PJ Loughran is plenty familiar with dehydration. While working for Superfly, the company that produces the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands music festivals, he saw firsthand the rigors of long-haul partying.

“People start drinking in the early afternoon and keep going until the sun comes up,” Loughran says. Though water stations were plentiful, remembering to hydrate is hard when happy hour is every hour. “I kept thinking, it would be amazing if somebody created a Gatorade with booze or something that encouraged better hydration.”

He iced the idea until the pandemic when his entrepreneurial friend Jake Vogel, who worked in the boating industry, approached him to brainstorm businesses, including some trademarked names. “One of them was Funny Water,” Loughran says. Maybe it could be a nutritional water?

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Better yet, Loughran thought, what about a lightly boozy water that could be consumed over long stretches of time by a beach, on a boat, or at a music festival? In 2021, the duo introduced the 3.75 percent ABV Funny Water, carving a new niche in non-carbonated alcoholic drinks that, unlike wine or most cocktails, aren’t too strong.

When people first try flavors of no-sugar Funny Water like watermelon, a common refrain is that drinkers “hate bubbles,” says Loughran, the company’s co-founder and chief brand and marketing officer. “They would drink this all the time, but they didn’t know it existed.”

These are interesting days for carbon dioxide. Drinkers fetishize crisp pilsners topped with foamy poofs, while hard seltzers still bubble across a $3 billion landscape. But prickly bubbles, which don’t tickle everyone’s fancy, and carbonation can trigger acid reflux. Bloating and burping are proof that life’s not always a gas.

Seeking new audiences, companies are packaging hard teas, alcoholic refreshers, and fruit-infused vodka waters that deliver flavor, not fizz, making for smoother drinking.

The Preferences for Non-Carbonated Beverages Is Shifting

Over the last quarter-century, annual soda consumption has steadily declined from its 1998 peak of around 54 gallons per person as consumers steadily embraced less calorific drinks like non-alcoholic sparkling waters, which paved the way for the hard-seltzer boom. By 2016, Americans drank more bottled water than soda, hydrating with Poland Spring and flavored waters like Vitaminwater, Propel, and Hint Water.

Kids in the 2010s, who are now coming of legal drinking age, grew up with flavored waters as the norm. Generation Z is simply not as conditioned to carbonation.

“There’s this huge demographic that can now drink alcohol, but they want it to taste and feel familiar to what they’ve been drinking for the last 10 or 15 years,” says Andrew Norlin, the chief commercial officer for NOCA Beverages.

In 2019, a trio of University of New Hampshire graduates founded one of the first bubble-free booze companies, NOCA — a portmanteau of non-carbonated — as a counterpoint to then-ascendant hard seltzers.

NOCA now offers four different electrolyte-enhanced brands based on popular, typically non-carbonated beverages. They include Weekend Water, Livin’ Lemonade, 8 percent ABV Breezy Tropical Juice, and Too Turnt Tea, a collaboration with social media star TooTurntTony. “For every person who likes hard seltzer, there’s going to be one who doesn’t,” says cofounder Galen Hand.

Herein lie’s beverage alcohol’s multibillion-dollar question: What does Gen Z want to drink? Booze? No booze? Giant jugs of BORG?

Dropping carbonation might bring younger consumers to the party. As Molson Coors Beverage Company conducted research on of-age Gen Z drinkers, the company discovered that “bloating or feeling full was a real pain point,” says Amanda DeVore, the senior director marketing innovation for Molson Coors. “There’s a real desire for drinks without carbonation.”

Molson Coors began developing a new brand by exploring refreshing fruity beverages, a growing trend at Dunkin’ and Starbucks. “They’re non-carbonated, easy to drink, and flavorful,” DeVore says. The refreshers served as one point of inspiration for the Happy Thursday spiked refreshers that Molson Coors released in April.

“Basically everyone in America, by the time they are 8 years old, has tried iced tea and lemonade. We’ve tried to make the best version of that with premium liquid, cool branding, and a nutrition panel that will not give you diabetes.”

The debut flavors include pineapple starfruit and mango passion fruit, boasting “bubble free” in big letters on the label. Happy Thursday is “defined by a few things that Gen Z really likes,” DeVore says.

