Americans under 40 are wary of the calories and carbs associated with beers and sugary concoctions. These concerns have contributed to a decline of nearly 3 percent in the American beer market since 2015 and a general stagnation in the country’s alcohol sales. But ready-to-drink canned beverages have become a beacon of hope for American booze brands. The sales of distilled-liquor cocktails, flavored malt beverages, and hard seltzers have skyrocketed in the past year. White Claw, which has more than half of hard seltzer’s U.S. market share, has been especially buoyant. Through May, sales of the brand’s assorted-flavor multipacks alone surged 320 percent over the same period last year.
A major factor in hard seltzer’s current popularity is what it’s not: difficult or aspirational. Being a cool young drinker has had a lot of arbitrary rules in the past decade. For much of the 2010s, booze trends have centered around limited-edition, high-alcohol craft beers and booze-heavy, professionally assembled cocktails. These trends have demanded that young people learn the ins and outs of booze culture; have a willingness to pursue the stores, bars, and breweries that meet their very particular tastes; and have the ability to spend some money to try new things. To get the full experience, those drinks also have to be aesthetically pleasing—all the better to document on Instagram, to show off your generationally and socioeconomically appropriate good taste.
White Claw’s appeal, meanwhile, is that it rejects standards. Hard seltzer is exactly what it sounds like: fizzy water in a can with a pinch of sugar, a dash of fruit flavor, and roughly the same amount of alcohol as light beer. It’s cold, drinkable, and doesn’t taste like much. It neatly satisfies young consumers’ desires for affordable, convenient, portable, low-calorie, healthy-seeming alcohol options. In other words, it’s the perfect drink for people exhausted by rules. Maybe “Ain’t no rules when you’re drinking Claws” would be a more accurate meme, but that doesn’t rhyme.
Trends are born when groups of people grow bored with the things they’re supposed to like. When it comes to fashionable foods and beverages, interest in laborious traditional methods usually lasts 10 to 15 years before people revive their curiosity in the quick-and-easy virtues of culinary technology, as Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific, previously told me. White Claw, introduced in 2016, came along at just the right time for people in their 20s and 30s to want something new. (White Claw did not respond to a request for comment on its summer of memes.)
Hard seltzer was sometimes dismissed as “girly” when it debuted, but the Claw has managed to transcend the drink’s gendered beginnings. The memes themselves both embrace and poke fun at bro-y stereotypes, and the simple black-and-white cans are seemingly as beloved by too-cool coastal creatives as they are by aging frat boys and young parents. All these groups have lived much of their adult life under the aesthetic tyranny of Instagram-determined good taste. After craft cocktails, funky IPAs, and attempts to acquire an affinity for whiskey neat, maybe nothing tastes better than giving up.
White Claw cans aren’t ugly, but they also aren’t particularly cute, and there’s a layer of ironic remove in Instagramming one the way the 2014 version of you might have photographed a frosty, copper-mugged Moscow mule. This time you’re in on the joke that got pulled on your former self, who was somewhat embarrassingly trying to cosplay as an influencer without getting paid for it. As long as you can avoid committing any crimes, maybe your White Claw Summer never has to end.