VinePair Podcast: What Does Hard Seltzer’s Rise Mean for Cheap Beer?VinePair
This October, VinePair is celebrating our second annual American Beer Month. From beer style basics to unexpected trends (pickle beer, anyone?), to historical deep dives and new developments in package design, expect an exploration of all that’s happening in breweries and taprooms across the United States all month long.
Inspired by one of VinePair’s latest pieces, Dave Infante’s Is Hard Seltzer Killing the Classic College Kegger?, co-hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe take the time to break down hard seltzer’s impact on college life. On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” the hosts explore emerging college drinking habits, the allure of cheap beer versus that of hard seltzer, and how light beer consumers have reacted to the hard seltzer boom.
Tune in to learn more about the trends Teeter, Sciarrino, and Geballe are seeing in cheap beer and hard seltzer consumption, and whether they think one category will overpower the other in the near future.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” We’re in the VinePair studio.
Z: No more phone booths!
A: No more phone booths. The studio got completed. It was supposed to be completed pre-Covid. It’s now done. We’re in a studio built by two amazing VinePair employees, Katie Brown and Keith Beavers, who is right now engineering the session.
Z: I believe we say on the ones and twos,
A: It’s pretty crazy back here. I’m really loving it. Zach, how’s the basement?
Z: It’s still good. Still full of wine, thankfully. Haven’t drank it all yet. You guys have to post some pictures in the studio. I want to see what it looks like.
A: We will. It’s not totally complete. It still needs one wall soundproofed, but it’s feeling pretty good in here. What are you both up to? Joanna, how was your weekend? What did you get into? What did you drink?
J: My weekend was OK. I can’t really remember it, to be honest with you. I went to dinner with a few friends the other night and had a mezcal cocktail with some sriracha.
A: That is weird.
J: It kind of burned my throat. I didn’t love it, I have to say. We did get a bottle of some Bonny Doon Picpoul, and I was very excited. I told my friends, “Guys, we have to get this.” It was really great.
A: Where were you?
J: We were at a restaurant called The Tyger in Chinatown. It was very good.
A: That’s where you also had the sriracha cocktail?
A: You know, I’m not a spicy cocktail person.
J: No, me neither. That was on me. I think people would have liked it.
Z: The thing about spicy cocktails to me — it was interesting when I interviewed the founder of Scrappy’s Bitters because he talked a little bit about this — is that there’s no good way to do it, for the most part, without putting hot sauce in, like sriracha. To me, the problem there is not so much the spice. It’s the texture. The cocktail can get really grainy or very vinegary if you use Tabasco. It’s just not a thing that I want in my cocktail. I don’t mind a little spice. I think that can be an interesting cocktail ingredient. Unless you’re having a Bloody Mary, where you’re already getting all that tomato juice, I don’t really want hot sauce in my drink.
J: Yeah. I think that was part of it.
A: It also just blows your palate out. I’m not into it. But I’m glad that you had Bonny Doon. It’s delicious. Zach, how’s the waiting going?
Z: Still waiting. We’re in this period of time now where we’re waiting for the baby, and my wife is totally off work. On Tuesday, we were actually able to go wine tasting, which is kind of cool. We haven’t done that in a while because our son is in preschool.
A: You mean you went wine tasting?
Z: No. We both went wine tasting. The wineries had the same confusion, but my wife is very comfortable having a little bit of wine while she’s pregnant. She has been the whole time and certainly is at this point. We went to a couple of wineries outside of Seattle, in Woodinville. We went to DeLille Cellars and Januik Novelty Hill, which are two sibling wineries. It was really nice. It was a nice-ish day. We were able to sit outside for a little bit, sip some wine, and do a thing that we haven’t done together since before the pandemic. We haven’t gone wine tasting anywhere. I’ve gone a few times for some work stuff, but even then, not very much. It was really lovely and a nice reminder that like this is a thing we can do.
