On social media and in advertisements, hard seltzer has a very specific culture: dancing youth and neon lights, zoomers on beaches and boats listening to the Chainsmokers and Post Malone. But is that the demographic that actually drinks this stuff in real life? Not entirely—I know this because my friends and I drink hard seltzer and we definitely don’t live that life (and when I do dance, it’s to stuff like this). So when I heard about Seltzerland, a hard seltzer festival that’s hitting 12 U.S. cities this summer, I knew I had to investigate. To my knowledge, Seltzerland is the first of its kind, i.e. a traveling festival dedicated to showcasing some of hard seltzer’s biggest brands, from White Claw and Coors Seltzer to Vizzy and Press. It was supposed to launch last year, but was pushed to 2021 because of the pandemic. Now, as we emerge from our homes ready to live again, Seltzerland is upon us.
“I’m going to absolutely hate this thing,” I thought as I stepped out of an Uber in the parking lot of the Highlands Golf Course in St. Louis for the first Seltzerland event of the year. Walking up to the attendee check-in with my friend Tom to claim our passes, I was in a mood. The weather was about 95 degrees and humid, and due to Covid, the booths were going to be spaced out along numerous holes on the golf course; an FAQ on the website advised that attendees should “wear comfortable shoes and prepare for a 2-3 mile walk through the course,” and that there would be no backtracking. In other words, once this extremely hot train left the station, we’d be on it ‘til the bitter end. To break up the crowds for better social distancing, people had been put into groups that would begin the journey at different times. Ours was set to start at 2:10 p.m.
Between the rambunctious 20-somethings ahead of us in line and the loud EDM music playing out of the check-in booth, I quickly felt a secondary pang of anxiety and realized that maybe the event wasn’t for people like me, i.e. adults with bad attitudes. I wondered if it was too late to turn back. Instead, in a critical moment, I decided to embody the ethos of hard seltzer by telling myself to relax and to enjoy the experience. Walking in, I stopped on the side of the path to set up my camera, slather myself with sunscreen, and complain to Tom one last time. Multiple groups of friends passed us on their way to the first stop, a small “villa” sponsored by Jose Cuervo’s Playamar tequila hard seltzer. There was a photo booth with a tropical vibe that clashed with the green astroturf we were standing on.
The schtick is basically like any other festival: You wait in a line at a brand’s booth, tell them what seltzer flavor you want to try, take whatever swag you can carry, and head to the next place. At Playamar, I asked for the lime flavor of Cuervo’s seltzer and exchanged my trucker cap for a big, floppy Playamar hat. Cuervo’s seltzer was refreshing and tasted OK—something I’d definitely drink if I was handed one at a pool, but it’s not a product I’d buy to keep at home, which more or less describes most hard seltzers. We looked out across the golf course to the next booth, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and saw that it was comically far away. Like, maybe almost a quarter of a mile. I grumbled as we started down the path.
As a wine guy, I’m a huge fan of tasting events, so I decided to think about Seltzerland from that perspective. And the further along we got, the more I started to enjoy the experience. For one, everything was extremely spaced out and distant; the only opportunities to get too close to anybody were the lines, which didn’t even have the pretense of social distancing. But, I realized, even that was fine—the government has basically said it’s time to party, and St. Louis doesn’t require masks anymore, so there we were. Whereas I’d thought the aggressive EDM at the top would permeate the whole experience, once we embarked from Playamar, there was something weirdly serene about being on this golf course in the middle of St. Louis’ Forest Park—one of the largest urban parks in the country—on a busy Saturday afternoon. “This is actually really quiet and calm,” Tom observed at one point. He was right, which seems crazy for a seltzer festival. But it’s true. There were thousands of people there, but it somehow felt intimate and controlled. The vibe was right.
I’m not going to review every individual seltzer here; some were good, some were bad, most were mediocre. Ultimately, it wasn’t about the seltzers, but the experience of trying them, which was great. Something about the long walks between booths and having time to reflect on each drink actually encouraged me to think about what aspects I look for in a good seltzer, and what makes me dislike others. Tasting over 15 in quick succession, I really saw the ocean of difference between drinks like the pleasant, earthy apricot almond seltzer from St. Louis’ 4 Hands Brewing Co. and the nearly undrinkably sweet, cotton-candy tinged sample from Sparkling Ice Spiked. The seltzer from Mike’s was also extremely sweet, but as a reformed teenaged—er, sorry, completely legal 21-year-old—Mike’s fan, I could see myself totally demolishing those with my homies at the pool or in the park later this summer. I mean, sure, it's sweet, but it’s lemonade that gets you drunk. What’s not to like?
I came away from Seltzerland with the feeling that most seltzers start with a choice of whether they’re going to be saccharine or savory, though of course one can be both. My favorite by a huge margin was the pineapple basil seltzer from Press, which I thought was just incredible. It was herbal and floral, tropical without being sweet. It was everything I look for in a summer beverage that isn’t wine or beer. It was at this point that Tom and I agreed that we loved the festival.
If you go to Seltzerland open to learning more about seltzer brands and thinking about why (or whether) you like them, you’ll probably have a good time. Plus, there are games along the way, like bags and adult-sized Jenga, and if you try a sample at each booth, you’ll be having almost three full drinks, according to my math. And that’s not including the shots (both of liquor and seltzer) you’re offered at various points. One friend I encountered actually managed to score a full can from one of the vendors, and I found myself wishing I’d thought of doing that with Press’ pineapple basil seltzer. I probably could have.
There was also chaos at Seltzerland—some attendees seemed drunk (an impressive feat considering the sample sizes) and a few of the vendors appeared to be getting fed up with it. Shocking for an alcohol-centric event, I know. Overall, though, Seltzerland is a really good festival with solid curation, thoughtful pacing, and a mood that is weirdly chill, especially in light of the fact that for some people, like Tom and myself, this was their first major public event in over a year. I also appreciated that the offerings were a good mix of local and national brands, which I assume will be true for each stop on this festival’s path.
I went into Seltzerland wondering how bad it would be because of Covid, but left wondering how bad it would have been without it; here, the festival-circuit impulse to cram as many people as possible into a too-small plot of land was flipped and reversed, yielding something spread out and relaxed, and something that encouraged thoughtful engagement with the subject. I expected insanity, but people just seemed happy to be there. Hopefully more festivals going forward will run things like Seltzerland, where, we found, the new normal is actually pretty good.