Close your eyes and transport yourself back to simpler times: It’s 2014 and Obama is still president, Zayn is still in One Direction, and you — enjoyer of sparkling water — have just cracked open a generic seltzer, the “psssst” of the carbonation drowning out the roar of frizzante frenzy that’s headed your way. Take a deep swig and enjoy this calm moment, because soon things will be anything but: The LaCroix craze is coming and an even bigger soda-water boom will follow. Little do you know that a mere four to five years later, you won’t be able to swing a bottle of Schweppes without knocking over more new seltzer brands than you can possibly fathom.
It was in 2015 that LaCroix exploded in popularity, garnering a Letter of Recommendation in the New York Times by known lover of snacks Mary H.K. Choi. Its bright packaging and humble beginnings made it a prime product to be adopted by hipsters, even inspiring a 2016 episode of High Maintenance in which a New York agoraphobe buries his loneliness by collecting LaCroix flavors and making art out of the cans. Since then, the brand has exploded, inspired copycats, and is now flagging in a market that it, at least partially, created.
Among the competitors to join it in the beverage aisle in the past five years — next to the steadfast brands like San Pellegrino, Perrier, Vintage, Schweppes, Polar, and Canada Dry — are trendy and regional hits like Spindrift, Waterloo, Alta Palla, and the classically cool glass bottles of Topo Chico (now owned by Coke). Big soda brands are both rebranding their existing soda waters and launching new ones, like Bubly (Pepsi) and AHA, the caffeinated seltzer by Coca-Cola that’s dropping on the market in 2020. Looking to get a touch turnt? There are ample spiked seltzers to scratch that itch, with White Claw, Bon & Viv, Truly, Henry’s, Wild Basin, Bud Light Seltzer, Smirnoff Spiked Sparkling Seltzer, and more. If the amorphous concept of “wellness” is more your speed, you can purchase Recess, infused with CBD and adaptogens, and packaged like très chic Moon Juice supplements. The seltzer cup truly runneth over, perhaps suggesting it’s time for the bubble to burst.
I say this not out of resentment for noble bubbly water: I’m a lifelong seltzer lover. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to drink sugary sodas like Coke or Sprite and so I’d mix juice with Klarbrunn or LaCroix (then both simple Wisconsin brands, quite like me) and use my imagination to pretend my way out of sugar deprivation. As a teenager, my bedroom was littered with half-empty seltzer bottles that I’d guzzle at night while secretly listening to Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla on Loveline at the lowest possible volume. At my brokest in my 20s, I invented a dinner pathetically called Summer Soup, which was a bowl of cubed watermelon that I’d top with seltzer then eat with a fork because I liked the way the melon absorbed the effervescence. (Pro tip if you want to make your own summer soup: add a splash of gin! It might help you momentarily forget your student loans or whatever else is stressing your 20-something brain.) If it were up to me, every meal would come with the offer (from a server at a restaurant or a faucet in your home) of flat or fizzy water, and seven out of 10 times, I’d choose fizzy.
But as any fable or morality play on getting what you ask for demonstrates, there’s danger in having your dreams fulfilled. As we turn from one decade to the other, the soda-water market has become too overwhelming and, dare I say, unnecessary. Because if you don’t have your favorite by now, you surely don’t like fizzy water all that much to begin with. Devoted celebrants of White Claw summer are hardly clamoring for Bud Light spiked seltzer, especially when Bud Light Lime, perfect for day-drinking, already exists. After tasting the ideal bubble-to-fruit balance of Spindrift, no one is reaching for a Bubly. If price is the main concern, Polar (or even Schweppes) will surely do over whatever Big Soda will introduce next. As for the wellness wave, we surely must accept by now that CBD seltzer water is largely a scam aimed at overworked women with a discretionary income who are looking to cope with their anxiety through natural means. If reducing anxiety was really the goal, soda brands would be selling water infused with Zoloft (something to consider, actually) that comes with a reminder under the cap to use your vacation days.
That, or soda water could just be soda water.
There’s a scene in Betty Smith’s 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in which the young protagonist Francie, longing to attend school, imagines what it would be like. Smith writes that Francie “wanted to drink from the school water fountains in the yard. The faucets were inverted and she thought that soda water came out instead of plain water.” Eventually she learns that there’s nothing special about school water after all, but still, what a sweet and humble fantasy. Soda water has always been a simple pleasure, and isn’t that still what people want? Seltzer is the promise of something refreshing and light, like if tap water got dressed up to take you out for a day on the town. It’s what you reach for when you want to feel ALIVE but not wired, quenched but not drenched. Want to get a little more festive? Add a splash of juice like Spindrift does. Want to get a little wild? Pop open one of the suitable spiked seltzers that are already on the market. At its core, drinking fizzy water should be stress free, which is why I must dream that the trend has peaked. To save it, the industry must be quashed. The bubble must be popped.
Nick Iluzada is a designer and snack enthusiast in Los Angeles.