ON A SNOWY day in January, two top executives for Anheuser-Busch InBev gathered around a wooden table inside the company’s massive innovation brewery in Baldwinsville, a small town in upstate New York. Each swirled a tall glass filled with a modest pour of a then-still-top-secret new elixir.
It wasn’t beer but rather something clearer and more effervescent, and the room had the overly serious vibe of a wine tasting. Dave Taylor, the burly, bald, goatee-sporting vice-president of supply for Anheuser, hoisted a glass, inspected the contents, and sipped. He smiled and encouraged me to do the same. Then Taylor popped more tall, skinny cans and kept pouring, as he and Nick Offredi, the plant’s more suburban-dad-looking brewmaster, praised the “light, refresh-ing mango notes” from one and lemon-lime “crispness” of another. A third supposedly tasted like fresh “seedy” strawberries, while a fourth—black cherry—was meant to evoke the rich flavor of Black Forest cake.
This was the sneak preview of Bud Light Seltzer, a low-calorie, low-ABV sparkling drink that’s basically spiked soda water. “It’s hard to explain what makes this different,” Taylor told me and a handful of early taste-testers about hard seltzer as a beverage. “People tend to be a little skeptical. But if they try it, they understand.”
The Anheuser team confidently outlined how unique (and superior) Bud Light Seltzer was in comparison to its competitors. “You’re really looking for the nose to be juicy and true to the fruit,” Taylor added. Based on how quickly it disappeared from everyone’s glass, the result certainly seemed crushable. The drink is slightly sweet and refreshingly carbonated, and it goes down smooth without any syrupy aftertaste or boozy heat, although it tastes a lot like every other seltzer.
By now, you probably know all about what happened next: In mid-January, Bud Light Seltzer hit store shelves alongside a great wave of marketing that included its own Super Bowl ad with Post Malone. Anheuser-Busch InBev spent $100 million on the launch, roughly equivalent to New Mexico’s annual GDP. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with the total hard-seltzer market, which passed the $1 billion mark in 2019 revenue, and was up more than 200 percent year over year just ahead of Bud Light Seltzer’s launch.
Making hard seltzer isn’t very hard. Bud Light Seltzer involves a 20-day fermentation that uses cane sugar and distilled water before moving on to flavoring steps. (The average lager takes about a month to brew.) It’s designed to be sold cheaply, in large quantities, meaning that to make money, these sellers have to convince you to drink an awful lot of it.
So far, America is pretty thirsty: White Claw, the Chicago-based juggernaut, experienced a panic-among-the-faithful shortage in mid-2019. Its secret sauce is essentially a lower-calorie, less sweet cousin of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, also owned by parent company Mark Anthony Brands. And plenty of scrappier upstarts, along with others backed by Big Beer cash, are already in the game. Bud Light Seltzer’s commercials play into the idea that this booze is “unquestionably good.” But will guys go for that?
WITH ANY HOT new cultural trend, more than a little skepticism is warranted. Remember Zima? In 1994, Coors bet big on Zima, the translucent “malternative,” pouring $38 million into a nationwide rollout. The marketing blitz worked in piquing consumers’ curiosity (the company estimated that 70 percent of regular drinkers tried Zima at least once), but Zima quickly tanked for two reasons: It tasted like crap, and it was maligned as innately feminine, scaring off nearly 50 percent of the population.
Post-Zima, there was a significant shift in the alcohol industry, with traditional light lagers starting to slowly lose market share. The culprit? Even lighter or supposedly healthier beers like Michelob Ultra, which touted fewer calories and cashed in on the growing wellness trend.
Then, in 2012, Nick Shields, a manager for a small beer brand, had an epiphany while sitting at a bar in Connecticut. He noticed that women were buying a disproportionate number of vodka sodas, which inspired him and his business partner, entrepreneur Dave Holmes, to develop a vodka-soda-like drink you could enjoy in a can. They called the finished product SpikedSeltzer, and it soon defined the playbook that eventual copycats like White Claw and Boston Beer Company’s Truly would follow for an alcoholic-spritzer renaissance. Anheuser acquired SpikedSeltzer in 2016 and rebranded it as Bon & Viv, the beer giant’s first foray into hard seltzer. (It launched a second brand, Natural Light Seltzer, in 2019.)
As beverage industry analyst Rob McMillan says, seltzers have their own health halo, and there’s a generational shift at play, too. “The boomer’s idea of health meant ‘Don’t eat anything that’s bad for you,'” he says. “The younger consumer’s idea of health is ‘I’m only going to eat something that’s good for me.'”
Hard seltzers lean into that idea by claiming to be low calorie, low sugar, low carb, and even gluten free. Many flavors sound tropical (there’s arguably a beach-fit association) and often vaguely medicinal or superfood-y (like Arctic Summer’s Pineapple Pomelo, Truly’s Passion Fruit, and Bon & Viv’s Pear Elderflower).
