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A hard-seltzer festival proves some fans are in it for more than just the party

Attendees drink samples at Seltzerland. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Seltzerland, a traveling festival celebrating the fizzy alcoholic drink that has taken over the beverage world, sounds like a sherbet-hued novelty.

It conjures a mango-scented mythic land whose passport is an Instagrammed selfie and its lingua franca a Megan Thee Stallion bop. It sounds like a boozy theme park, a Brigadoon for 20-somethings, a fever dream of people who unironically aspire to make “Hot Vax Summer” happen.

But on Saturday, at the Washington stop on the circuit at the rolling green hills of the Rock Creek Golf Course, Seltzerland felt … pretty chill.

Hundreds of people — and not just Gen Zers — braved a triple-digit heat index to sidle up to booths to sip samples from little plastic cups and discuss their contents’ flavor profiles and relative merits.

In other words, Seltzerland is basically a wine festival, just with a lower ABV and a few more bubbles. And, okay, maybe just a little more ‘gram content.

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“One more second! Arm up!” Sandra Charles was stage-managing as she posed with friend Jamie Coleman in front of the photo-booth setup at the bright-orange Vizzy trailer.

Aside from nailing the perfect pose, the two 40-something women from Washington said they were actually there for the fizz.

“We like trying different kinds,” Charles said. “If I find one I like, I’ll buy her a six pack, and if she finds one, she buys me some, too. We’re seltzer friends.” A festival, with multiple vendors offering dozens of flavors they’ve never tried, sounded like an efficient way to expand their list of favorites.

They’re about halfway through the gauntlet, and so far, Coleman has discovered two new-to-her brands she liked: Press, which comes in sophisticated combinations including pineapple basil and blackberry hibiscus; and Bravazzi, which offers citrusy bubbles inspired by Italian sodas, and whose setup at the festival resembles a courtyard you’d see in a Tuscan village, complete with folding bistro chairs.

“I like that they’re both women-owned,” she said.

Two years after White Claw turned 2019 into the “Summer of Seltzer,” the beverage is still booming. Sales in 2020 topped $4 billion, according to Nielsen, eating into beer and wine sales. And that’s just the tip of the fruity spear: Goldman Sachs has said the category could reach a beer-dropping $30 billion in annual sales by 2025.

While White Claw and Boston Beer-owned Truly still dominate the market, new products from major beverage companies keep coming: Topo Chico this summer introduced a boozy version of its popular seltzer. The company had a booth at Seltzerland, where it doled out sips of strawberry-guava and mango blends under strings of colorful lanterns that suggested a Mexican street fair. Jose Cuervo had the biggest display here, with an elaborate set that looked like a tropical bar, replete with a thatched roof and faux palm trees.

Many craft breweries have dipped their toes in the water, including D.C. Brau, which poured samples of its line of “Full Transparency” seltzers at the festival. And artisanal offerings abound. At Seltzerland, drinkers could try out Two Robbers, a Philadelphia-based brand that describes itself as “part beverage company, part art project” and features such varieties as watermelon-cucumber, and Drunk Fruit, a label founded by Asian American friends that boasts blends of yuzu and litchi.

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Seltzerland resembles a live version of the lucrative competition playing out on grocery and liquor-store shelves and in bars around the country. Brands passed out stickers and koozies, hawked their wares with colorful signage and compelling origin stories, and generally tried to impress. Flush with options, customers kicked the tires and sipped.

Finding new flavors is part of the fun for Caroline Russell, a 30-year-old from Alexandria, Va. During quarantine, she liked watching videos of a TikToker trying out various cans. “So I thought, ‘I’ll try them, too!’” she said. “Ugh, that was not embarrassing at all to admit.”

Her friend, Meghan Costello, a 28-year-old from Arlington, was making sure not to drain the sample glass she was offered at the Fat Tire booth. “This is a marathon,” she said, “not a sprint.” Before moving on, the two posed for pictures with a large inflatable dinosaur sporting a festive Hawaiian shirt.

Of course, what’s in the glasses is just part of the event’s appeal. After a year of no concerts, no festivals, no communal sweaty experiences like this, a live, in-person event was a welcome change. Seltzerland 2020 was canceled, but the 2021 edition was salvaged, with organizers landing on the idea to hold many of them on golf courses, where they could spread out the booths over multiple holes.

And so Dwayne Smith was there for his birthday weekend. The 33-year-old and his fiancee, Nicole Smith, 27, came to Washington from Newport News, Va., to celebrate, and figured they would give it a try. Smith, who was wearing a giveaway straw hat from the Cuervo booth, mostly likes IPAs, but he’s curious about seltzers. “I just thought, ‘Why not?’”

Once the samples started flowing, a party vibe set in. After all, this wasn’t just a glorified shopping trip. Bean bags flew at various booths set up with lawn games. A woman in a white tube top had apparently made off with the blowup dinosaur from the Fat Tire booth. She was strolling around with it casually tucked under her arm like some kind of outsize clutch purse, dousing herself and the T. rex with a bottle of water to ward off the heat.

Meanwhile, a guy at the Topo Chico booth was attempting an advanced photo shoot. He wanted a photo of himself catching a miniature Frisbee branded with the company’s logo. This proved to be a difficult feat, but after a few attempts, he checked his buddy’s screen and was satisfied with the result.

At the end of the circuit, a group of friends gathered for a post-mortem. But they didn’t compare selfies or debate captions. They had been sipping dozens of seltzers for a couple of hours, but no one was sloppy. (That is one of seltzer’s biggest selling points.)

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Instead, the group shared notes on their favorite drinks from the day, consulting photos to jog their memories and to inspire their next purchases. The lime-lemongrass from Press was a favorite. Everyone liked the Bravazzi.

Allison Hall, 26, of McLean, noted that Jose Cuervo had the best setup and swag. “They had the bar and the hats and bandannas — and they had shade,” she said.

But these were discerning drinkers, and the poster kids for the mainstreaming of seltzer. Even the cleverest of merch wasn’t going to sway them. They drink other hard beverages — wine and liquor — and they said they aren’t loyal to any particular purveyor of bubbly booze.

“Not really,” said Elizabeth Gillett, a 27-year-old from Oakton, Va., when asked if she had a go-to brand. “I’ll buy something if I see an interesting flavor — or a really good sale.”

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