The drink of summer 2019 complies with just about every diet, befits all age groups, can be found in grocery stores across the United States (as has been the case for decades) and won’t get you drunk — unless, of course, it will.
It’s water. More specifically sparkling water, an umbrella term that encompasses club soda and seltzer. This beverage category is attracting millions of dollars in venture capital investment and changing the drinking habits of a people known for colonizing the world with corn-syrup-laden soda and watered-down beer.
“Sparkling water is one of these categories that has exploded, that has been exploding,” like so many bubbles of carbon dioxide, said David Henkes, a senior principal at Technomic, which tracks restaurant and food service trends.
According to Technomic, Americans spent about $1.7 billion on sparkling water at restaurants in 2018, a modest amount compared with the $15 billion they forked over for carbonated soft drinks. But while sparkling water is seeing double-digit growth, by those estimates, traditional soda has grown by only 1% each year since 2016.
“You’re seeing a massive shift,” Henkes said. “Consumers are looking for refreshing alternatives that are ‘better for me,’ although what ‘better for me’ means is open to interpretation.”
Some studies have linked the consumption of flavored carbonated water to tooth problems like enamel erosion and sealant damage. The pH level of the drink appears to be the culprit, but those studies don’t seem to have tempered demand — or supply.
Besides established brands like Canada Dry, Polar, Vintage, LaCroix, Saratoga, Seagram’s, Schweppes, Perrier and Pellegrino, there are newer entrants from so-called Big Soda — Pepsi’s Bubly, Coca-Cola’s Dasani Sparkling — along with a bevy of plucky upstarts, including Rambler, Waterloo, Spindrift, Richard’s Sparkling Rainwater and the carbonation machine company Bevi.
The American fixation with fizzy water dates back to the 18th century, when Joseph Priestley, an English-born chemist, happened on a way to infuse water with carbon dioxide by suspending a bowl of water above a vat of beer. Johann Jacob Schweppe, the founder of Schweppes, developed a method for manufacturing and bottling carbonated mineral water based on Priestley’s discovery, and the stuff came to be called soda water after the English chemist Richard Bewley noticed that adding sodium carbonate to water made it more able to absorb carbon dioxide.
Modern carbonated water is made by injecting pressurized carbon dioxide into water, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has toyed with a SodaStream.
By the 20th century, carbonated water had taken on many different names (members of the Silent Generation may recall ordering a “two cents plain”) and become associated with sobriety as an alternative to wine, beer and cocktails.
Now, with the rise of fruity, alcohol-infused seltzers, sparkling water has come full, gaseous circle. In the first six months of this year, Americans spent $389 million on hard seltzer, according to a Nielsen survey of supermarkets and other beverage retailers, an increase of 210% from 2018.
Alcohol abstinent or not, many Americans these days are preoccupied with the fuzzy notion of wellness, and that preoccupation may be bolstering the sparkling water business. “What’s really happening is that consumers today have a bias for all things natural,” said David Portalatin, a vice president and food consumption business analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm.
Last year, NPD surveyed more than 10,000 Americans about their drinking habits and found that we consumed sparkling water an average of 10 times per capita, which equates to about 3.3 billion servings. That’s four more servings per capita compared with 2013. “The primary reason behind it is the whole health and wellness movement,” Portalatin said. “What the consumer doesn’t want is anything artificial or synthetic.”
This could explain the success of Spindrift, one of a handful of sparkling water companies edging in on the former darling LaCroix, whose parent company, National Beverage Corp., saw its stock price plummet last month after a former LaCroix executive sued on the grounds that the brand marketed its cans as BPA free before they actually were.
Since its founding in 2010, Spindrift has raised more than $40 million from venture capitalists. It projects sales of $100 million over the next 12 months, up from $33 million in 2017.
“We always knew there was going to be another evolution of beverage: regular soda to diet soda, then diet soda to something else,” said Robin Tsai, a managing director at VMG Partners, which invested in Spindrift in 2015.
There’s also Bevi, the modern spin on the office water cooler that dispenses flavored sparkling water (and still varieties as well). Eliza Becton, a founder of the company, felt compelled to do something after learning about what’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, debris in the Pacific. She teamed up with fellow environmentalists Sean Gundy and Frank Lee and started Bevi in 2013.
“Together, acknowledging the positive consequences that eliminating single use plastic bottles would have on our world, we designed Bevi as a solution to reshape consumer behavior and impact long-term change,” Becton wrote in an email.
Toaster-oven-size Bevi machines hydrate the disruptive masses at companies including Netflix, Facebook and Google. And with more than $60 million in funding, Bevi has built itself into a startup on par with the startups it serves.
Some engage with corporate America in more unexpected ways. In 1994, Richard Heinichen began bottling and carbonating the rainwater that collected in tanks outside his home in Dripping Springs, Texas.
If Pellegrino is a pat on the cheek, Richard’s Sparkling Rainwater is a slap in the face, but a welcome slap, brisk and bracingly refreshing — like, “Wake up, you’re going to miss the summer of sparkling water.”
But as the various players in this game hone their brand identities, their points of differentiation, their bar charts and their pitch decks, the average consumer shrugs and pops open a can of whatever is closest or on sale at the supermarket.
“I kind of just drink whatever is put in front of me,” said Sarah Jampel, an editor at Bon Appétit who in 2015 taste-tested and rated 17 types of sparkling water for the website Food52. “What I learned was that I couldn’t really distinguish between brands.”