The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The rise of hard seltzer echoes the 19th-century lager craze

The appeal of alcoholic beverages that we are led to believe are better for us.

White Claw seltzer. (Jenny Kane/AP)

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.

Onlookers were either intrigued or offended. American drinkers who tried lagers tended to like them, and gradually joined in the festivities.

But temperance reformers and anti-immigrant nativists considered the trendy drink and its purveyors a threat to their vision for a sober and homogenous America. By 1856 the New York Times commented that lager beer was “getting a good deal too fashionable,” and it wasn't a compliment. Unsurprisingly then, German immigrant enclaves and temperance reformers clashed repeatedly over local liquor ordinances during the 1850s, leading to riots in multiple cities.

Despite the temperance reformers’ best efforts, the “lager beer mania” built steam until it wasn’t just a German American beverage anymore. By 1860 lagers claimed a full third of the growing beer market in cities like Chicago, and by 1875 lagers would claim their throne as Americans’ preferred form of beer.

This popularity came in part from brewers touting the German-born perspective that lagers were a healthier and “moderate” alternative to whiskey. Claims ranged from the alleged nutritious “extracts” from the malt, to the tonic properties of hops, to its stimulating benefits to the working-class. Many Americans subscribed to the idea of moderate drinking — but temperance reformers did not. They fought the mania bitterly, and beer’s supposed health effects became a common battleground.

For instance, during the 1850s, a heated debate persisted over whether lagers, which contained less alcohol than spirits or contemporary ales, could even make a person drunk. Lager beer vendors from Vermont to Virginia to Wisconsin were repeatedly taken to court over the question of lager’s intoxicating effects, often with colorful testimony. Barflies testified to drinking absurd amounts — up to seven gallons in a sitting — without feeling intoxicated. Physicians testified either for or against lagers, with one claiming in 1858 that drinking too much “may burst a man, but it will not make him drunk.” The matter went before two state supreme courts in the 1850s, and several jurisdictions ruled that lager beer didn’t legally constitute an alcoholic beverage.

The debates also intersected with other public-health crises. During the era’s persistent cholera epidemics, lagers were credited as a preventive against the disease, and blamed for causing it. In addition, temperance reformers and self-anointed consumer watchdogs began accusing lager brewers of adulterating their product, i.e. deceiving the public by using cheap or dangerous ingredients. Accusations ranged from the ridiculous, like lacing beer with opium and strychnine, to accurate, like brewing with corn or rice adjuncts. That debate raged for decades, generating immense public confusion and skepticism about what might be in their beer.

There is little evidence that non-German drinkers believed lager beer to be a near-miraculous health tonic, as brewers claimed, nor the dangerous poison that temperance reformers claimed. What’s clear, however, is that Americans loved it, adapted it to their palates and internalized several elements of German festive culture along the way. American per capita consumption of beer doubled between 1855 and 1875, then doubled again by 1890.

American consumers proved to be more interested in taste than allegedly nutritious extracts, so brewers made their lagers clearer, crisper and lighter — modeling a growing Czech sensation called the Pilsener. Classics like Budweiser, Miller and Coors were born as a result. In the near term, that lightening process undermined brewers’ ability to claim their product was healthy, not that they didn’t try. But a century later that same trend would generate a veritable deluge of light beer, whose lower alcohol levels and calorie counts resonated with new diet-conscious generations of consumers. Modern hard seltzer got its start beating that same drum.

Hard seltzer, however, is not lager. So far, the former seems to divorce capitalism from culture, driven by market data without much underlying tradition. And as journalist Kate Bernot has argued, hard seltzer makers are also steadily abandoning the beverage’s relatively healthy image by introducing varieties with higher calorie counts and alcohol levels.

Yet, despite prophecies to the contrary, hard seltzer isn’t going anywhere soon. Like lager beer before it, hard seltzer’s nascent rise has generated questions, controversies and anxiety about the future of American alcohol consumption. But that’s just par for the course.