Hard seltzer is big business, accounting for $2.7 billion in off-premise sales over the 52-week period ending June 13, and posted its biggest week of sales yet over the July 4 holiday, according to Nielsen. But since the category exploded in popularity last summer, it has also garnered a big reputation — one that is both positive and negative. While hard seltzer is now a go-to for consumers across the U.S., it’s also frequently used as the punchline of jokes and targeted in meme culture.

It wasn’t surprising when major alcohol companies rushed to cash in on the hard seltzer category, with brands from Bud Light to Barefoot launching beverages labeled as “hard seltzer” in the first half of 2020. What was surprising was the slew of craft brands — particularly craft breweries — launching hard seltzers. Favorite breweries like Evil Twin, Two Roads, and Solemn Oath, among others, have all added hard seltzers to their lineups alongside geeky double IPAs and hard-to-get imperial stouts.

At the same time, new wine-based hard seltzers like Del Mar Wine Seltzer are following similar formulas to industry-favorite spritzes Ramona and Hoxie, products that have deliberately chosen not to market themselves as hard seltzers. Cocktail enthusiasts looking for spirits-based options can crack open the vodka-based High Noon and Keel Sparkling, or the tequila-based Volley Spiked Seltzer. While these ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails are not made in the same way as big-brand hard seltzers, they offer the same refreshing, easy-drinking appeal.

As the young hard seltzer category continues to evolve and premiumize at a startling pace, buoyed by mainstream business and craft upstarts alike, its consumer base only seems to broaden, spanning casual imbibers and studious beverage insiders alike. The growth trajectory raises the possibility that this “basic” beverage could serve as the ultimate equalizer, appealing across all consumer demographics (similar to non-alcoholic seltzer).

At a peak moment of sales growth, VinePair reached out to experts across the drinks industry to understand how hard seltzer is carving out an entirely new beverage alcohol category, breaking out of the FMB or RTD categories to which these products have been relegated so far. With product innovation speeding forward at an unprecedented rate, hard seltzer may just be the most dynamic beverage category on the market right now.

The Laws (and Stigmas) of Drinking Claws

Early perceptions and stereotypes of hard seltzers — and the people who drink them — revolve around the three brands that largely introduced the American public to the category: Truly, Bon & Viv, and, primarily, White Claw. These dominant brands established the category style as dry, refreshing, low-calorie, lightly fruity drinks.

Hard seltzer’s target demographic emerged around these brands at the same time. “The typical consumer that comes to mind when you think of hard seltzer is young women,” says Bobbie Burgess, the wine director of Eat Local Starkville in Starkville, Miss., who has sold several brands of hard seltzer in the past. “However, I have seen men and women, younger and older, indulging in these canned beverages.”

The approachable, “better-for-you” appeal of hard seltzer, combined with the canned format’s convenience and portability, has helped the style attract many different kinds of consumers. “Hard seltzer is an anomaly,” adds Brian Miesieski, the VP of marketing and innovation for SweetWater Brewing in Atlanta, which launched the Hydroponics Hard Seltzer in January. “It really blew up what you would perceive to be a typical consumer demographic for seltzer. It struck gold, essentially.”

But while hard seltzer seems to have become an everyman’s and everywoman’s beverage, stigmas still exist. Brands like White Claw and Truly are fixtures on Instagram and have been the subject of viral memes, cementing the category’s association with less serious, millennial consumers.

“There’s the popular saying, ‘There ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws,’” jokes Burgess. “If you don’t caption that saying on your social media pictures, did you really drink a White Claw?”

Essentially, all the qualities that attract a broad consumer audience to hard seltzer — large production, simple flavors, mass appeal — also seem to stigmatize it, from an industry perspective. Some liken it to the difference between an independent restaurant and a fast-food chain.

“I don’t judge fast-food fried chicken and I don’t judge people who indulge in hard seltzers,” says Burgess, “but I do hope that after the first one at our bar and building trust, guests are willing to try something different and, dare I say, better.”

While claims of low-calorie, gluten-free, “health-conscious” products have been foundational to early hard seltzer brands’ successes, there has never been a focus on specific ingredients, origins, or production methods — all of which are usually important to serious beverage aficionados. Rather, hard seltzers are often viewed by industry professionals as manufactured, somewhat artificial products made from fermented sugarcane or corn syrup bases.

“Seltzer brands are not currently transparent about their ingredients and practices,” says Jordan Salcito, the founder of wine spritz company Ramona, who points out that the sugar industry often relies on exploitative conditions. “As a potential target consumer, quality and transparency do not currently seem to be part of their value proposition.”

Craft Opportunities

However, it isn’t necessarily hard seltzer’s style that steers serious beverage geeks away from the category. As evidenced by the success of spritzes like Ramona and Hoxie, industry professionals do welcome spritzy, refreshing, less serious canned beverages.

“We launched the same year as White Claw, so clearly the market was ready for a beer alternative,” says Salcito. “I’ve noticed that seltzers often serve as a gateway to spritzes; both are beer alternatives meant for casual moments.”

After all, big-brand, simple beers like PBR and Miller High Life have long been industry favorites for post-shift imbibing. “Sometimes craft consumers want a break from complex beers,” says Miesieski. “Sometimes they just want to cut to the chase and have something that’s refreshing and simple.”

Recently, brands have been recognizing the opportunities in this cross-section of interest and bridging the gap with new, more premium hard seltzer offerings. Craft breweries were some of the first to jump into the premium hard seltzer pool, primarily because it was a natural transition. “The manufacturing process of hard seltzer comes from traditional brewery practices,” says Meg Gill, the founder of both Maha Hard Seltzer, which launched in March in partnership with Anheuser-Busch, and Golden Road Brewing in Los Angeles. “This allows for more breweries to supplement production of their beer products to make hard seltzer.”