It’s coming at a time when drinking culture itself is changing as well. Younger generations are less gender-specific about their identity, says Felicia Miller, Ph.D., the head of marketing studies at Marquette University. So whereas your choice of alcohol used to say a lot more about who you were as a person, today’s drinkers care less about what drink specifically is in their hand, as long as it lubricates socializing.
“It’s a prop,” says Miller about hard seltzers. “That’s the reason you see some really highly stylized packaging that doesn’t look like it fits on the same aisle as Bud Light and Miller Lite and Coors. They’ve created this hybrid product and product category, and that’s appealing to a broader range of consumers.”
That includes men and women. And specifically tank-topped frat bros, many of whom seem to have embraced White Claw after comedian Trevor Wallace joked that there “ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws” in a YouTube sketch in mid-2019. That video drew 3.7 million views and spawned countless memes. Guys seeing other guys drink seltzer obviously gave them permission to try it themselves, Miller says. And although stats by gender are hard to come by, sales from online alcohol marketplace Drizly show that hard seltzers beat out light lagers last year and are now sold evenly to both men and women.
THE FIRST NATIONAL spiked seltzer entered the marketplace nearly seven years ago, but beer sellers view Bud Light Seltzer’s arrival as a sort of tipping point. Steve Reale, a wholesaler with Northern Eagle Beverage, calls Bud Light Seltzer the second-biggest product launch he’s ever seen in nearly 30 years. The first? That happened back in 1982 with a beer called, well, Bud Light.
Despite all the rah-rah optimism, the specters of past industry failures linger in the background (and smell a little bit like Zima). Bud Light Seltzer may be well positioned to lead the next phase of the hard-seltzer phenomenon, but it still faces some obvious buzzkills.
Despite hard seltzer’s promise of healthier imbibing, the more sobering reality is that the annual death rate from overconsuming alcohol has doubled in the past two decades, according to a study published early this year in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Add to that the fact that consumers are broadly cutting back on the sauce. One in five drinkers is reportedly drinking less for health reasons, according to a 2019 report from trend-analysis firm Mintel.
Experts say hard seltzer’s health halo is dubious at best. “There’s certainly nothing magical about hard seltzer,” says Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., a Men’s Health nutrition advisor. At most, you might save yourself some carbs. Bud Light Seltzer and regular Budweiser both clock in at 5 percent ABV, but the seltzer has 45 fewer calories and nine fewer grams of carbs. That difference is pretty negligible—less than a slice of bread per drink.
If Anheuser is banking on a more health-conscious consumer to switch from beer or bourbon or even Barolo to Bud Light Seltzer, it’ll have to hope that that consumer isn’t too curious about what’s inside the can. While hard seltzers do tend to have a short list of ingredients, most if not all contain those oh so vague “natural” flavors. When I asked Dave Taylor in the Bud Light Seltzer tasting room to elaborate on what a natural flavor is, he responded, with a laugh, “That’s the kind of question that I have to be careful to answer without a lawyer in the room.”
Plus, Bud Light Seltzer lacks those all-important X factors that burned Big Beer during this past decade’s craft-beer revolution: authenticity and a strong sense of place.
Smaller producers are already getting in on the action. DC Brau, a respected Washington, D. C., craft brewery, recently launched Full Transparency, a line of four flavored hard seltzers. When it rolled out in November, CEO and cofounder Brandon Skall anticipated a bit of backlash from the craft community. Instead, the line has quickly become one of the brewery’s more successful releases.
“A year and a half ago, this was a product that was seen as being marketed to females, or coupled with wellness and yoga,” Skall says. “But when we put out the press release, the articles came out with headlines like ‘DC Brau enters the bro market.’ I thought, How fascinating.”
And while Bud Light Seltzer is betting on the Summer of Hard Seltzer being endless, it’s still a little late to the game. The boom was, er, booming just fine without it.
After my day at the Baldwinsville brewery, I swung into Syracuse for a nightcap. It was 10:00 p.m. on a (thirsty) Thursday, and my first stop was a well-recommended beer bar called the Blue Tusk. It was so slow that the bartender dealt me in for a round of poker; he also mentioned that they didn’t carry seltzer. I left, deflated, and decided to hit one last spot before calling it quits for the night.
Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge was hopping, and though there didn’t seem to be much wine or whiskey being served up at the bar, half the patrons—an equal mix of college students—held the sort of familiar slim cans that Bud Light Seltzer now mimics.
Summer appeared to have come early at Al’s. When a fit-looking guy shouldered up next to me and ordered another large round of Mango Claws for all his friends, I asked why he was drinking seltzer. His answer was simple.”Doesn’t everybody?”