A: Yeah, totally. it’s a thing that exists. It’s actually a great thing to take a newborn to because they just sleep anyhow. We will probably do it again later in October when our son’s at school and we can just pop off for a Tuesday or Wednesday little getaway. I’m looking forward to it.
A: Nice, man.
Z: What about you, Adam?
A: I had my in-laws in town this past weekend, so we had some adventures. I first went to a restaurant and had a really interesting experience. This will basically be a piggyback to our conversation last Tuesday about hybrids and things like that. I had a wine at dinner at this restaurant in Fort Greene.
Z: I know we’re going already. I like it.
A: It was super natural.
J: It was otherworldly.
A: Yes. I got a little bit bothered because, whenever we go out with family, I know they’re going to try to pay, but then they still give me the wine list. I don’t ever want to order bottles that Naomi or I would order. Even though I still think that they’re totally reasonable, my parents are from Auburn, Ala. Her parents are from Lancaster, Pa. They think a $75 to $85 bottle of wine is expensive, which is fair. Totally fair. They also live in a market where those are expensive bottles. This restaurant only had two bottles under $70, and everything else was over $100. What was really weird is that it was a very casual restaurant. I was kind of shocked that was the deal. I found this one wine. It was a wine from California and the blend was Zinfandel, Carignan, and Chenin Blanc. For that blend, it was only 12.5 percent alcohol. I remember sending Keith a picture of the bottle and he said “That blend should never be that low in alcohol. It just shouldn’t.”
Z: Not unless it’s 90 percent Chenin Blanc.
A: It was 10 percent Chenin Blanc. It was 70 percent Zinfandel.
A: It was all funk. It was just kombucha, basically. It was kind of disappointing because I could tell my in-laws didn’t like it, but that was the wine on the list that was the price I knew they’d be OK with. They were totally nice about it. They said, “Oh, this is interesting.”
J: That’s the word.
A: I knew they really didn’t like it. It was one of those things that made me think this is exactly what we talked about. I’m actually surprised they put the blend on it. It seemed like the makers thought, “We have some grapes. We made kombucha.”
J: Were you there for the food?
A: Yeah. The food is great. It goes to show that this is what’s happened in a lot of these places. This is just what the list is supposed to be now. We did get redeemed because the next night. I took them to Gage & Tollner, and we had an incredible experience. We had great cocktails and amazing wine. It was a bummer, though, because I really wanted to have a good time with them and have them enjoy the wine. I just could tell that wasn’t happening. I kept thinking to myself “Man, we just should’ve gotten cocktails.”
Z: This made me think about the way that restaurant goers can feel so held hostage by the wine list, especially if they don’t do a good job of giving you a lot of options at various price points. Having two wines under $100 is pretty bad. I get that New York City is a little bit of a different animal than most places. If the wines are going to be that “interesting,” that’s a lot to put on people. Why would you create that situation? Why do you want people to walk away from that and think, “Man, we had a great meal, but I really wish I could have had a wine I liked.” That’s such a bummer to me. I don’t think anyone, including the producers of those wines, want people to drink them while gritting their teeth and thinking this was the only option that they had. That’s how you turn people off wine.
A: It was totally a bummer. Otherwise, it was a great visit. Today, we’re going to talk about another topic we’ve talked about a little bit on the podcast, but always just in the intro section. This is based off of an article we ran this week on VinePair by Dave Infante, all about whether or not hard seltzer is killing the college kegger. We thought we’d expand that into the question of, do we think hard seltzers are ultimately going to kill light beer or cheap beer? I feel like, probably?
J: I don’t think so.
A: You don’t think so. Why? Hot take.
J: Dave talks about this in the article and talks to a number of college aged people, but it’s expensive.
A: Hard seltzer, you mean?
J: Hard seltzer’s expensive. If you’re going to buy a case of beer or, in this instance, a keg, it’s going to be a lot cheaper than going and buying a case of hard seltzer for much more money.
Z: What I wonder is, is that pricing difference necessary? Are the raw inputs, the costs of producing a hard seltzer, meaningfully more expensive than producing cheap beer?
