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College Kids Are Ditching Beer and Binge-Drinking Hard Seltzer

Alcoholic sparkling water has matched the overnight success of Juul — thanks to a wellness-driven branding campaign and viral stardom on Instagram

Cait watched her friend take their last gulp, remove the spine of the skeleton-shaped beer bong from their mouth and promptly let out a powerful burp. Realizing she was next, Cait headed to the fridge, grabbed a can from the six-pack and cracked open a fresh one. The oh-so-familiar carbonation rang in her ear, breaking through the loud party. She handed the can to the same friend who would now lead her through the process. Cait crouched, though keeping her neck high. Wrapping her fingers around the vertebrae of the bong, Cait gave a simple nod. On cue, her friend poured the sudsy liquid into the base of the cracked-open skull. Almost immediately, Cait tasted the sting of the carbonation enter her esophagus and free-fall into her stomach. It burned, but ended quickly. Too quickly: “I’m ready to go for another one,” she announced to the room.

An undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Cait knows her way around a college party. But unlike her friends who get drunk on Natty Light or Keystone, Conway sticks exclusively to hard seltzers, even when using a beer bong.

For the past two years, alcoholic seltzer brands like Truly Spiked & Sparkling, White Claw and SpikedSeltzer have bubbled to the surface, capturing 10 percent of the flavored malt beverage market. According to numbers provided by the companies, Truly almost tripled in sales in 2018 while White Claw’s 2018 sales exceeded $170 million as of November 30th.

Hard seltzers, a direct response to sparkling waters dominating the non-alcoholic market, are marketed toward young professionals, but it’s college students who have latched on to them. “I don’t think I’ve bought beer since I started drinking White Claw,” says Jordan, a student at the University of Wisconsin. He first started drinking the various fruity flavors of hard seltzers last summer while interning in New York City. His group of friends spent their Fourth of July downing Trulys and White Claws in Central Park while drunkenly taking in the fireworks. Now back at school, Jordan can be found chugging hard seltzer at pregames and darties.

Hard seltzers are particularly well-suited for the latter. Day drinking requires both endurance and a careful calculus. Getting too drunk too quickly leads to dehydration and patronizing comments from your assembled crew, but reaching peak drunkenness when everyone else is getting ready to nap is no fun either. “I don’t think I’ve ever blacked out on any seltzer drinks,” says Vivian, a student at the University of Connecticut. “With spiked seltzers, I can definitely control and know how much I’m drinking and how much I really need to get drunk.”

Adds Alec, who says that hard seltzer has taken over his fraternity tailgates at the University of Arizona, I do enjoy bringing it when we go golfing. You’re getting the same alcohol content [as the 12-pack of beer he used to bring with him], but you’re not getting that bloated feeling, which will help you out with your game too.”

Regarding that bloated feeling, a number of the people I talked to (most of whom are in some state of ketosis) do seek out hard seltzer for its low-calorie virtues. (Keto only allows for 20 net carbs per day, and Truly, SpikedSeltzer and White Claws all have 2 carbs per can as opposed to 3.2 for a Miller Lite or 2.6 for a Michelob Ultra.) “That’s the fun part of drinking White Claws: I can drink 10 of them and still be in ketosis but also still be very drunk,” explains Liana, a 24-year-old data scientist in Seattle who picked up the taste for hard seltzer in college.

That said, it’s simply a part of the package. Hard seltzer, it seems, has become a lifestyle. Case in point: Liana co-runs an Instagram meme account — and pseudo-finsta — with several high school and college friends called the White Claw Gang. On it, they post original “clawtent,” in which they mock Truly, shotgun seltzer and adapt popular internet memes for their drunken hard-seltzer adventures.

In fact, it’s just one of many satirical hard-seltzer accounts. There’s also TrulyLucas, White Claw Chronicles and White Claw 4 tha Boys among others. All have fiercely staked their claim over which hard-seltzer brand reigns supreme:

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Moooood? #whiteclaw

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Most of the loyalty online and on college campuses comes down to alcohol content. Of the big three, SpikedSeltzer is the booziest with 6 percent alcohol by volume. White Claw and Truly both follow with 5 percent ABV. Meanwhile, White Claw is often touted for its ubiquity and taste. “Truly reminds me of dirty water,” says Liana, though as part of the White Claw Gang, she’s clearly biased. Counters Cait, “You can drink longer when you drink Trulys.”

As Cait returns back to school for the spring semester, she’s already scheduled her first house party with her roommates. The theme: “Party Like It’s 2009.” While she might be dressed like Megan Fox and dancing to “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas, Cait definitely won’t be beer-bonging Four Loko. She’s finally got her roommates on her side, too: “For the past few weeks we’ve only beer-bonged Truly, no beer at all.”