Hard seltzer arrived in Britain in early 2019 in the form of Balans, an “Aqua Spritz” made by Swedish cidermaker Kopparberg. Launched with a listing in ASDA, the nation’s third largest supermarket chain, it sold itself on its lack of calories. There were just 60, drinkers were assured, in each delicately designed 250-milliliter (roughly 8-ounce) can. “With Balans, we’re helping consumers say no to ‘maybe next time’ and ‘yes’ to embracing 2019,” insisted Rob Salvesen, head of marketing, in a press release.

Alas, British consumers appear to have stuck with “maybe next time”: Balans was withdrawn from the market a year after launch. It’s far from the only hard seltzer, though, to have beaten a hasty retreat from the U.K. Plenty more have come and gone in the past three years, despite acres of positive press coverage and a shedload of marketing cash.

Thus far, the drink that took America by storm during the summers of 2018 and 2019, and which remains stunningly popular (the U.S. market was worth $4.9 billion in the 52-week period ending Nov. 28, 2021, according to IRI data for multi-outlet, convenience, and liquor stores), has fizzled rather than flown across the Atlantic. As a market sector, it reached just $19 million (16.9 million pounds) this summer, according to off- and on-premises figures from data firm Nielsen. That’s about the same as Scrumpy Jack, a cider ranked outside Britain’s 10 top best-selling brands.

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There are no hard seltzers in the top 10 sellers in the ready-to-drink (RTD) category, which is dominated by spirit-based mixed drinks, according to drinks writer Emma Eversham. “I remember getting press releases three years ago, saying it was going to be the next big thing,” says Eversham, who contributes to industry publication The Grocer. “But where is it? It hasn’t progressed, and it hasn’t had anything like the impact it had in the States.”

The reasons for this are complex, and include the 2020 arrival of Covid-19 plus the financial impact of Brexit and the ongoing Ukraine conflict. But what’s most interesting is how hard seltzer’s U.K. failure illustrates the ways in which British drinking culture is subtly but significantly different from its American counterpart.

No Room at the Inn

The last American drinks concept to go gangbusters in the U.K. was craft beer, which has transformed the landscape of British beer since it arrived about 15 years ago. Its success had much to do with finding an easy niche in which to settle — a gap desperate to be filled. Craft beer was fresh and modern when it arrived on British soil, in a market that had grown stale and rather dull.

No such opportunity exists for hard seltzer, which found spirit-based RTDs already buoyant when it landed. Many of the spirit-based RTDs are equally low-calorie: Gordon’s Pink Gin and Diet Tonic, for example, is 107 calories per can, compared to 100 for White Claw, Britain’s best-selling hard seltzer. And, anyway, British regulations on advertising the “health benefits” of alcoholic drinks are stringent. Two adverts for Served Hard Seltzer, a brand partly owned by singer Ellie Goulding, fell foul of regulators in June because nutritional claims are not allowed for alcoholic drinks.

By most accounts, hard seltzer appealed to U.S. beer drinkers looking for a healthier option. British beer drinkers — a group that is overwhelmingly male, and thus, some surveys suggest, less likely to regard calorific content as a key factor in deciding what to eat or drink — have proven a harder nut to crack. (A 2018 report by industry lobbyists Dea Latis found just 17 percent of British women drink beer at least once a week.)

This means that the drink has had to find most of its customers elsewhere. “In [British] supermarkets, hard seltzer does take customers from beer, as it’s the largest category,” says Charlie Markland, creator of hard seltzer brand Bodega Bay, which is distributed by Molson Coors. “There is a disproportionately larger steal, though, from fruit cider, wine, and spirit mixes, which reflects the true consumer habit change.”

The signs were there as soon as it arrived in 2019. That year, James Clay, a major importer of high-quality beer from around the world, brought in much-feted hard seltzers made by U.S. breweries Two Roads and Oskar Blues — but they proved a difficult sell. In the words of Joe Dick, communications and business development manager, “the market didn’t take to it at all.”

Pubs have proven a longstanding problem, too, although Bodega Bay has done better than most, with more than 400 venues stocking its product. Wetherspoons, a nationwide chain of around 850 budget-priced pubs, stocks two brands, Bud Light and Mike’s, having ditched the hard seltzer Kopparberg introduced into the U.K. in the wake of Balans’ departure. A Wetherspoons spokesman refused to comment on how well the remaining SKUs sell.