Highlighting a drink’s lack of carbonation is a smart sales pitch. Twisted Tea, which is owned by Boston Beer Company, has become a category-defining behemoth with broadly appealing flavors and, like iced tea, zero carbonation.

Drinkers “love the fact that Twisted Tea isn’t carbonated because it means for easier, longer drinking opportunities throughout the day,” says Erica Taylor, the senior brand director for Twisted Tea.

This spring, Boston Beer also applied the non-carbonated template to Sun Cruiser Iced Tea & Vodka, its spirited entry into the ready-to-drink realm. “In a sea of carbonation, drinks without bubbles are a welcomed option,” Taylor says.

Canned cocktail brand High Noon, owned by E. & J. Gallo Winery, became America’s top-selling canned cocktail by formulating spritzy seltzers with fruit juice and spirits. But even prior to the pandemic, Britt West, the executive vice president and general manager at Gallo, began noticing a burgeoning trend in big college-town markets like Madison, Wis.

“It’s hilarious. We’ll go to a college bar and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, my mom loves it. I introduced her to it and I brought it home from college.’”

“We were seeing more and more spirits consumed with just water,” West says. This spring, High Noon is taking aim at the bubble-free RTD category with vodka iced teas, giving drinkers options during a night out when people “switch in and out and carbonation and non-carbonation,” West says.

Hard tea is a bubble-free boom category filling “an unmet need,” says Clement Pappas, the CEO of Stateside Vodka’s fast-growing Surfside range of vodka-based iced teas and lemonades.

Last year, its 100-calorie canned cocktails were available in seven states. This year, the brand is now sold in 48 states. Two keys to that growth are low sugar and high familiarity.

“Basically everyone in America, by the time they are 8 years old, has tried iced tea and lemonade,” Pappas says. “We’ve tried to make the best version of that with premium liquid, cool branding, and a nutrition panel that will not give you diabetes.”

Hating Bubbles Isn’t Just for Gen Z

Ditching bubbles isn’t just the domain of 20-somethings. Indiana mom Jill Morrison, no big fan of seltzer, turned her homemade blend of vodka and fruit juice into the non-carbonated Mom Water line of fruited vodka drinks. Jill and her husband, Bryce, introduced the brand in 2021 and it’s now sold in more than 35 states at national chains including Target.

“I’ll never forget the main buyer’s words,” Bryce says. “He said, ‘This is made for Target.’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, we don’t disagree.’”

“I personally struggled to get through a seltzer before it lost its pizzazz.”

Mom Water is built around the idea of fancy hotel spa water — the kind with fruit floating inside — and its flavors are named after women. (Julie is passion fruit, while Kathy is blackberry lime.) The brand resonates beyond the PTA set. Of-age college students are embracing the brand, both for the ease of drinking and, funny enough, association with their parents.

“It’s hilarious,” Bryce says. “We’ll go to a college bar and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, my mom loves it. I introduced her to it and I brought it home from college.’”

Don’t fret, dads. Last year, the Morrisons created the tequila-driven Dad Water. (Meet Gary! He’s pineapple jalapeño). No matter the brand, a lack of carbonation means drinkers can sip the alcoholic waters ice cold, perhaps frozen into ice cubes, or at room temperature and forgotten about until later.

“I personally struggled to get through a seltzer before it lost its pizzazz,” Jill says.

Even in beer, carbonation is not always a net positive. Cory King, the brewer and owner of Side Project Brewing in St. Louis, will serve certain high-alcohol, barrel-aged imperial stouts absolutely still. “The addition of carbonic acid does not need to be in there,” he says. Carbon dioxide accentuates the roastiness and alcohol, “creating corners in an otherwise smooth beer. That sharpness really deters from the sweetness and decadence.”

Sipping still beer can let drinkers slip into a brewer’s shoes. Pulling barrel samples, “I spend more time drinking still beer than I do carbonated beer at work,” King says.

Bubbles are not the be-all and end-all of drinking alcohol. Rosé wine and water can be sparkling or not, and dropping ice cubes into bourbon is just DIY hard water. The beverage-alcohol industry works to deliver pleasure and flavor with the fewest sticking points, adjusting in time with changing tastes — yesterday’s bitter West Coast IPAs and today’s smooth and fruity hazy IPAs. The latest trend might not be bubbling up.

Says Gallo’s West, “There’s only so much carbonation that today’s consumer wants.”

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