Words: Do they matter? If you’re reading this, they probably matter to you. They certainly matter to me, your humble Hop Take columnist. Knowing lots of words, understanding their definitions, arranging them in meaningful sequences — these are all vital aspects of my ongoing project to not die penniless, you see. Despite an increasingly frontal assault from artificial intelligence-powered “bullshit machines,” I’m happy to report that that project is going fine-ish! But words, like everything else in this American maelstrom, are subject to the vagaries of the free market, and the contemporary beverage-alcohol market has no shortage of those.
For the past few years, we’ve seen semantic contradictions blossom by the case-equivalent, from hard soda and non-alcoholic “spirits,” to, uh… whatever Smooj is. Countless companies have sought fortune by ferrying an existing beverage style across the 0.0 percent ABV Rubicon, and many have found it. Precious few have dared attempt the return. Making a soft drink hard, then making that same hard drink soft, is a redundant alchemy that our language lacks the vocabulary to describe (politely, at least.) But no longer.
Last week, the trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights (BMI) reported that Mark Anthony Brands (MAB), the tight-lipped parent company behind White Claw, was planning to roll out a virgin version of the ubiquitous, segment-leading hard seltzer. Called White Claw 0%, the line extension is slated to arrive on shelves in January 2024 as a non-alcoholic hard seltzer — or as long-established vernacular would have it, “seltzer.”
Forget the looking glass, reader. We’re through the drinking glass, and have been for some time.
For those of you keeping score at home, some brief definitions are in order. Mineral water is the naturally occurring stuff that bubbles out of springs rich in potassium, sodium, and magnesium. It’s been around since… well, since forever, basically. Artificially carbonated water — what we now know as “seltzer” — was invented midway through the 18th century. Packaged flavored seltzer dates back at least 40 years. In other words, this soft-beverage segment and its various subsets were well established by the time Bon and Viv (née SpikedSeltzer) hit the scene early last decade. When MAB rolled out White Claw in 2016, it wasn’t the first hard seltzer, and it absolutely wasn’t the first seltzer-seltzer. But it came to define the former segment to the American drinking public, and remains its top seller in both dollars and volume even as its one-time rival, Truly, struggles to reinvent itself.
Having crossed the Rubicon once to great success, the brand has now set its sights on doing it again. How does one take a beverage brand from soft, to hard, and back to soft? A White Claw representative declined my request to interview an MAB executive about the strategy behind the impending launch of White Claw 0%, but we know the basics thanks to intrepid trade coverage from both BMI and Beer Business Daily (BBD), which published on the brand earlier this week.
The line will hit shelves at the top of next year with four “full-flavor” variants: black cherry cranberry, mango passion fruit, peach orange blossom, and lime yuzu, each clocking in at 15 calories per can (down from alcoholic White Claw’s segment-benchmarking 100 calories.) BMI has multiple sources claiming that White Claw 0% was the subject of a “last-minute national conference call” with MAB’s wholesalers in late August, which adds some intrigue — what could possibly be last-minute about entering a product segment that has been commercially available in this country since the first Reagan administration? — though nothing definitive. Most disturbingly for word respecters, the firm is calling the beverage a “non-alcoholic premium seltzer.”
On one hand, that phrase alone is deserving of a stiff sentence in Hop Take’s maximum-security buzzword prison on charges of disturbing the vernacular peace. The double negative cancels out, you sickos! You’re just making seltzer! We live in a society! Couple that with BBD’s report that MAB is touting White Claw 0% as a “never alc” brand — i.e., it’ll be made without alcohol, rather than de-alcoholized during a brewing process — and I’m ready to throw the whole book at these linguistic terrorists. Every seltzer was “never alc” by definition until White Claw hit it big and made such a distinction necessary in the first place. That’s not a thing! If you switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, then from e-cigarettes back to cigarettes, you are not suddenly smoking “battery-free e-cigarettes,” see? No matter how expedient it’d probably be to market them that way, we already had a term for this.