Hard seltzer remains largely absent in more beer-focused places, like the six London venues owned by pub chain Grace Land, including The Kings Arms in Bethnal Green and The Axe in Stoke Newington. “It’s hard for me to get excited about them,” says co-owner Anselm Chatwin. “If the demand from our customers grew, we would probably add one to our fridges.”

Hard Seltzer Squeezed Out in Supermarkets

Given how much of Britain’s drinking happens in pubs, bars, and restaurants — pre-pandemic, nearly 30 percent of British alcohol sales were on-premise, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies — this is a big issue, but it would be less troubling if hard seltzer was prominent in supermarkets. At one stage, that looked possible, with Tesco (the country’s biggest supermarket chain) telling The Grocer back in 2020 that it was aiming to launch “dedicated hard seltzer bays.” But interest has waned.

Now, hard seltzers can be hard to find in supermarkets, where they are crowded out by spirits-based RTDs. A recent survey of options in major supermarkets close to my home in southeast London told a grim tale. There were two brands on sale at Tesco (White Claw and Corona), one at second-largest supermarket chain Sainsbury’s (White Claw), and none at ASDA.

Pre-mixed, spirits-based canned drinks, from a Malibu-branded Piña Colada to Tanqueray Gin and Tonic, heavily outnumbered hard seltzers in all three places. Further damning indictment comes by way of Diageo, the global drinks giant that dominates the U.K. spirits market. The international alcohol conglomerate offers multiple RTDs in the U.K. — such as those made with Gordon’s Gin — but has barely dabbled in the hard seltzer space.

This is a key factor in hard seltzer’s failure in the U.K. Diageo’s refusal to get heavily involved in hard seltzers in the U.S. wasn’t decisive, because brewers made much of the running; in the U.K, where they haven’t, it has been.

That’s not the whole story, though. It may be that Britons just don’t like the flavor of hard seltzers. “Compared to spirit-based drinks, hard seltzer doesn’t pack a [flavor] punch,” says Eversham, adding that health concerns aren’t a decisive factor when Britons are deciding what to drink. “In the U.K., many drinkers are conditioned to expect RTDs to be quite sweet.” Incidentally, sweetness fueled the last RTD boom, in the 1990s, when “alcopops” like Hooper’s Hooch (an alcoholic lemonade) became hugely popular among younger drinkers.

Can Younger Brits Save Hard Seltzer?

This summer, you couldn’t move at a British music festival without bumping into a hard seltzer stand. White Claw spent $5 million on a variety of festivals, from All Points East in London to Parklife in Manchester; Fountain was the official supplier at Reading and Leeds, two of the U.K.’s biggest, best-established festivals; and Viper, a brand owned by Asahi, served at Hyde Park Calling, a series of huge concerts including marquee acts in the heart of London.

It’s a sensible attempt to focus on younger drinkers, although Markland says Britain’s financial difficulties — related to Brexit and the Ukraine conflict — are not helping. “This summer, we did 23 festivals, and the spend per head across all food and drink was down 30 percent,” he says. “That’s a cost-of-living issue. Hard seltzer is actually the fourth biggest-selling alcohol category [at these festivals], up from eighth in 2019, but festivals were a disaster all round this year.”

There are problems that go beyond that, though. The name “hard seltzer” remains a fundamental issue. To British ears, “hard seltzer” sounds more like a punishment than a pleasure: “hard” is not a common term for alcoholic drinks here, while seltzer is virtually unknown. But it’s not easy coming up with an alternative, as Balans discovered with Aqua Spritz. To British drinkers, hard seltzer elicits a shrug — meanwhile, alcoholic sparkling water sounds positively unappetizing.

“There needs to be some education on that term,” says Eversham. “Consumers are like: ‘What is it? What am I drinking?’ No-one really knows what it is in the U.K.”

The Rise of Vodka Soda

All is not lost, though. If you speak to producers, they’ll tell you that there’s still plenty of time for hard seltzer to conquer the U.K., as craft beer did before it. Venues like Bō KIRI, a can bar in Peckham, a fashionable corner of South London, may give it the cultural cachet it lacks. The bar offers a variety of high-end seltzers alongside other canned drinks, from wine to cocktails.

Perhaps. It could be, though, that the chance has already come and gone. Eversham highlights the rise of Goldling, an RTD brand that makes flavored vodka soda drinks — a concept easily understandable to British consumers — with the same calorie count as hard seltzer. Ironically, given that this is a trend now playing out in hard seltzer’s U.S. homeland, plenty of producers are moving in that direction and toward canned cocktails. The mood music, it seems, is clear: “Maybe Next Time” is looking increasingly like “Probably Never.”

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