Hard seltzers continue to dominate the talk of the beer industry this summer, and rightfully so with market research firm Nielsen projecting the industry to reach $1 billion by the end of 2019.
The seltzer trend has even begun to bleed into pop culture, with comedian Trevor Wallace coining the phrase “ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws,” and seltzer taking away another occasion once owned by beer — country music — with singer-songwriter Mark Leach’s ode to White Claw, “Drinkin’ Claws.”
The culmination of the so-called summer of seltzer — if it actually does prove seasonal — may come on September 14, with the “Fizz Fight” in Denver. The festival’s organizers are billing the event as “America’s First Hard Seltzer Festival & Tasting Competition.” Such a designation has already garnered the inaugural event coverage in Esquire, The New York Post, The Denver Post, Business Insider and other outlets.
Former Denver Post cannabis critic Jake Browne is among the festival’s organizers. He told Brewbound Fizz Fight is a way for consumers to sample local and regional hard seltzer brands alongside top-selling brands White Claw and Truly Hard Seltzer. For the brands, he added, the event’s competition is an opportunity “to start making waves.”
“Would I say Fizz Fight is going to be a competition that helps take a smaller brand national, it’s entirely possible,” he said. “Through a tasting competition, sometimes one big win is all it takes to elevate a brand.”
Browne pointed to Milwaukee-based PRESS Premium Alcohol Seltzer and Bai founder Ben Weiss’ Crook & Marker as brands that “might be the next big players” in the segment.
“So here’s an opportunity for them to really test what they have in a unique setting,” he said.
Beyond those brands and the usual suspects (White Claw, Truly and Anheuser-Busch’s Bon & Viv), Fizz Fight will feature offerings from more than 20 brands, including MillerCoors’ Henry’s Hard Sparkling Water, Big Sky Brewing’s Spiked Seltzer, Upslope Brewing’s Spiked Snowmelt, and Oskar Blues’ Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Water. In addition to hard seltzers made by beer companies, Fizz Fight will feature seltzers made by spirits companies.
According to Browne, 1,000 tickets are available for each of Fizz Fight’s two sessions. So far, a total of 244 tickets have been sold.
“Denver is notoriously a market where people buy late, so we are incredibly enthused by these pre-sells, especially with zero ad dollars spent yet,” he said.
So who is buying the tickets? Browne said women have purchased 80 percent of the tickets thus far, and he expects the crowd to remain predominantly female, between the ages of 28 and 35. Browne also hopes the event, which is taking place at Colorado’s largest LGBTQ venue, EXDO Tracks, will attract LGBTQ consumers.
“We’re seeing that this is a category that speaks to people who may not feel like they have a place at a traditional beer festival,” Browne said.
Browne explained that only about 2% to 5% of consumers have tried hard seltzers, and Fizz Fight will offer consumers an opportunity to explore “new flavors and new styles.” It will also be an opportunity to educate consumers on how hard seltzers are made.
“There are so many discussions that haven’t been had yet around craft seltzer,” he said. “So we’re really beginning to see the birth of the first generation of hard seltzer geeks that are going to go out there and have a chance to learn so much and become evangelists for this really exciting category.”
Don’t expect Fizz Fight to be a one-off festival, either. Browne said the organizers are targeting a sequel in Los Angeles this October, although a venue has yet to be secured, and a return to Denver next year. The organizers are also eyeing future events in Austin, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, San Diego, and Tucson, Arizona.
Although Fizz Fight may be the first brand agnostic seltzer festival, St. Petersburg, Florida-based 3 Daughters held its “Inaugural Florida Hard Seltzer Fest” this past July. That event, which sold all 400 tickets, featured cocktails made with 3 Daughters’ “Florida Hard Seltzer” brand alongside Tito’s Vodka, Leigh Harting, co-owner of 3 Daughters, told Brewbound.
The strong turnout has Harting looking ahead to 2020.
“We will definitely do it again,” she said. “I think these types of festivals will have some staying power.”
Even national trade group the Brewers Association (BA) is considering a more open-minded approach with its signature event, the Great American Beer Festival.
BA senior vice president Paul Gatza said organizers have “bounced around” a lot of ideas over the years, including possibly including an international pavilion or an area dedicated to beers from a specific country. Those discussions have recently veered toward incorporating other alcoholic beverages made by its members — including hard seltzers, hard kombucha and other offerings — at events such as GABF. Nevertheless, Gatza stressed that no changes are imminent.
“We’re not there now, but will we be there in another couple of years? It’s very possible,” he said. “We want to keep the event relevant, if that relevancy can be aided by that, it’s something we’ll continue to discuss and look at.”
That open-minded posture was evident during last year’s GABF, which was sponsored by Pernod Ricard-owned Jameson Irish Whiskey and featured a 13,000 sq. ft. Jameson Caskmates barrel-aged beer garden (although no spirits were served at the festival). An expanded version of the beer garden will return during this year’s festival October 3-5 at the Colorado Convention Center.