However, making hard seltzer is becoming an increasingly necessary venture for breweries as well, since these products are eating away at beer sales. According to Nielsen, hard seltzers have accounted for 10 percent or more of the off-premise beer/FMB/cider sales since the week ending May 23. “Everyone is looking for new categories to drive incremental business,” says Miesieski. “With seltzer stealing share from craft breweries, as a business, it makes sense.”

While hard seltzer doesn’t have a long history like American lagers, for instance, it seems to be following a similar trajectory: After big brands dominated the category and made it popular, craft breweries stepped in to elevate quality by using better ingredients, higher standards, and smaller production processes.

“The craft beer consumer and the craft seltzer consumer overlap greatly, especially when it comes to high flavor appeal and premium ingredient appeal,” says Gill. With Maha Hard Seltzer, she aimed to create flavorful, USDA Certified Organic beverages using high-quality ingredients like cascara, sea salt, and fruit juice.

Though a fan base that is accustomed to lining up for limited releases of hazy IPAs might find craft seltzers to be incongruous with a given brewery’s ethos, Miesieski insists that sticking to the company’s core philosophies allows for experimentation without alienating existing consumers. For SweetWater, this meant staying true to the brewery’s “420 lifestyle” brand and using fruit-based terpenes to get natural-tasting flavors into their Hydroponics hard seltzers.

“The geekier consumers were taken aback at first,” says Miesieski. “But the tide is shifting quite a bit. As long as you’re doing it right, being authentic, and making it a more premium experience, consumers will realize, ‘My favorite brewery is still putting out fantastic beers but doing something different.’”

Disrupting the Formula — and Communicating It

Both new and existing beverage brands are disrupting hard seltzer by proposing new ideas of how these products can be made as well. While hard seltzer is generally classified as a flavored malt beverage (FMB), spirit- and wine-based hard seltzers that are not made from fermented malt or sugar are rapidly emerging.

One of the fastest-growing hard seltzer brands of the summer is High Noon, a vodka-based product billed as both a hard seltzer and a vodka soda. So when it comes to these spirit- and wine-based products, what’s the difference between hard seltzers and spritzy, low-alcohol RTD cocktails — particularly when the latter are typically more accepted by beverage insiders than the former?

“The decision to label a new product as a hard seltzer or RTD spritz is one ultimately made by the marketing department,” says Brie Wohld, the vice president of marketing for Trinchero Family Estates, which launched Del Mar Wine Seltzer in March. “Neither is necessarily better; it comes down to a matter of preference and desired target market.” She notes that market research indicated broad consumer and trade interpretations within both RTD spritz and hard seltzer categories. While wine-based spritzes and wine-based seltzers might be interchangeable, formula-wise, the potential connotation of spritzes as sweet led Del Mar to be labeled as a wine seltzer.

A brand might also decide to label their product as hard seltzer in order to convey that it is appropriate for a more casual occasion. “Currently, the line is very blurred as to what defines a seltzer and an RTD because the category is so new and quickly evolving,” says Chris Wirth, the co-founder and president of Volley Spiked Seltzer. “We felt that this is a product that is meant for a ‘beer moment,’ which is inherently more expansive than a ‘cocktail moment.’ Having a cocktail is a larger psychological commitment.”

The proliferation of spirits- and wine-based hard seltzers could, therefore, drive greater acceptance of the category among those who consider themselves more serious about beverages. Many of these craft hard seltzers — both FMB products and those based on spirits or wine — are also committed to ingredient and production transparency, which also helps with overall category perception.

“Malt-based seltzers with limited ingredient transparency are currently leading the pack, but we anticipate it’s only a matter of time before consumers begin expecting more transparency from their seltzers of choice,” says Wohld. “Stigmas against the larger hard seltzer category don’t necessarily apply to products that prioritize transparency and deliver on what the consumer wants.”

Some brands, like the malt-based Maha and tequila-based Volley, are so committed to transparency that they are printing ingredients on the front label. “At Volley, we believe that transparency within a product is the No. 1 priority,” says Wirth, noting that every Volley uses 100 percent blue agave tequila, sparkling water, and juice.

“Consumers care about what they put in their bodies and they want to understand what’s in it and how it’s made,” says Gill, noting that having a low-calorie option isn’t enough anymore. “That’s why we wanted to create a better hard seltzer option with ingredients you could read about on the label.”

Competition Breeds Innovation

In just a short amount of time, plenty of stereotypes, stigmas, and opinions have emerged around the hard seltzer category. However, this beverage style is in its infancy and is changing rapidly, so it’s important to keep an open mind about hard seltzer as a whole.

“I believe that as talented beverage formulation specialists get involved in the category, perceptions will change,” says Nicholas Greeninger, the CEO of Tolago Hard Seltzer, which is launching in August. “Big beer wants to commoditize the offering, but the consumer will have the final say, as they always do.”

“While there’s incredible diversity within wine and other long-established categories,” says Wohld, “the same cannot be said about the relatively new hard seltzer category.” Therefore, there’s plenty of room for growth and diversification — particularly as new and energetic innovators enter the category and create competition for the handful of dominant brands.

“As long as there’s competition, we’ll all continue to innovate and be creative,” says Miesieski, who notes that SweetWater is creating a new hard seltzer for 2021. “Consumers will demand more premium and higher-quality offerings, just like any other category.” It may seem like everyone and their mother is already drinking hard seltzer, but as new products push the boundaries of quality upward, there are sure to be even more hard seltzer fans ahead, from beverage novices to industry aficionados.