The Hard Seltzer Trend Echoes the 19th Century Craze for LagerRoundup
tags: beer, brewing, alcohol, drinking, Commercial culture
Brian Alberts is a freelance historian and consultant specializing in American brewing and beer culture.
HNN editor's note: It is the official position of HNN that lager is good and hard seltzer is bad. Readers are free to make their own judgments.
Hard seltzers have been the trendy choice for American alcohol consumers lately. By the numbers, the bubbly beverage has positively exploded since the debut of White Claw in 2016, claiming a market share in five years that took craft beer 40 years to achieve. And a seemingly large facet of hard seltzer’s appeal has been its lingering reputation, which is both misleading and disputed, as a more health-conscious form of alcohol.
Hard seltzers are not the first to make such a claim in hopes of becoming more than a passing fad like Zima, wine coolers and Not Your Father’s Root Beer. In fact, the “king” of American alcoholic beverages, light lager beer, also began as a trendy curiosity attached to grandiose health claims.
Lager brewers in the 1850s, overwhelmingly German Americans, found their product well-received by the American public and further elevated it by claiming, controversially, that it was a healthy alternative to other forms of alcohol. While it’s no indicator of exactly where hard seltzer will be 170 years (or months, or days) from now, it’s worth exploring how bumpy the way to American drinkers’ hearts can be.
Lager beer first appeared in the United States about 1840, and it wasn’t popular. In fact, until that period, few Americans outside select urban areas like Albany, N.Y., and Philadelphia drank beer. They preferred whiskey, and to a lesser extent, hard cider — so much in fact that they outdrank 21st century Americans, on average, by a factor of two or three. But as the size and number of American cities began to grow and temperance activism pressured Americans to cut back on their overall drinking, beer-drinking became more widespread — and in lager’s case, controversial.
Lagers were introduced by a wave of German immigrants pouring in from Europe. To uninitiated Americans, lager was simply weird. But for Germans-turned-German-Americans, the beer was inseparable from the culture of its consumption. German Americans drank it in what looked to outsiders to be massive outdoor parties. Families, bands and social clubs took part, often in shady groves maintained by the brewers or saloon owners themselves. Parades, athletic demonstrations, political dialogue, shooting tournaments and concerts were featured in these “German Sundays,” and their spectacle drew a lot of outside attention.
But this boisterous festive culture served a purpose, expressing ethnocultural values about work-life balance, the importance of social bonds and the proper cultivation of the self. Lager beer was considered to be a physical manifestation of this process, an alcoholic aid that was wholesome, healthy and nutritious.
This generous perception was deeply embedded, particularly in the southern and western German cultures where many immigrants came from during this period. In fact, the Bavarian monarchy was continually vexed by civil discontent and periodic riots during the 1840s, all because the working-class believed that its “Kruggerechtikeit” — that is, the right to affordable and healthy beer — was being neglected. As hundreds of thousands emigrated to the United States, this perspective on beer followed.