I have avoided them successfully for so long, but they have found a way into my home. Now I must brace myself, confront them—and hope for the best.
No, I am not talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am talking about the trend known as hard seltzer.
Last year, we saw the apotheosis of these low/no-carb alcoholic beverages marketed toward people with an “active lifestyle,” which—and I must apologize for this beforehand—I always took as meaning “upper middle-class yuppies.” The brewery for which I work gave in and made one, so I felt like the time was right for me to delve into subject. But before we do so, we need to take a look at what these drinks actually are.
First: They are not seltzers. “Seltzer” is a term I heard on the East Coast (or from one of its transplants) as a term for carbonated water, aka club soda. My great-grandmother (RIP Bubbe Celia!) in the Bronx used to have a bottle of it in her fridge that she would flavor with grenadine for the little ones. But I digress. Most of these hard seltzers are variants of beverages made with grains—often gluten-free ones like millet—which can be flavored and sweetened, then fermented to create something around 5 percent alcohol by volume that you would swear is almost healthy if you believed much of the advertising. Cheaper versions are often made using corn sugar and/or rice, and one line of seltzers made by Crook and Marker boasts of including “organic alcohol derived from ancient grains and tropical roots.” Never before have I felt like shotgunning a can and summarily burping out the word namaste.
Second: These drinks are not really new. Zima existed in the mid-’90s. It was made by Coors and aggressively marketed toward women—which was ultimately its downfall. (It finally stopped getting made in 2008, believe it or not, before having a brief comeback in 2017-2018.) Zima became ubiquitous virtually overnight, and you felt as though you had to try it. Unlike hard seltzers now, they weren’t flavored outside of the strange, malty taste that was the result of the process of making them. I wish I had more of a description, but they were wholly unremarkable to drink. After all, why would they have bombarded the public with marketing if the taste could sell you on its own? That marketing mostly consisted of replacing the “s” in words with a “z.” If they had bullshitted us at the right moment in time, to everyone, like they’re doing with seltzers now, that reality might have been totally unrecognizable from our current one.
While many people may have first noticed these drinks in the beverage aisles of their local liquor or grocery stores, I was forced to take notice due to the viral videos of (let’s just call them) intellectuals with pistols point-blank shooting off the top of their cans of White Claw or Truly seltzer and chugging the remains. An internet denizen who goes by the name of Worst Beer Blog documented this in a thread showcasing these videos that you can see here. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for people who strive to create a whole new category for the prestigious Darwin Awards, but this meme got out of hand really quickly. (See what I did there?) Comedian Trevor Wallace seemingly launched his career by creating a series of videos depicting himself as man who magically morphs into a douchebag after just one hard-seltzer sip, proclaiming things like, “Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws!” and, “It’s basically just a vegan Four Loko.”
By the way, Four Loko has a Seltzer Sour line that weighs in at a classy 14 percent ABV, just in case you thought they wouldn’t get in on this act.
My absolute favorite thing that has emerged from this has been the series of commercials for Bud Light Seltzer in which the spokesman makes certain, almost pleading, that it contains no actual Bud Light. I am sure the marketing ploy used here was intended to be ironic, but it comes across as an acknowledgement by its makers that Bud Light tastes terrible. So … why did they use Bud Light in the name? Did they want to have their cake (positive brand recognition) and eat it, too? I’d like to suggest an alternative angle for them, free of charge: “A forgettable beverage that you’ll probably regret buying, but is DEFINITELY NOT like another beverage we make with the same name. Now in blue raspberry flavor!”
You may have realized by now that I chose this topic mostly so I can cram in as many jokes as possible. And you would be absolutely correct. But I also want to convey my frustrations with the beverage itself: At their best, they are OK, but even then, the finish bores me and leaves little to no impression on my palate or my mind. At the taproom, we have a coconut-lime seltzer, and it’s well-made. The first thing I thought upon trying some was, “This would have made a great beer.”
But I get it … you might not find beer palatable, or you may have some physical ailment that prevents you from enjoying anything with gluten. Might I do something that my Independent wine counterpart, Katie Finn, would almost certainly approve of, and suggest a dry wine? There’s no gluten; they’re lower in calories than most beers; and they’re definitely miles above any seltzer you will ever encounter when it comes to flavor.
You are worth it. Unless you shoot the top of a wine bottle off and chug it. Then you aren’t at all worth it, and you deserve what you get.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.