“Would it even have been 2019 without a hard seltzer festival?” Jake Browne tells me. “It’s so of-the-moment and for us it's a no-brainer.”
The former cannabis critic for The Denver Post, Browne has something of a nose for what’s of-the-moment. He hopped on the legal cannabis wave back in 2009, when medical marijuana was just taking off in Colorado. So when word got around that Browne was trading (or at least supplementing) terpenes with hard seltzer, I was curious. And when I found out that more than a hundred brands of hard seltzer had requested to be part of Fizz Fight, which bills itself as the country’s first hard seltzer festival and tasting competition, I decided to give Browne a call.
“Summer’s winding down in Denver and we thought why not just have a crazy day with a bunch of hard seltzer tasting,” Browne says. When September 14 rolls around, participants will be able to taste more than 60 flavors of hard seltzer from around 20 breweries, while a panel of “educated palates” votes on which entry is the best. Also, because this is 2019, there will be food trucks and some very social media-friendly installations by local artists.
You have a new generation that wants to drink something with flavor that isn’t terrible for them.”
Like many people, I’ll admit that I was skeptical when press releases from White Claw started flooding my inbox last spring. I chalked it up to something for the CrossFit set, for people who get genuinely excited about popping open a can of LaCroix Pamplemousse and will ruin a perfectly good bar crawl by telling you that your bourbon barrel-aged stout has as many calories as a slice of cheesecake. Surely, I thought, once Natty Light starts tweeting, “That's right, we made a f***ing seltzer” it must be the beginning of the end.
But it wasn’t. Suddenly there were cans of hard seltzer in friends’ coolers, at beaches and birthdays and all over the damn place. Some of the reactions were tepid, others predictably mocking, but even the people rolling their eyes at the concept were still drinking the stuff Stranger still, some of the hard seltzers hitting the shelves were… surprisingly drinkable.
It turns out that sales spiked by 164.3 percent in a month this summer, according to Nielsen data, and that if they continue on their current trajectory, they could hit $2.5 billion by 2021.
“You have a new generation that wants to drink something with flavor that isn’t terrible for them,” Browne says. “There’s a lot less bro-shaming going on. It used to be the manly thing of, ‘Oh, I’m gonna crush these beers and eat whatever I want,’ but I think we’re just starting to learn more about our bodies.”
Browne has been a beer-lover for as long as he can remember, but he counts himself among the converts. Rather than substituting IPAs entirely for hard seltzer, he views it as a means of adding a little bit more balance to the equation. As a 36-year-old, he realized neither his metabolism nor his liver could handle high-ABV beers the way they once had.
You have craft brewers that can make a couple of kegs of this stuff at a fifth of the cost of an IPA. It lets them reach out to a different crowd that doesn’t want to drink 8% beers all afternoon.”
“I took a month-long break from beer. It was a self-imposed challenge,” he says. “Even if you’re drinking something super sessionable, beer has about 10 grams of carbs per can. So over the course of the afternoon, that’s like drinking a loaf of bread. With hard seltzer, it’s about 1 or 2 grams per can.”
Low-carb is all well and good, but no one wants to drink something that tastes like a can of carbonated chemicals. Fortunately, while big brands still dominate—White Claw currently holds 50 percent of the market and is outpacing most craft beer brands—the growing demand has led to the rise of indie brands like Press, a woman-owned operation in Michigan making hard seltzers in flavors like grapefruit-cardamom and pear-camomile.
Since hard seltzer is relatively simple to make, a number of craft brewers are getting in on the action as well. Like Browne, places such as Colorado's Oskar Blues Brewery aren’t planning on giving up on beer, but rather are adding a new alternative to their roster.
“You have craft brewers that can make a couple of kegs of this stuff at a fifth of the cost of an IPA. It lets them reach out to a different crowd that doesn’t want to drink 8% beers all afternoon and feel bloated,” Browne says. “One of the local breweries involved is Call to Arms Brewing Co. and on any given Friday night, around half of the pours are their hard seltzer.”
Ultimately, Browne hopes to build one big boozy party that introduces audiences to something new without taking itself too seriously. Because while hard seltzer is growing so quickly, it’s also evolving faster than most beverages, which means that mass-market options are flooding the stores at the same time as more niche, thoughtfully crafted options. A couple of years ago the idea of craft hard seltzers by respected microbreweries would have sounded absurd, but here we are in 2019 and nothing seems crazy anymore.
“Whenever you have a new beverage category, there are first movers and there are people bringing a lot of nuance to it,” Browne says. “There’s a whole bunch of innovation going on and it’s really exciting to introduce people to that.”