A strong new competitor

The wine industry needs to take note of the emergence of the hard seltzer in the US market, says Robert Joseph.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

“What is a rolling stone?”

I cannot name the elderly British judge who apparently asked this question during a trial in the 1970s, but I can identify all of the apparently well-informed wine professionals who have recently wanted to know what a hard seltzer is. 

To be fair, unless you have spent time in the US over the last few years or immersed yourself in American culture, you may not have had any reason to know anything at all about hard seltzer. You may indeed imagine that it has something to do with Alka Seltzer, the fizzy tablets that – in the 1970s – were a popular treatment for upset stomachs and hangovers. But you’d be wrong

Hard seltzer is a mixture of neutral alcohol, sparkling water and flavouring, sold in a can, with an alcoholic strength of around 5%. This year, hard seltzer sales in the US will exceed $2bn. In the summer, over 30 days, according to YouGov, the three leading brands, White Claw, Truly and Bon & Viv outsold the top six beer brands combined. 

Estimates vary, but by 2027 the new sector is expected to be worth between $10bn and $14.5bn, making it, in value terms at least, a potentially more profitable competitor to gin. 

The wine industry, especially the parts of it that are focused on terroir and non-industrial production methods may prefer not even to think about this kind of product, imagining that it has as much to do with them as a Big Mac has to a Michelin-starred chef.

But, as can be seen in the café terraces of Verona every year during Vinitaly, plenty of terroir-focused Italian winemakers are perfectly happy to drink another highly profitable, industrially produced beverage called Aperol. Sales of this mixture of alcohol, water and flavouring rose from 1.7m cases in 2009 to 5.8m in 2019.

Aperol – with or without the addition of Prosecco – is a good drink. And so, to its fans, is hard seltzer. Budweiser, Corona and Coors all now have seltzer sub brands and Coca Cola is apparently set to introduce one as part of their Topo Chico mineral water range. The owners of these brands have all understood that refreshing beverages that deliver an alcoholic buzz with limited calories (White Claw, the market leader has 95) and no gluten, are very appealing to a new generation of health- and body-conscious drinkers. According to YouGov, 9% of American millennials over the age of 21 have purchased one of the various White Claw flavours in the course of a month. How many have bought wine?

The only price the ageing judge paid for his lack of familiarity with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards was a bit of public mockery. Failure by wine professionals to pay at least a little attention to these new competitors for a share of millennial wallet may actually have an impact on their business.

Robert Joseph

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