On the other hand, White Claw 0% has a seductive logic to it from where I’m sitting (and seething). BBD’s item on the brand notes that it “will be suggested line priced with regular White Claw.” If MAB can convince American drinkers to quench their non-alcoholic thirst at a premium beverage-alcohol price point, or even close, the firm stands to capture a lucrative new revenue stream with lower unit costs and way lower (as in, zero) excise tax obligations. It’s a huge “if,” and the available details about White Claw 0%’s positioning leave me unconvinced this is a lead-pipe lock for the firm. BBD reports that MAB hopes to position the N/A extension as a “grown-up” option with “‘badge’ value” and electrolytes — all fine ideas, but hardly groundbreaking ones in the rapidly niche-ifying specialty soft drink space.
Still, the idea behind White Claw 0% is sound, because of those market vagaries I mentioned earlier. We talk all the time about how every player of a certain size in this common-sense-defying market is diversifying into “total beverage” these days — and kinda-sorta must to remain competitive. That calculus, roughly speaking, goes something like: [(strong brands + achievable scale + increasingly omnibibulous consumer base) x (rivals all doing it + headlines about Gen Z drinking less) – potential flagship damage] ÷ potential future regulatory smackdown = profit. The formula looks pretty good on paper to giant beverage conglomerates with a stable of long-established, beloved, and easily alcohol-izable products. In practice, it’s not so simple (just ask PepsiCo.), but you can see why you might sign off on a soft-to-hard crossover line if you were a Big Soda executive, right?
MAB’s executives are running the same formula with White Claw 0%, just inverted. And why not? White Claw proved to a market still hung up on artisanal craft beer that there’s a real thirst for commodity bubbly booze water when it’s flavored in terms the average American drinker can understand. The brand already defied the conventional wisdom once, and made a mint in the process. Now, the value proposition is set, the brand is popular, the scale is scaling. If White Claw doesn’t take a run at “non-alcoholic premium seltzer” under its flagship banner, it’s leaving potential money on the table — something its parent company has proven very, very capable of avoiding.
On its site, MAB claims to be the fourth-largest brewery in the country; the Brewers Association, which tracks volumes annually across the United States’ beer industry, excludes the firm from its rankings on the basis that it produces no actual beer, only flavored malt beverages. On one hand: good, correct, “breweries” brew beer and words matter. On the other: Do they really, in today’s beverage-alcohol business? The fate of White Claw 0% turns on the answer. Through the drinking glass we go.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
College football season has returned, and this year it has brought with it an expanded roster of team-branded beers from breweries large and small hoping to cash in universities’ rapidly receding anxiety about plastering their logos on beverage-alcohol products. It’s a bit of a Wild West situation, and even the Great White North is getting involved: Labatt USA, the domestic purveyor of the eponymous lager, this week announced it’d inked a deal with Syracuse University for its Blue Light brand to be the “official Canadian import” of the school’s athletics department for the next three years.
Anchor SF Cooperative, the worker-led group aiming to bid on Anchor Brewing Co., has launched a fundraising page for grassroots donors… Weathered Souls Brewing Co.’s co-founder is seeking an amicable-sounding buyout from the Black Is Beautiful firm, cool opportunity for the right buyer-in… Just a few months removed from Anheuser-Busch InBev’s portfolio, Appalachian Mountain Brewery has a new packaging partner in fellow North Carolinian firm Green Man Brewing Co…
📉 …and downs
The “total beverage” backlash earns more mainstream ink, this time in The Wall Street Journal… O.G. industry consultant Bump Williams argues beer has effectively “priced itself out of competition” with spirits… It’s Big Pharma vs. Big Booze in a team-nobody showdown for our age as weight-loss drug Ozempic (et al.) shows indications of curbing alcohol cravings… Dogfish Head Brewing Co.’s new juice-forward Citrus Squall became a million-dollar brand on the quick, but the firm’s overall portfolio is down double digits in off-premise scans…