With beer sales sliding, hard seltzer business is booming, and it’s only just begun


The summer of White Claw was never supposed to get this big. White Claw, with its too-good-to-be-true low-calorie claims and its fizzy flavor profile that displays notes of nothing, was never supposed to be more than a fad. Its can design was something that you’d automatically ignore. Hard seltzer was a drink you’d reluctantly neck down after all respectable beers in the cooler had evaporated. 

But, against all odds, White Claw persisted. What started out as a ripple has turned into a full-blown Claw tsunami and the hard seltzer drink has gained so much popularity that it is outselling Budweiser. It’s also enjoying popularity across the nation (specifically in the midwest). Now, the beverage world is taking notice. 

Gather Round Kids, While I Tell You About the Summer of Claw…

In a summer that millennials will no doubt cherish years from now, White Claw Summer took social media by storm. Everywhere you looked, someone was posting an Instagram story with a Claw in hand or posting a meme about the drink. 

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Claw’s meme-ability is the kind of grassroots marketing that companies dream of. While a lot of those people might buy and drink Claws ironically, they are still buying them. In turn, many have become repeat purchasers. Sanjiv Gajiwala, Senior Vice President of marketing for Mark Anthony Brands (the company that owns White Claw), told the Daily Beast that, after someone has purchased a pack of Claws, “one in three people will buy it again.”

White Claw’s success also boils down to the simple factor that often yields massive returns: timing. In the past several years, America has gone sparkling water crazy (something that venture capitalists have already taken advantage of). Americans spent $1.7 billion on sparkling water beverages in 2018.

That pales in comparison to the $15 billion spent on other carbonated soda beverages. The key, though, is growth. Where sales of traditional soda have grown only one percent each year since 2016, seltzer has experienced double-digit growth. With sparkling water’s popularity on the rise and a demographic obsessed with health, self-care, and convenient wellness solutions, the stage was set for the current hard seltzer boom. 

Other Companies Throw Their Bubbles in the Ring

Beer and other alcohol companies are also aware of this shift in buying habits. Much has been written about how millennials are buying less alcohol than previous generations and the ways that companies are catering to these preferences. One way that companies are responding to the hard seltzer craze is by simply producing their own version.

Pabst, the previous hipster swill du jour, recently announced its seltzer offering, the cleverly titled Stronger Seltzer. It seems that PBR’s only mission in creating seltzer is to take the existing seltzer blueprint, make it bigger, pump more alcohol into it, and offer fewer flavors. A 16-ounce can of Stronger Seltzer carries eight percent alcohol (as opposed to White Claw’s five percent). The only flavor you can purchase is an uninspired Lime.

Other companies like Four Loko and Natural Light now also offer hard seltzers. Surprisingly though, similar drinks are jumping into the ring from unexpected beverage sectors—namely craft breweries. On the surface, White Claw and its ilk are the exact opposite of craft beer. Where microbreweries pride themselves on intense recipes and packing a hefty clump of hops into a pint, hard seltzer is bubbly alcohol water with a skosh of flavoring. 

This shift is a response to a slowdown in sales. The Brewers Association, the trade group for microbreweries and independent brewers, reported that craft brew sales growth slowed to four percent, the lowest in a decade. At the end of last year, the Brewers Association relaxed guidelines for craft brewers. Those rules previously said that breweries had to produce mostly beer. Now, craft breweries like Oskar Blues, the Boston Beer Company (which produces Truly), and Mother Earth Brewing all offer hard seltzer varieties. The rule change was a lifeline for Boston Beer as sales of its flagship beverage Sam Adams dipped earlier this year. 

A Drink For All

Of course, a White Claw is not just a White Claw. Companies love products, especially alcohol, with specific demographics and gender targets in mind. Beer commercials of yore are cookie-cutter representations of “good times.” Whether it’s at a beach, a packed bar, or a bro’d out BBQ, the format remains the same. Women typically take a backseat as window dressings while dudes yuck it up and toast to another night out. Men typically drink beer while women enjoy mixed drinks or wine, and so on.

Notably, though, White Claw has upended this strict beverage divide as men and women both enjoy hard seltzers in equal measure. The product has cracked the gender code in a world where labels are increasingly blurry and inconsequential. White Claw has provided a beverage that is almost entirely gender-neutral. 

So far, White Claw Summer has put hard seltzers on the map. It will be interesting to see how Claw maintains its steam as the summer days wind down. White Claw fall, anyone?