The seltzer wave is breaking across New Zealand this summer, creating a flood of alcoholic sparkling water.
Wave is more than a useful metaphor – the seltzer craze that’s swept the United States over the past three years is driven by a brand called White Claw, which supposedly takes its name from a three-crested wave. This wave may or may not exist, it’s hard to tell. Google “White Claw” and everything – literally everything – is about the spiked seltzer. They’ve SEO’d that term to death. White Claw is so popular there was a late-summer crisis in the US last year when stocks ran low.
Leading New Zealand manufacturers have been watching the US trend for some time and when the wave showed no signs of petering out, it was only natural the concept sweep ashore here.
The problem for Kiwis is … what is seltzer?
It’s something Brits had to deal with when the first seltzers arrived there this northern summer, with producers having to explain it wasn’t Alka-Seltzer, the effervescent antacid tablet.
“The term seltzer is not readily understood by New Zealanders,” says Fiona Marston, senior marketing manager at DB, “and one of the things we have to do is a bit of education as to what a seltzer is.
“It really just means sparkling.”
While most brands hitting the shelves now are called seltzer, one of the early-to-market brands – Native – figured seltzer was too hard and went with “hard sparkling” for their offering. Tui also launched a of vodka-based “hard soda” which a cynic might call a rebranded RTD.
But “hard” is a very American expression for alcohol and is unlikely to work in New Zealand says Lion’s general manager of craft Dave Pearce.
“People in New Zealand may understand what seltzer means, or are on that journey,” says Pearce, “but I’m not sure people will understand what the ‘hard’ means. ‘Spiked’ is also used as a prefix in America – but this also isn’t the right term for New Zealand and it has different connotations here.”
Both Lion and DB have omitted the word “hard” from their products.
Pearce, who has studied the seltzer phenomenon in depth says that “being very American name is both a good thing and a bad thing”.
“For some people it will be a positive because they‘ve read about hard seltzer or seen White Claw advertising overseas but for the other people not as fond of American culture it might be a negative.”
The bottom line is that an alcoholic seltzer looks and tastes like flavoured sparkling water but has around 4 to 5 per cent alcohol. How breweries create that look and taste varies but critically in New Zealand, the method determines where it can be sold.
The most common process in American is to ferment cane or corn sugar, although some producers use vodka – a method adopted by Motueka-based Greenhill Seltzer. But under New Zealand rules, sugar- or vodka-derived seltzers cannot be cold in supermarkets.
So, the other ways to make a “seltzer” are to create a super-pale, neutral beer or use cider as the base, both of which are grocery-compliant.
DB is the first of the big breweries with a beer-based product in supermarkets with its Club Setter Seltzer alongside global brand Pirana.
Marston from DB says brewing a super-light beer proved a real challenge for the brew team.
“These are 100 per cent beer-based – they use the same ingredients and the same brewing process. It was a big challenge for our master brewer Dave Eaton. It’s been quite a journey as he’s been working on this for 12 months.
“They’re very pale – nearly clear. There’s a faint golden tinge because it’s made with all same ingredients as beer.”
The irony is that seltzer is both a beer and an alternative to beer.
“Beer consumption in New Zealand has been in decline for past 10 years – there’s carb and calorie content [and] we’re finding consumers are not enjoying the more bitter beers.
“I think we’ll re-introduce, or introduce, people to the beer category through seltzer.”
Lion are also working on a beer-based seltzer but for now are happy to be in liquor stores with Berg, where the alcohol is made the White Claw way, from a sugar base. “Our brewers have found it an interesting and difficult challenge to brew a beer that has the right characteristics for a seltzer rather than traditional beer characteristics,” says Pearce.
Despite the difficulties of producing these drinks and then explaining what they are, selling them looks like the easy part.
That’s because seltzers hit all the touch points for young consumers: low sugar, low calorie, low carbohydrate, and in many cases, they’ll be labelled gluten-free is the alcohol is derived from a non-gluten source.
That wellbeing element of the marketing riffs off the surging popularity of low carb beer and reflects some of the marketing associated with aspirational RTD brands such as Pal’s and Part Times Rangers.
“These are definitely tapping into that trend where consumers are looking for products lower in sugar, lower in calories, lower in carbs,” says Marston. “And we’re finding that people are interested in the information on the nutrition panel. We’re definitely tapping into those lifestyle trends.”
Pearce says consumers do need to watch out for companies making health claims about their products.
“The wellbeing aspect is important. It’s a bit like the rise of low carb beer – but it’s a relatively better for you positioning. You can’t make wellbeing claims on alcohol and it’s not a product that should be marketed as health drink. But seltzer will have relatively less calories, lower sugar and it can make those claims versus a vodka RTD or a full-strength beer.”
Analysts in America also note another factor behind the rise of White Claw and similar brands: the minimalist flavour is a tonic for a younger audience overwhelmed by biggest trends of the past decade – high ABV craft beers in artistic cans that seem to require an arcane knowledge of hops and obscure styles or high-octane multi-step, complicated cocktails. The beauty of a seltzer is that it’s cold, fizzy and fruity and you don’t have to think too much about it.
What the big breweries have in common despite contrasting methods are taste profiles based on citrus, watermelon, berry and tropical fruits.
Differing slightly in method but adhering to the flavours, craft brewer Good George has opted for a cider-base seltzer, and even more complicated product to get into grocery.
The rules around selling a cider in supermarket means they had to use pure juices, not flavourings, and so their six-pack of Mandarin & Lime Seltzer is slightly more expensive than 10-pack offerings from Lion and DB, says Good George brewing director Brian Watson.
“We have lots of government agencies looking over our shoulder from MPI, Liquor Licensing and the Commerce Commission. So, we have moved ahead very cautiously,” Watson says.
Their seltzer is diluted with soda water and has fresh mandarin, lemon and lime juice and while it pours a mandarin-colour unlike their rivals’ clear offerings, it sticks to the low in sugar, gluten-free, low calorie marketing recipe.
Whether seltzers are beer, cider, sugar or vodka-based, one thing they’re not is RTDs.
But at the same time they are a hat-tip to the disruptive work done in the RTD sector by the likes of Pal’s and Part Time Rangers,” says Pearce.
“Pal’s and Part Time Rangers are not seltzers but they are tapping into the same insights driving seltzers in other markets around the world – something different, something relatively better for you, something light-tasting – so you could bucket them as part of that wider trend.
“They are very social media-driven and the market is skewed towards people in their 20s which is in keeping with the seltzer market in the US.”