Alcoholic seltzer craze spreads among American millennials

Cartons of White Claw, a flavoured alcoholic fizz in a can at Round The Clock Deli.
Cartons of White Claw, a flavoured alcoholic fizz in a can at Round The Clock Deli. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Health-conscious American millennials have found their drink of choice: alcoholic carbonated water that is lower in calories and carbs than beer and wine.

A hard seltzer craze is sweeping the United States as Generations Y and Z pursue healthier lifestyles, influenced by viral trends on Instagram and YouTube.

US sales of the bubbly booze, also called spiked seltzer, have soared almost 200 per cent this year compared with last year, according to research firm Nielsen.

"It has replaced other canned alcoholic drinks for me," says Ms Hannah Stempler, a 25-year-old living and working in New York.

Ms Stempler drinks White Claw, the brand at the forefront of America's beverage fixation this summer.

The company said sales were up over 265 per cent on-year at the beginning of this month and that it holds 61 per cent of market share.

Truly, another brand, saw sales spike 163 per cent in Q2, according to Macquarie market research.

From beaches and parks to house parties and boat trips, youngsters were seen drinking White Claw across the Big Apple and other major cities.

Panic even struck this month when shopkeepers and retailers reported shortages and the manufacturer said it was working overtime to keep up with demand.

Ms Stempler, who works in television, told Agence France-Presse that one of the reasons she drinks it is that she is "health-conscious." A 340ml can of White Claw contains 100 calories and a maximum 2g of carbs. It is also gluten-free.

An average beer, in comparison, usually packs 140 calories and five times the number of carbohydrates.

BEER SLOWDOWN

The hard seltzer has 5 per cent alcohol, which comes from fermented sugars. That equals the strength of Budweiser but is considerably less than the 12 per cent commonly found in wine.

Alcoholic sparkling water comes in several flavours, including mango and cherry, appealing to customers seeking convenient, ready-to-drink cocktails on the go.

Mr Sanjiv Gajiwala, White Claw's senior vice-president of marketing, thinks young consumers are turning to hard seltzers because of their moderate alcohol levels and variety of flavours.

"Millennials are consumers that grew up on 10 different flavours of Gatorade and cuisines from around the world. When they come to the legal drinking age, they are looking for more," he said.

White Claw sales have surged every year since it launched in 2016 but seems to have captured the imagination this summer in part thanks to YouTube influencer Trevor Wallace.

A video of him drinking White Claw has been watched more than 2.5 million times in two months. The clip spawned memes and hashtags that went viral on social media.

The trend for hard seltzers, which include malt beverages, is shaking up the US alcoholic drinks industry and fuelling a slowdown in overall beer sales, analysts say.

Beer manufacturers are rolling out their own seltzers to try to lure customers away from White Claw and Truly.

Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser, has launched Natural Light Seltzer.

RISK OF CONSUMING MORE ALCOHOL

Mr Aaron White of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is pleased youngsters are mindful of what they drink but warns that fewer calories does not mean less alcohol.

He worries that people may consume more alcohol because fruity seltzers do not taste like traditional booze, and is especially concerned by the Four Loko brand's plans to launch a seltzer with 14 per cent alcohol by volume.

"The alcohol is the drug. Everything else is just the way it's delivered," Mr White said.

Other types of drinks have been the subject of similar crazes in the past, notably wine coolers in the 1980s and Zima, a malt beverage that was all the rage in the 1990s.

Mr Rob Fink, a 29-year-old living in New York, believes spiked seltzer is here to stay but says it will not usurp beer and other liquor for him.

"There's a time and place for both," he said.

The alcoholic soda industry is worth US$550 million (S$757 million) and could grow to US$2.5 billion by 2021, according to a UBS analyst recently quoted by Business Insider.

Mr Gajiwala notes that White Claw has not even reached 6 per cent of American households yet.

"There is a great opportunity for us to continue to grow," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2019, with the headline 'Alcoholic seltzer craze spreads among American millennials'. Print Edition | Subscribe