A few months ago, everyone in VICE’s London office got an email. As would occasionally happen in the Before, it alerted us to the fact that there were some free samples in the lobby. Some noticed the message in their inbox more quickly than others, and people began filtering out of their seats to see what was on offer. Arranged on the table were canned samples of something called “hard seltzer.”
Hard seltzer has had a big year. If you are new to the concept, it is basically fizzy water + fruit flavouring + an unspecified booze component often described on the packaging as something like “CraftedClear™ Alcohol” or “five-times distilled spirit.” After taking off in the US last summer, via the popularity of the brand White Claw, it has more recently quietly made its way to the UK, via brands like Bodega Bay and Mike’s Hard Seltzer. Now, Kopparberg – an alcohol brand best known for fruit-flavoured ciders – is in the process of launching its own hard seltzer in the UK, while White Claw itself has been sold in Tesco, Morrison’s, and Sainsbury’s stores since the 1st of June. But given the differences between drinking cultures in the US and the UK, will hard seltzer be as big a success on this side of the Atlantic as it has been in the States?
White Claw hit shelves in 2016, and its popularity has grown rapidly since then – in 2019, sales of the drink were up 320 percent from the previous year. It is such a phenomenon in large part because fruit-flavoured “seltzer” itself was already doing big business. From 2015 onwards, the sparkling water La Croix gained a reputation for being a millennial soft drink of choice. Alcoholic seltzer, then, follows naturally on from this trend, and also fits in with lifestyle choices associated with younger people. First of all, as Kate Bernot pointed out for The Takeout last July, “Young drinkers, especially on social media, have cemented White Claw’s association with summer, parties, the outdoors, music festivals and easy-going day drinking.” Essentially, the drink has become a self-perpetuating meme – which I believe is a synonym for “jackpot, baby” in marketing-speak.
Like all good internet phenomena, White Claw memes even have their own devoted Instagram account, @whiteclawmeme, which currently has just under 12,000 followers. The account is run by three friends in their "VERY early thirties" from St. Petersburg, Florida (who wished to remain anonymous). They tell me, tongue-in-cheek-ly, that they started the page “because of a common love for what White Claw represents to us: a laid-back drink to enjoy with friends.” Their love of the Claw began last year when they were hanging out, and one of their group “brought White Claws as kind of a joke itself.” The fascination with the drink, they say, “snowballed from there.”
“We would all go out downtown and rack up bar tabs that consisted only of White Claw; we’d always all grab a case of whatever Claws we could – there was a shortage at one point – to each other’s places and just drink and chill,” they tell me. Though they say that the followers of their account are a “diverse group”, they’re generally “in between early twenties and mid-thirties.”
That majority millennial and Gen Z age group tracks onto another aspect of the hard seltzer lifestyle. It is, in general, a healthy one (or at least healthier than what is generally associated with drinking alcohol), and right now, younger people tend to be healthier consumers than older people, according to the 2016 Nielsen Global Health and Wellness Survey. It makes sense, then, that hard seltzer, with its emphasis on low calorie and carb content, might become sought-after for this group. Its alcohol content is generally low – around 4 or 5 per cent – and tends to be made from fermented cane sugar, allowing brands the added ability to state that their products are gluten free, unlike light beers and some other "lighter" alcohol products. Calorie-wise, too, hard seltzer comes in fairly low in the grand scheme of booze: a 330ml can of White Claw contains a round 100 calories, with two grams of carbohydrate, while a 250ml can of Bodega Bay Hard Seltzer, billed on its official website as catering to “healthy hedonists,” contains only 73 calories, and 4.5 grams of “naturally occurring sugar.”
That emphasis on natural flavouring is another of the health (or pseudo-health) related appeals of hard seltzer. The three available flavours of Mike’s Hard Seltzer are Black Cherry, Lemon, and Lime – none of which use artificial sweeteners. Bodega Bay takes things a step further. Its “Elderflower, Lemon and Mint” and “Apple, Ginger and Açai Berry” varieties repurpose ingredients that have been marketed aggressively by the wellness industry in recent years. During the coronavirus lockdown, Bodega Bay have even been running yoga classes via Instagram Live.
