of corner liquor stores and every chain store from Newark to El Segundo?
In this seemingly chaotic environment of new SKUs and hybrid creations, the answer lies with you, of course. If you want us to carry these items, we will, as long as our suppliers allow us to be competitive with the chains in their pricing.
If you are as confused as I am about all the choices before you, the fads, the new products and the hype, I pray you are comforted in my fallback position. As I've referenced before, whenever things get too chaotic in the marketplace, I always turn back to the classics in wine, beer and spirits. (Notice that this month's Wine of the Month is an exceptional Beaujolais, not a red blend aged in used Bourbon barrels.)
Still, I wonder, if we were to hold a hard seltzer tasting, would anybody show up?