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The Seltzer Wars Are Here — Which Side Are You On?

Seltzer, once a beverage that compelled no obsessive acclaim nor stubborn rebuke, is now a cultural battleground. We are known by our preference for one fizzy water over the rest and being more into these drinks than some amateur bubbler.

And while most wrote their seltzer takes back in 2016, pointing out how, for example, its longstanding importance in New York Jewish life transcends a fad, or arguing (wrongly) that it sucks, I take issue with the premise shared among these pieces: Namely, that the rise of LaCroix’s flavored sparkling water from regional obscurity to market saturation, particularly among a targeted millennial demographic, meant we had already reached Peak Seltzer. I disagree.

Not to alarm you, but the Seltzer Wars have only just begun.

How naïve we were to believe that LaCroix’s unquestionable success on the national stage — that seltzer’s big moment in general — signaled an end to history. In retrospect, all the ingredients for a hostile takeover were there: We turned to niche sparkling waters because they’re healthier than sodas and don’t bombard us with gaudy advertising, instead attaining stealth meme status through micro-influential tweets and Instagram aesthetics. It was inevitable that other companies would seek this viral cachet for their own product, even if that meant whipping one up from scratch.

Enter bubly, PepsiCo’s attempt to recapture the lost youth with a cannily lowercased brand (it’s like a 2am text from your bestie!) that beefs up the mysterious “natural essences” of LaCroix to blur the distinction between seltzer and soda. Contrary to the skeptics, they’re gaining converts. The stuff debuted a mere four months back and muscled quickly into the spritz scene.

You couldn’t ask for a more automatically bubly-avoidant demographic than the 3,000-plus members of Now Fizzing, an invite-only Facebook group for swapping opinions and cheeky insults about every kind of carbonated water. When Pepsi announced their competitor in the space, the Fizzers’ reactions all ranged along a spectrum of disgust and rock-bottom expectations. I myself once invited backlash by recommending Spindrift, which bills itself as “America’s first and only sparkling water made with real, squeezed fruit,” because according to the group’s sharply defined canon, anything with so much as a drop of actual juice or sugar in it is sinful fizz, or, in their vocabulary, a “snake,” something duplicitously marketed as seltzer when it clearly isn’t. And while bubly isn’t technically a snake, it seemed close enough for equal scorn.

Yet even a subset of these puritans have hopped aboard with hype for bubly, which they now refer to with the inexplicable nickname “Michael.” (Edit: My esteemed colleague Eddie Kim has figured it out—“bubly” is close to “Bublé,” as in the singer, first name Michael.) This radical betrayal, combined with a social media counterinsurgency against LaCroix mania, has me wondering if the new Prime-aligned seltzer from Amazon and Whole Foods will soon play as a cost-effective option, fracturing the increasingly unstable fizzscape.

For while the bubble-hunting group correctly saves their highest praise for the finest unflavored or “ghost” seltzers, with Topo Chico mineral water their consensus pick for Greatest of All Time, it is novelty and exploration that drive the discussion, as well as the digital reputation of any millennial-focused, health-conscious beverage. There is hardly a theoretical limit to the stunt recipes and taste combinations that Hal’s and Polar can churn out; the latter is so prolific with seasonal offerings as to necessitate spreadsheets.

With infinite choices come infinite competition and rankings, judgment and debate. You can argue all day with internet friends about the diverse approaches to grapefruit and whether Schweppes’ iconic black cherry fizz has ever been defeated. There’s a multiseason podcast called Seltzer Death Match, where each episode sees two contenders vie for glory in a head-to-head elimination fight. Even anti-LaCroix sentiment is a win for the brand, because people are talking about LaCroix, and external concerns as to our staggering seltzer consumption — the environmental impact, for one — are secondary to our relatable, endlessly shareable addiction.

Amid the sea of seltzer, we grasp for a favorite as if for a sliver of identity. The notion of fizzing as a hobby rather than a slightly stimulating form of hydration tells us there are further killings to be made in this business. The temptation to reinvent the wheel is too great, and by splitting every possible hair in the engineering of the each subsequent hint-of-lemon concoction, you test the public’s will to grocery-store adventure, pushing us toward seltzer’s collapse.

Seltzer won’t really go away, of course, nor would I condemn anyone for defending their specific matrix of relative sparkling water appeal as they would a beloved book or film. What worries me is that our attentions may be so diffuse, and our loyalties so fickle, that the giant conglomerates will easily push aside the little upstarts and classic, venerated distributors who made seltzer culture so cozy in the first place.

What if we wake up one day to find that, although there are hundreds of flavored bubbles on the shelves, they all fall under the umbrella of a vast monopoly that got into the game for cold economic reasons? That’s why it’s time to choose a side and stand your ground. I’m not granting Jeff Bezos or the soda peddlers an inch of this turf. Give me fizzberty, or give me death.