It’s too early to really know what sort of impact hard seltzer will make on the UK market, especially considering that the US and UK have different drinking habits. People in the UK drink more than those in the US (in 2016 the World Health Organisation found that 9.8 litres of pure alcohol were drunk per person aged 15 and above in the US in 2016, compared to 11.4 litres in the UK), and studies have shown that the UK also drinks slightly more often than the US. As such, it’s unclear whether the “lighter” element of hard seltzer will quite quench Britain’s love of the sesh, though some brands are giving it their best shot.
It’s certainly true that some less traditionally boozy alcoholic drinks have had success in the UK in recent years: fruit cider is a good example. They appeal mostly because of their easy-to-enjoy, sweet fruit flavours, so it’s unsurprising that Kopparberg, whose website states that it is “known for its fruit refreshment” would get on board with the new fruit-centric beverage on the block: hard seltzer.
Rosie Fryer, a brand manager for Kopparberg, says that the brand has had its eye on hard seltzer for some time now. “A hard seltzer is quite polarising in itself, similarly to sparkling water. You either love it or you hate it,” she says. “But if we could use our flavour credentials and take our learnings from the phenomenon of fruit cider, we saw a huge opportunity to give consumers something different, but still the full bold flavours that they would come to expect from a brand like ours.”
Kopparberg has identified that their hard seltzer consumer is probably the type of person who’d order a gin and Slimline tonic or vodka, lime and soda at the pub, though Fryer does acknowledge that the brand is zooming in on, well, Zoomers. “We’re focussing on that Gen Z consumer, aged 18 to 24,” she says. “We know they’re looking for healthier alternatives, we know they’re conscious about what they’re putting in their bodies.”
Though Fryer emphasises that the Kopparberg hard seltzer has been marketed most specifically with Gen Z in mind, there are other consumer groups that the product will undoubtedly also appeal to in the UK. Liverpool John Moores University academic Dr. Amanda Atkinson tells me, for example, that it’s also clear that hard seltzer will be attractive to women.
“Like other brands targeted at women, [hard seltzers] are marketed as low calorie,” Atkinson says. “A focus on calories draws on messages of dieting and body image, but perhaps in a less obvious manner than labelling a product as 'skinny' and using tape measure imagery! It could also be argued that presenting alcohol as 'infused water' may associate it with healthy lifestyle messages, such as purity, gym culture and the importance of drinking water to complexion. These messages will appeal to women, who tend to be more health conscious than men.”
Her comments speak to the fact that women are a large alcohol consumer base in the UK, and have been since the late 1950s. As Sadhbh O’Sullivan wrote for Refinery29 last December, we’ve seen this come to a head in recent years via the cutesy-fication and merchandising of alcohol products coded as feminine, like Prosecco and gin. These products, however, tend to skew older – we generally associate “KEEP CALM AND DRINK GIN” kitchen prints with mums, and women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s – so hard seltzer isn’t necessarily coded in the same way, and the packaging is more gender neutral.
Hard seltzer, then, is much younger and cooler. As Dr. Atkinson says, it doesn’t bear the markers of a traditionally “skinny” drink, but it does appeal to ideas about wellness that we know are important to Gen Z, who drink less than their older counterparts in both the US and UK. It’s possible that in angling specifically at a generation which has grown up on smartphones – where the world is smaller and values transcend countries – hard seltzer’s appeal will also transcend the differences between US and UK drinking cultures, with the help of brands like Kopparberg, who’ve paid attention to those differences.
At the end of our call, I ask Fryer whether she honestly thinks such an American concept can take off in the UK. And honestly, she does.
“I think we’ll see hard seltzer exploding in the UK as health and wellness continue to be a massive part of people’s lives. I think if there are lower calorie options available then great, but I also don’t think it’s just about calories anymore. Gen Z are choosing to drink less but better.”
She adds: “I don’t think it’s in any way a phase – I think it’s here to stay.”
Will we be rocking up at the reopened pubs in a few months’ time asking for frosty cans of hard seltzer in place of our pints? Probably not. But industries have to move with their consumers – so with an increased focus on healthy living as younger generations grow up, brands are going to want to adapt to cater to that. Fundamentally, Brits like getting pissed – though it’s possible that hard seltzer could help to square that desire for younger drinkers from a more global generation.