The Orange Man is, without doubt, the most divisive topic in the United States today. But hot on his tragically spur-prone heels is White Claw, a gluten free, low calorie, five per cent alcohol by volume sparkling water that comes in nine barely-there flavours including watermelon, lime, raspberry, grapefruit and mango.
The kids love it. It’s cheap, healthier than other alcoholic drinks and the subtle fruit taste needn’t be “acquired” first. At the end of last year “The Summer of White Claw” saw the four-year-old brand forced to ration its own shipments to supermarket chains and other wholesale clients in order to keep everywhere supplied. It couldn’t make the stuff fast enough to meet demand.
More than just being a popular drink, White Claw has its own pop-culture halo, including countless memes and a catchphrase (“Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws”) that its fans deploy ironically and unironically. The drink is associated with freewheeling college kids, Instagram, partying, the wellness crowd and any kind of outdoor activity. (Comedian Trevor Wallace mocked this obnoxious culture in a video now viewed 4.4 million times.)
Drinks giants such as Corona, Budweiser and Smirnoff have rushed to emulate White Claw’s success. “Hard seltzer”, as the Yanks call this bubbly, alcoholic water, is now a $2.73 billion category, that last year grew 117 per cent.
Will something similar happen here?
Australia’s own big players are betting on it. Lion, the company behind beer brands including James Squire, Toohey’s, Hahn and James Boag, was first to market in October last year with Quincy, a four per cent ABV seltzer flavoured with “a hint” of passionfruit or lime. (Strangely, though, it’s sold in bottles, rather than convenient cans.) Coles, CUB and Asahi quickly followed with their own hard seltzer brands, Somma, Actual and Good Tides, respectively.
This, in itself, is not unusual. These enormous companies are always looking for the next big thing – the unicorn product that will bump their share price and arrest 40 years of declining beer sales. What makes hard seltzer interesting is this: quite a few of Australia’s small, independent breweries – a crowd that’s always been vocal about making “real” beer – are also trying their hands at this intentionally frivolous and insipid drink. (Imagine sparkling water with the tiniest squeeze of lime – that’s how it tastes.)
“In the brewing industry, it’s still taboo,” says Sam Hambour, co-owner of Melbourne brewery Hop Nation. “A lot of people think it’s popular in America and it should stay in America, but then the amount of consumers who want a fresh, vibrant, no-sugar drink, I think that’s growing.”
Last month Hambour and his business partner, Duncan Gibson, launched ’Ray (short for Footscray, Hop Nation’s home suburb), their own hard seltzer sub-brand. Their first three flavours are lemon and lime, watermelon and mint, and peach. Each 375-millilitre can contains just 2.6 grams of sugar and 108 calories – information that will soon be displayed on the label, almost a necessity in this space.
“We didn’t realise how many people would be asking about its calorie content,” Hambour says. “When people buy a double IPA they don’t tend to ask how many calories are in it, ’cos everyone knows it’s not going to be good for you.”
On the Gold Coast, Lost Palms Brewing has canned a peach seltzer. In Margaret River, Cheeky Monkey Brewery has packaged two flavours: raspberry and orange and grapefruit. And on the Mornington Peninsula, near Melbourne, St Andrew’s Beach Brewery has launched a slick, entirely separate brand: Tidal Artesian Seltzer. Its initial two flavours are plain lime and yuzu, orange, mandarin and grapefruit.
A cynic might say all these launches are just breweries desperately trying to paddle in front of the hard seltzer wave before it breaks and crashes on Australian shores. And perhaps that’s true. But in Hambour and Gibson’s case, they wouldn’t have bothered if not for one small, yet crucial, detail: they were able to make ’Ray using their existing brewing equipment, under the terms of their existing brewing license. That means we’ll see a lot more of these on the market in future.
There are two ways to make hard seltzer. The first involves fermenting sugars derived from corn, potato, wheat, rice or another plant, distilling the resulting alcohol into vodka (i.e. ethanol and water) and mixing it with sparkling water and flavour. CUB’s Actual and Asahi’s Good Tides are made this way.
Everyone else is brewing their hard seltzer more like a beer, which means skipping the distillation step and fermenting the sugars in a pre-diluted vat of water. This way, certain flavour compounds from the sugar source hang around and make it into the final product.
This second method produces ethanol alcohol that’s chemically identical to the first method’s, but the final product isn’t considered to contain vodka or any added spirit, due to the lack of distillation. If you use a cereal grain for the sugars and add hops before the end, you can even call it a beer, which is exactly what Hop Nation has done. Not only does this allow the brewery to keep doing what it’s doing with no extra licensing or permits, it means each six-pack is only taxed $3.84 by the government, rather than the $8.76 it would be taxed if it were a vodka-based mixer.
While these factors explain the legal and economic reasons a small, “serious beer” brewery might have for making a hard seltzer, they don’t really explain the creative reasons. But it’s at this point that we dump the cynicism and just admit it: this fizzy, lightly flavoured water can be tasty, refreshing, and maybe even a bit fun. Especially so on a hot day. With no added sugar, it’s far more drinkable and far less regrettable than the cloying RTDs of your youth.
“One of the key indicators when we release new products is seeing who around the brewery drinks it. And ’Ray seems to be disappearing from the staff fridge pretty quickly,” Hambour says.
“If someone looks into an esky at a barbeque on a warm day and there’s seltzer there on ice, with an IPA and a bourbon and coke, I reckon there’s a pretty good chance the seltzer would get picked up, depending on the person.”