July 24, 2020

The flavored-alcohol empire behind White Claw

The hard seltzers seemed to come out of nowhere. But they’ve been 50 years in the making.

I’m a staunch beer skeptic, so last summer felt like a miracle. All of a sudden, half of my friends swapped out Modelos for a new — and less disgusting — brew: White Claw.

So did the rest of the country. By May 2019, sales were up 320%. White Claw Summer was on.

But as one Twitter thread reminded us, the hard seltzer brand didn’t just tumble down from the heavens — it’s been bubbling up for 50 years.

The makings of a fruit-beer kingpin

In the early 1970s, Anthony von Mandl started selling imported wines out of his car.

A decade later, he was so sick of bland ciders that he launched the sweet-tasting Okanagan Cider — “the first company in the world to produce flavored ciders,” he said later.

Von Mandl’s grand theory?

The alcohol biz was stuck in the past. If you wanted to host a picnic, what would you serve? Wine and beer, blech.

But von Mandl guessed that 25% of beer buyers didn’t actually like drinking it.

So in 1996, he rolled out Mike’s Hard Lemonade. When it hit the US in 1999, it sold 2m cases in its first year.

Get hammered, but make it classy

He called this new category of flavored spirits “progressive adult beverages.” As far back as 2006, he thought it was going to pop off.

That’s why von Mandl started tinkering with White Claw nearly 2 decades later — this time, to reach people that didn’t want many calories with their buzz.

Now von Mandl is worth $4B. And light, fruity beers are so popular that we have to deal with the monstrosity known as Natty Light’s strawberry-lemonade Naturdays.

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