Z: No. I think you’re going to see what happens when someone undercuts the current pricing. The thing about cheap beer that resonates is the cheap part. The beer part is kind of optional. A lot of college students, including in Dave’s piece, quoted this. I think this is not just true for college students, but for a lot of people who drink light beer or cheap beer. The things they want are inexpensive alcohol delivery service and inoffensive flavor. Seltzer might be able to deliver that better than cheap beer. With cheap beer, not everyone likes the taste. Plus, you add in the gluten intolerance thing, and there’s a lot of people that want something cheap that is palatable to them, and cheap beer ain’t it.
A: Based on what you just said, I kind of think I’m now going to agree with Joanna.
Z: Fair enough.
A: I actually think that when you are looking for something refreshing, I don’t know if I need to get pamplemoose, blood orange, and mango all up in my taste buds. Maybe I just basically want water. That is what a lot of cheap beer is. It’s a very refreshing, cold, light, somewhat malty beverage. At the end of the day, it’s completely inoffensive. I do think that when seltzers get really cheap, the flavors also get really nasty. I think they get even more artificial than they already taste, having tasted some of the very cheap hard seltzers. The other thing I think that we forget about with cheap beer is that there’s a culture around pitchers that you just will never have with hard seltzer. Maybe that’s going to be what we see. We’re just going to see buckets of Claws everywhere. There is, again, a nice thing about getting a pitcher of draft beer and hanging out. There is an appeal of the taste of draft. I’ve never heard people say that draft hard seltzer tastes better. It just happens to be that seltzer is being pushed through a draft because it’s helpful for the margins of Buffalo Wild Wings. Draft beer does have this nice carbonation that you don’t get in the can. You get that when you get it by the pitcher. Maybe that will also cause it to continue.
Z: Yeah. I want to be clear. I don’t think White Claw or whatever is coming for craft beer or anything like that. I would say it’s more of an unknown at this point. Just because there’s been a culture of a thing doesn’t mean that culture can’t change. One of the things that’s also very cleverly pointed out in Dave’s piece is that, especially in regards to things like the college kegger, this prolonged Covid period is scrambling a lot of what people’s behaviors were. There aren’t as many 5,000-person gatherings as there used to be on college campuses. There are, presumably, still some. A new freshman class enters every year. Hard seltzer’s still a very new category. Those people may have grown up — we know you shouldn’t drink under age and it’s illegal, but people do it — drinking hard seltzer in high school because it’s more palatable than cheap beer. Even if it’s a little more expensive, that may not be such a big obstacle for some of them. With the use case for cheap beer, I don’t believe that hard seltzer can’t do almost all of that if it figures it out, other than maybe that convivial thing Adam mentioned with the pitchers and all that. Maybe there’s still a place for both. I think you look at like some of the beer producers, though, and I don’t know if we have hard data on this, but Anheuser-Busch is clearly recognizing that their future might be producing Bud Light Seltzer more than Bud Light.
J: I think it’s very smart and strategic for them to have it, of course, because it’s capturing a part of the market. I don’t think that they’ll ever get rid of it or it will ever beat out their light beer.
A: If you start to really look at where seltzer is stealing share, one of the biggest places it’s stealing share is wine. We’re not talking high-end wine. We’re talking cheap wine, under $10 bottles. There are bottles that often get brought to parties like the kind we’re talking about. That drinker was never drinking the beer. They brought wine. We’ve had employees tell us that in college, they played beer pong with wine, because they just didn’t like beer. Some people that Dave talks to say that. They like seltzer because they’ve never liked beer. Now, it’s the thing that they can drink at these parties. That also still remains to be seen. I think Joanna is 100 percent on point here. It’s just very smart of Bud Light. It’s a great brand extension. Are they going to lose some Bud Light drinkers to Bud Light Seltzer? For sure. I think they’re also going to gain people who were not Bud Light drinkers into the brand of Bud Light who are interested in seltzer. Maybe that’s the one thing that’s on offer at their college campus or the sports bar. I will say, having walked around the neighborhood recently and looking into sports bars, I definitely see a mix of both. I see a lot of people drinking pitchers of beer. I also do see a lot of buckets of hard seltzer. The other thing I think is interesting about hard seltzer is that it’s usually one of two brands. You’ve got to like those brands to totally get in. The brands do not include Bud Light Seltzer, to be clear. It’s Truly and White Claw. If you don’t like either of those two, you’re probably going to stick to beer if you were already a beer drinker.
