Laying Down the Claw

Amid a national shortage of White Claw hard seltzer, how does its nearest imitator Truly stack up? Not well, we found out.

This beverage phenomenon brought to you by quirky revenue laws. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

Have you marked yourself “safe” during the Great White Claw Shortage of 2019? Or have you been camped out outside the Marina Safeway’s loading dock, awaiting a new shipment the way people once did for the iPhone 6? Because either way, you must have heard of White Claw by now. 

It’s the clear, flavored hard seltzer (or “spiked sparkling water”) with a five percent alcohol content that the makers of Mike’s Hard Lemonade introduced a few years ago and which supposedly outsold Budweiser in the month of July. 

There are only so many people in this world named Becky or Chad, so where exactly did this phenomenon come from? As it turns out, White Claw owes its existence not to a viral marketing campaign — although @whiteclawcrew’s aggressive hedonism embodies its place in the culture  — but to a quirk of U.S. revenue law. Josh Barro of New York magazine noted that because it’s brewed like beer, it’s taxed like beer, so even though it contains vodka, it’s a couple bucks cheaper than some equivalent vodka-soda-in-a-can would be. And unlike the other “malternative” beverages that came before it — Zima, Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezers — there’s less sugar. The fermentation base is already sugar, so the manufacturers need only add two more grams to concoct something La Croix-esque.

As it has been for the past thousand days or so, “La Croix” is today’s secret word. Consequently, America’s strategic White Claw reserves are running a little low. In fact, it took SF Weekly a few trips to Safeway to get our, um, claws on a variety 12-pack. (Try the Safeway in the Excelsior, because the E always has what you need. Seeing our purchase, the people behind us contemplated stepping out of the line to get some.) Although we just as easily could have gone with Bon & Viv, we also picked up a 12-pack of Truly Hard Seltzer for a living-room tasting session with Billions on mute in the background. Comparably priced, they come in thin cans of the same size and shape that don’t automatically mark them as alcoholic beverages, making them perfect for quasi-clandestine Dolores Park day-drinking, when you don’t have it in you to go full rebel and crack open some beers but you also don’t want to lug a pre-mixed pitcher of vodka and Crystal Light, either.

As it turns out, none of the White Claw flavors (Natural Lime, Ruby Grapefruit, Black Cherry, and Raspberry) corresponded with any of the Truly flavors (Pineapple, Mango, Passion Fruit, and Pomegranate) in the packs. White Claw produces Black Cherry and a plain flavor, but they just weren’t in there. So there was no opportunity for a true, one-to-one showdown.

But the results were unambiguous: Even the worst White Claw (the mushy, indistinct Lime) was better than the best Truly (Pomegranate). The overall standout was — and again, seasoned La Croix guzzlers probably knew this on instinct — the Ruby Grapefruit. Clean and mild, it’s essentially an adult Pamplemousse La Croix, although those two added grams of sugar round off what could be a crisper mouthfeel. Black Cherry was next, because it contained just the right hint of cherry-ness from what has always been the darkest and most seductive of alt-soda flavors, evocative of Clearly Canadian and Original New York Seltzer (both of which became defunct and were later revived). Still, it raises the question: Why not a cola flavor? Raspberry came in third only because it’s simply not as complex as black cherry — although it, too, nailed that “audible whisper” flavor quotient.

The fact that Natural Lime is labeled “natural” implies that the others are “unnatural,” which carries a moralistic connotation of sin and damnation as opposed to merely conjured into existence in some lab in New Jersey. This led to a temporary halt in the proceedings as the participants debated the meaninglessness of the term. Meanwhile, Natural Lime took a DNA test. Turns out, it’s 100 percent basic bitch, basically a limp Sprite with a chemical finish.

Then it was over to the Truly, which suffer from an across-the-board energy-drink flavor, something that feels categorically wrong. We got the feeling that hard seltzers are very specifically not for people who routinely crush a Red-Bull-and-vodka at the DJ Snake show; their partisans are fully aware that this is an elegantly inelegant way to get drunk.

If sugar content is important to you, know that Truly only has one gram instead of two. And the aromas are much stronger than White Claw’s, even if they often prep your palate for disappointment. For example, pomegranates reputedly transport people to Hades for six months out of the year, but Pomegranate Truly is likelier to see you wake up on a freeway median. Pineapple had the strongest aroma, and an acidic intensity that even the White Claw lacked — but then it resolves into that unpleasantly medical after-taste, as if the technicians had to mask taurine. Mango was decidedly off-mango, but Passion Fruit bore no resemblance to maracuya whatsoever. The aftertaste was the taste.

Is that because Passion Fruit is a challenging flavor to synthesize? Did the makers of Truly feel boxed out by White Claw? Scrutinizing the can, we noted that Truly contains mandarina hops, so we asked a couple brewers what that was about.

“I’ll stan for mandarina,” said Jesse Friedman, formerly of Almanac Beer Co., who judges it among the good American-style hops from Europe. “I don’t know how it plays in hard soda, but I like it a lot in beers. It’s part of a modern German breeding program that’s made some great aroma hops that are great solo or in a blend.”

Still, he notes that the flavor of a given hop depends on exposure to oxygen and the competency of a brewer. Extracting seltzer flavors is cheaper and easier, so the inclusion of mandarina hops may be a marketing smokescreen designed to boost Truly’s credibility.

“It should have aromas of tangerine, grapefruit, lime, and bubble gum,” he said, the latter of which would certainly explain the energy-drink connection.

So the verdict would seem to be clear. But there’s one last test that, like it or not, you’re going to face. To put it bluntly: How does it taste after you burp it up? Did it cause you to float to the ceiling, like Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe? Or did you end up taking a moral inventory in the fetal position? In the case of White Claw, what comes up resembles what went down. Truly, not so much. Mango, in particular, felt oily somehow, and frankly a bit like dirty socks. Folsom is still a week away, so we don’t need to go to such lengths.

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