If you’re an adult who claims to have a sophisticated palate, you can tour vineyards in wine country, tasting all the varieties the region has to offer. If you enjoy getting trashed at brunch, you may prefer Seltzerland, a hard seltzer festival that will visit more than two dozen cities this year. At each destination, a cartel of beverage companies take over a local golf course, transforming it into a “paradise” for day drinkers: one tent after another serving tastes of every alcoholic bubbly water on the market, along with brand swag and Instagrammable decorations.
“You think, ‘Oh, it’s not that much — but you’re getting hammered,’” said a man behind my partner Maddie and me as we stood in line for Seltzerland admission this past Saturday. I wondered if he’d been to the thing before, and, if so, why on earth he’d go again. This iteration was being held at the 9-hole Bixby Village Golf Course in Long Beach, California, technically in Los Angeles County but an hour’s drive south from the area more commonly thought of as “L.A.” The small parking lot was full, with all street spots taken, so I didn’t have high hopes for a well-organized event. We’d been forced to park half a mile away, in a Target lot with plenty of menacing CUSTOMERS ONLY and TWO HOUR LIMIT signage, so already we had to work against the clock. At the entrance, a young woman glanced at our e-tickets and, without asking to see our IDs, gave us wristbands, handed us each a plastic cup and White Claw tote bag and explained the rules: You could skip any drink station, but couldn’t go backwards.
A glance at our tasting card informed us that it would be neither possible nor advisable to sample every product, almost 30 overall. And from where we stood, it appeared that many tents had long lines — so much for the timed entry system! We quickly bypassed the first table, where the White Claw was poured. “I have White Claws at home,” I scoffed. This brought us to an outpost for Kové, touted as the world’s first hard yerba mate. At 5 percent ABV, and with 10 milligrams of caffeine, it’s the chillest alternative to Four Loko you can buy, but at the moment it’s only distributed in San Diego, said Alex, the CEO of the company, as we waited to try it. Maddie opted for a taste of the lemonade iced tea flavor, while I went for the mango colada. We liked both, except once we traded glasses, we realized we couldn’t quite taste the difference.
We skipped two more long, slow-moving lines — for BeatBox Beverages and Plant Botanical canned cocktails — and strolled up to the relatively unpopular BuzzBallz area. Here you could see how the definition of “seltzer” was being stretched: These are the over-sweetened, pre-mixed cocktails sold in spherical bottles at the sleaziest of liquor stores. But booze is booze, and we each accepted a shot. The “Tequila ‘Rita” was, I’m sorry to say, as bad as I remembered from my one experimental foray into the brand many years ago. Leave this stuff to college kids.
Next up was Passion Tree, which a brand rep told us offered “light carbonation,” a slightly higher ABV at 5.5 percent, and an environmental hook. “We plant a tree for every case sold,” she said, “and right now, we’re planting in Madagascar.” Not knowing what else to say, I asked what kind of trees. She wasn’t sure. We tried the tropical flavors, including dragonfruit — I found them okay, but Maddie was more critical. The staffers at this tent encouraged guests to vote for their setup as having the “best vibes,” by which they meant the category “Best Onsite Experience.”
We could also apparently vote for Best Hard Seltzer overall, Best Can Design, Best Swag, Best Canned Cocktail and the Best “Top Off Your Seltzer” Brand (more on that later). Alas, it was never explained to us how or where to cast a ballot, so we never did. Kudos to Passion Tree, however, for the hype dance music and this chalkboard that gave some indication of just how tipsy a few visitors were by this stage of the tasting tour. Yes, someone misspelled the word “seltzer.”
From here, things grew a bit more chaotic. Not long after visiting a port-a-potty and telling Maddie that I’d seen a tasting glass in the toilet, I suddenly discovered I had lost mine, and would now be reliant on each sponsor for a disposable cup. “Did you drop it in the toilet?” Maddie astutely asked.
In rapid succession, we tried Vaquit (pronounced “vock-it,” though we preferred to enunciate it as a French word), a very artificial-tasting canned vodka soda, then Playamar, a seltzer made with Jose Cuervo tequila, surprisingly good — plus Maddie got a hat, and with it some relief from the mid-afternoon sun. We lined up for Vizzy, “the only hard seltzer with antioxidant Vitamin C,” another too-sweet concoction. By this point, we seemed to have experienced the full range of innovations from the industry, and people were rowdier, loaded up with freebies. However, we learned from an employee at a checkpoint beyond the food trucks that we were only halfway through the course. We had our regrets about not bringing water.
Now we came to something we had been curious about since spotting it in the distance: a giant inflatable of a cinnamon whiskey Fireball bottle. Did this mean we were getting some kind of Fireball seltzer? Not quite. We had arrived at the first of several “top off your seltzer” tents, where purveyors of hard alcohol simply dumped it into your glass after a pour from cans of Deep Bay, including their vodka soda with lime and gin soda with citrus mint. I know what you’re thinking, and no, Fireball does not pair well with any of this, but the site was so lit — with a DJ blasting his rave mix, photo props and a cornhole set where drunk women hammed up their game for a videographer recording them — that everyone accepted the bizarre combo. Many loitered around for a second drink, and even the people working the table took a round of shots.
All bets were off, apparently, and the crowd was cutting loose. When we checked in with Jiant, a hard kombucha outfit, one guest who seemed to be in the beverage business was talking distribution with a man at the counter; meanwhile, a woman berated the soft-spoken guy pouring drinks for not making an aggressive sales pitch. “Let’s go! How about some excitement!” she yelled. “Calories, sugar, tell me what’s in this! You should be happy that people are trying your product!” I enjoyed the mint mojito despite not caring for kombucha generally. Maddie finally tapped out here, wanting to let her mouth recover from the endless gauntlet of fruity fizz, but I went for one more novelty, Owl’s Brew, a spiked sparkling tea. Their English breakfast tea with lemon and lime was a relief after the many cloying flavors earlier in the day. And while I couldn’t bring myself to drink Parrot Bay rum mixed with hard seltzer, I liked the parrots.
We drifted toward the exit, passing at least one dude passed out in the grass with his friends sitting around him, as well as other groups a little wobbly on their feet. What the hell had we been through? A strange carnival of carbonation, I reflected as I tried to get my burping under control. Maddie and I agreed that there are definite limits to the diversity of hard seltzers — after a few, they all start to taste the same, meaning Seltzerland will never have the cultural cachet of the vineyard. Nor is it supposed to. All it means to achieve is increased brand awareness by way of charging admission ($29 to $55 depending on the city and whether you want VIP perks) to a fairground that borrows the vibes of a college tailgate, minus most of the college students.
Or think of it as a backyard party that you don’t have to plan, attended by thousands of casual drinkers you’ve never met. The sluggish lines are a problem, and they’re definitely collecting information on you, but as far as I can tell, it’s the only event that allows you to sip your way around the world of hard seltzer two ounces at a time. And that has proved a popular gimmick.
Still, for all the companies looking to cash in on the hard-seltzer craze with a genius twist to the basic concept, I think in 2022, it’s pretty clear: You’re either into these drinks or not. What more market share can they grab?
Later that day, Maddie and I went to a lovely little book store in Long Beach — called Page Against the Machine — and wound up chatting with Chris, the owner. Eventually, we told him where we’d been that afternoon. “Hard seltzer?” he asked, laughing. “I tried one when they first came out. Never really got into them.”
My own head swimming with useless facts about every seltzer I’d tossed back, I have to admit: I envied him.