Z: I don’t think my point was that existing beer drinkers are going to en masse flee the beer category for seltzer. Some have. Some might. It’s more about who I guess you’d call “rising drinkers” are going to want.
A: Right. So your argument is that, is it so pervasive now that people whose first drink might have been a cheap beer is going to be a seltzer instead?
Z: Yeah. There’s someone quoted in Dave’s story who said, “I didn’t really even drink beer until I graduated college.” That is sort of unfathomable to me. I went to college with people who didn’t drink and I went to college with people who didn’t drink beer at all. The thought that someone would get through four years of college and had never tried beer because seltzer is so pervasive is crazy. I think we talked about this early on in the rise of seltzer — because our podcast is as old as the seltzer boom — is how one of the big selling points for seltzer and a big thing that’s commendable about it is that, unlike beer, it does not come gendered nearly as much. Drinking culture in college, because of a lot of things, has often been bifurcated by gender to some extent. The expectation is maybe that people want different things. Seltzer seems to be, to this point, a place where everyone can drink the same thing. That may not be a pitcher of beer that’s shared, but there’s that ability to have the same drink in everyone’s hands and the only distinction is what flavor you prefer, but no one’s looking down at you because you like to drink hard seltzer. I think that’s going to be a really powerful thing. I think it would be a mistake for producers of light beer to not see that the universality of the product is appealing to young drinkers who are just dipping their toes in it. So much of it in that age frame, too, is that you want to fit in. You want to blend in. You don’t want to be the person who causes a scene. You don’t want to be the person who has hard-to-satisfy taste or is drinking something different than everyone else. While a decade or two ago, that might have been circling up around the keg, now that’s opening a White Claw.
J: Yeah, I agree with that. I think that you’re absolutely right for this younger generation. What I think is really interesting is the older generation of light beer drinkers and what it’s been like for them to experience hard seltzer if they’re switching over or not. I was wondering if either of you had any thoughts on that.
A: If people that we know, who are older, are switching over?
J: Yeah. I don’t know that my parents would ever try a hard seltzer.
A: I was just sitting here wondering, do you get as bloated from seltzer as you used to get from beer? I remember, when we would drink a lot of beer, I’d get so bloated.
Z: No, I don’t think so.
A: But, why? Isn’t it just carbonated? Wouldn’t you? I can’t drink a lot of Pellegrino.
J: This is actually very interesting, because my partner Evan, who loves hard seltzer, was talking a lot about, “I can’t drink a lot of beer anymore. It makes me too full.” But he can crush White Claws, trust me.
A: Is it because it’s just water and sugar fermented as opposed to grain?
Z: Yes, I think so.
A: It’s basically not a bucket of liquid bread.
Z: Yeah. No one has ever called seltzer a hard seltzer liquid bread.
A: That’s so interesting. Huh.
Z: You were saying, Adam, about wanting something flavorless that’s kind of just alcoholic water to drink when it’s hot out. I actually think seltzer can do an even better job of that than beer. Or it can, at least. We’re still in this very early stage of the category where we’ve seen this incredible mushrooming of all these different brands. Someone is going to position themselves as — maybe not literally this branding — but the low-flavor, barely detectable because then it’s not offensive, cheap, crushable seltzer. There’s going to be a brand or brands that go down that route in the same way that we’ve seen some brands lean into higher alcohol. As the category grows, it’s going to diversify and separate out. To the question that Joanna posed about people turning away from beer for seltzer, including her partner, I don’t think that a person who’s a craft beer devotee might drink seltzer. Given a choice, though, they’re not going to give up IPAs, stouts, or sours for seltzer. Those people weren’t drinking a lot of cheap beer in the first place. It was striking to me to see one of these places where cheap beer has dominated — baseball games — and then going to a baseball game and seeing so many people walking around with Trulys. It was like the same person who would have had, three years ago, a Bud Light or a Coors Light.
