Rod Byers: Claw is the law
It’s common for November wine articles to include lists of wines for Thanksgiving. This year, no matter what wines grace your table, you can be certain that a can of White Claw will be somewhere among them.
In case you don’t shop the wine cooler section of the liquor aisle, you may not have noticed there is a rumble going on in there. White Claw has emerged not just as the leader in the rapidly growing category of hard seltzer but as a cultural phenomenon.
For starters, hard seltzer is flavored, carbonated water, with alcohol.
According to Neilson, hard seltzer sales have increased by more than 200% in the past year. Hard seltzer was the top growing segment in the beer category during the all-important Fourth of July weekend this year.
Wait. The beer category? How did water with alcohol get to be beer? How did water with alcohol get to be anything?
Like any popular idea, it’s all about timing.
White Claw championed 2019’s “summer of hard seltzer” as the run-away favorite brand but it didn’t come out of nowhere. White Claw itself has been on the market since 2016 with roots going back to the days of hanging ten on your longboard while sipping a California Cooler.
In case you missed those, California Coolers were introduced in 1976 by a couple of guys from Lodi. They linked the slightly fizzy white wine and fruit-flavored drink, basically sangria, with images of a California beach lifestyle. They sold millions of cases.
Coolers proved a popular alternative; less filling than beer, less potent than wine. By the early 1980s giants like Seagrams and Gallo were big players. Those were the days before craft beer and when wine coolers were actually made with wine.
Things changed dramatically in 1991 with a change in federal wine taxes. Wine was raised over six hundred percent, from seventeen cents per gallon to $1.07 per gallon. Beer was taxed much lower.
By the end of 1991 wine coolers started morphing into beer coolers. To save taxes producers were using malt instead of grapes as the base product, creating a new category called Fermented Malt Beverages.
While wine cooler producers weren’t exactly broadcasting the news, Coors was blaring its horn in 1993 over the rollout of Zima, the first clear malt beverage to hit the market. They had a huge marketing campaign and an estimated 70% of the American drinking public tried one. The problem was, not enough of them tried a second one. Sales declined 50% after the first year.
Some argued it was a question of taste, or bad taste, but it seems more complicated. In spite of significant effort, Zima never caught on with male beer drinkers. It did become popular with young female drinkers earning a reputation as either “girly beer” or a “girly man drink.”
A variety of products followed Zima including Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice and Redd’s Apple Ale, all trying to find that crossover sweet spot but mostly failed to break the gender barrier. The entire category was given the insulting and derogatory name “bitch beer.”
That was accentuated by an accompanying explosion of wild flavors like Pina Colada, Salty Persimmon or Sour Watermelon making them appear even more female-centric.
When coolers were made out of wine, the wine itself had a limiting effect on what other flavors went well with it. Once drinks were malt-based, that limitation went away. Plus, the exotic flavors helped cover any residual malty flavor left over from the brewing process.
Meanwhile, during approximately the same time span there was another unrelated trend rippling across the land: bottled water.
The final decades of the twentieth century were early days in the health and fitness trend, including the food revolution, exhorting us to a healthier lifestyle.
Fast forward to today and we see Millennials as the embodiment of decades-long evolving trends. As a group, Millennials are more health and fitness conscious. When it comes to beverages they are more interested in low-alcohol and no-alcohol drinks as part of that healthier lifestyle.
The genius of White Claw is combining the bottled water, health and fitness trend with the good times vibe of a summer party. Water with alcohol.
White Claw has not only managed to drape itself with a healthy aura conflating hydrating and drinking, it has got guys drinking it. It’s low in sugar, calories and carbs, plus, it’s gluten free — all buzz words that work across gender lines.
It also helped that White Claw switched from a malt-based to a sugar-based ferment resulting in a cleaner taste with no malty flavor.
White Claw is slightly fizzy, vaguely fruity and mildly sweet. Paradoxically, it appears popular in part because of its bland, simple flavors.
The dramatic game changer came earlier this summer when a comedian put out a satirical White Claw video. In spite of White Claw issuing a cease and desist order, the video rocketed into the self-perpetuating social media stratosphere, energized in large part by young, male consumers making it even more okay for other guys to drink it.
Now, back to the wine for your Holiday table. I suggest backing off oaked Chards and robust Cabs in favor of lighter and fruitier Zins, Pinots, Rieslings and Chenin Blancs. Get wild and try an Albarino or Gruner Veltliner, or maybe Nero D’Avola or Grenache.
If there is one around, try a White Claw.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-802-7172.
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