A: At the games, what you normally see is not just a Bud Light, but a huge tall boy. Were they huge tall boys of Trulys?
Z: Oh yeah.
A: That’s so crazy.
J: I experienced that in September 2019 at a Giants game. I was shocked. All these people were drinking giant cans of hard seltzer.
A: It’s crazy. Thinking about it more, I do have friends who have switched over for sure. I think they would normally be light beer drinkers. That includes someone I’m related to — it may or may not be my brother-in-law — who enjoys, on the weekends when having family day or whatever, dumping Truly into his water bottle and hanging out in the backyard with the kids, drinking some Trulys. Hey, it’s Saturday, but like, I realized you couldn’t do that with beer. The whole point of a cheap light beer is that it’s good when it’s very cold. The second it starts to get warm, things change. There’s a reason that Coors Light says, “Taste the Rockies,” and to make sure you chill the can down as much as possible. It’s got to be blue. The second that Truly warms up, I would assume it starts to taste like warm, lemon- flavored Pellegrino or Perrier. You can put it in your water bottle and hang out with the kids. He’s having a drink on a Saturday, but he doesn’t need his toddler kids to see him drinking.
Z: You’re not supposed to let your toddler see your drink? Uh oh.
A: I don’t know.
J: The old Don Draper, get me another beer.
A: Yeah, exactly. I’ll never forget when my niece was really young, around 3 years old. She’s very precocious. We recorded a video of her where my sister-in-law was asking her what was on the table and she said, “Wine. Mommy’s wine.” Her mom was like, “Oh, really?” Then she said, “Here mommy. Have wine, mommy.”
Z: My son gets very confused when we’re not having wine with dinner. We don’t drink wine every night. We drink wine a fair number of nights. He says, “Why aren’t you drinking wine?” We say, “You know, we don’t want to tonight. He’s like, “Well, you should drink some wine.”
J: It’s so funny.
A: It’s really funny. My other nephew likes to take beers out of the fridge and give them to us and say “beer, beer.”
Z: That’s a well-trained child. I have one last thought I want to add to this. If hard seltzer does, in fact, largely replace cheap beer, I don’t know that I’d be sad about that.
A: That’s a bold statement.
Z: I don’t have warm fuzzies about Bud Light.
Z: I have certainly drank all those beers. I don’t have anything against them. I don’t root for them to stop existing. But to me, whenever I drink those beers, I would kind of rather be drinking something else. Maybe not a hard seltzer, but that’s rarely what I want.
A: We’ll do an in memoriam of all the great light beer brands that are gone, thanks to Zach. I don’t know, man. I think that there’s a place for both of them. I think, obviously, one will ultimately have higher sales than the other. I still think it remains to be seen. The writing on the wall right now is that it probably will be seltzer in the near future. I do think that there’s still going to be a place for cheap beer. I can’t see chefs at the end of their shifts being like, “Hey, let’s get a bucket of Trulys.”
Z: They already do, man. They already do.
A: No, they don’t.
Z: It was happening when I was still working in restaurants, man. People would get off work and they’d want seltzers. Not everyone. Some people would drink beers. There’s golf courses and all those places.
A: That, I see. The golf course makes sense.
Z: I’m just saying it was all starting to change. There are certainly people who are married to their identity as a beer drinker. I think a lot of people thought beer was the best fit for their need, until seltzer came along. Seltzer may do some of the things that beer did better than beer does at this point.
A: OK. Fair point. All right. Well, I guess it remains to be seen. If you are someone who listens to the podcast and you have become a hard seltzer drinker and used to be a cheap beer drinker, let us know. If you disagree with Zach, definitely let us know. Joanna, Zach, I’ll talk to you Friday.
J: See ya.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
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