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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Juicy’ is suddenly what every beer, wine and seltzer wants to be

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

At Off Color Brewing’s taproom in Chicago, bartenders field one question from customers more than any other: “Do you have any juicy beers?”

It’s not easily answered, mostly because the definition of “juicy” is subjective. Do these guests seek tropical fruit flavors? Citrus notes? Hazy IPAs? Never mind the fact that Off Color has never brewed an IPA — juicy or otherwise — in its 10-year history, focusing instead on Belgian-inspired and farmhouse styles.

“It becomes a matter of sort of figuring out how they’re personally defining the word ‘juicy,’” says Ben Ustick, the brewery’s social media and marketing coordinator.

Many of the yeast- and hop-derived fruity flavors in Off Color’s beers do fit the bill, but in April, the brewery more explicitly gave people what they’re demanding: a heavily dry-hopped saison called Juicy Predator.

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This “juice-ification” of not just beer but all types of alcohol has been intensifying over the past decade and is reaching a zenith in 2023 with the debut of multiple brands of “hard juice,” as well as spiked versions of juice-based beverages, including Simply Peach and SunnyD. That popularity doesn’t hold true for nonalcoholic fruit juice, sales of which have been slumping for years. Figures from the Beverage Marketing Corporation show the volume of fruit juices sold in the United States has been falling annually since 2016, and is projected to decline by 1.8 percent annually through 2026.

Shoppers’ concerns over the sugar content in juice partially explain the slide. But when it comes to alcohol, caloric quibbles seem to take a back seat to drinkers’ desire for big, bold juice flavors.

“Flavor is such a huge driver of what consumers are looking for, and juice is something that brings flavor by its very nature,” says Greg Gallagher, vice president of brand marketing for the beer brand Modelo, which in March launched a line of boozy aguas frescas. “Not many juices make you say, ‘Eh, not a lot of flavor here.’”

So it was actual juices that Modelo looked to when developing specific flavors for its spiked aguas frescas. Its employees fanned out from the company’s Mexico City offices in search of street vendors and markets selling the traditional, nonalcoholic versions. They found them in flavors including pineapple, watermelon, hibiscus and cucumber-lime, which became inspiration for Modelo’s four initial flavors, drawing a direct line from fruit juice to U.S. beer aisles.

While these hard aguas frescas are not beer — they’re made with a base similar to that of hard seltzer — juice and beer have had a cozy relationship since the first hazy IPAs began hitting taps in the mid-2010s. Deriving their “juiciness” from the tropical and citrusy aromas naturally occurring in certain types of hops, these IPAs had names like Juicy Bits, Son of Juice, Juice Jolt, and the king of all of them: Juice Force. Last year, the hazy imperial IPA from New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger line became the biggest craft beer brand debut in history, delivering such straightforwardly fruit juice flavors that one user on beer rating app Untappd likened it to “an alcoholic Hawaiian Punch.”

Juice is also winning in wine. Not with jammy cabernets, though, but products that most sommeliers would barely recognize as wine. Take BeatBox, a boxed wine brand that eschews vinous terminology and instead calls itself a “party punch,” with flavors such as pink lemonade, mango and cranberry — the latter in partnership with ​​Nathan Apodaca, the man whose skateboarding video and affection for Ocean Spray’s CranRaspberry Cocktail made him a viral sensation in 2020.

While overall wine sales have been sluggish in recent years, BeatBox has bucked the trend. Its year-over-year dollar sales growth at the beginning 2023 made it one of the fastest growing ready-to-drink alcohol brands, outpacing even leading canned cocktails. Behind that success? Juice, of course — and not just in terms of flavor. Alcohol e-commerce website Drizly describes BeatBox’s packaging as “light, squeezable pouches … [that] evoke an almost juice boxlike drinking experience.” (Your move, Capri Sun.)

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The juicing up of everything logically leads to one endpoint: straight-up boozy juice. The first products labeled “hard juice” hit the market this year, with more on the way. No doubt eyeing the success of Juice Force IPA, New Belgium in March launched Wild Nectar Hard Juice in passionfruit-lime, strawberry-guava and passionfruit-mango-orange. In April, Philadelphia-based company Two Robbers, known for its hard seltzers, launched mango and black cherry flavors of Double Punch Hard Juice.

The company says the idea came from Two Robbers customers, who posted social media videos of themselves blending hard seltzer with fruit juices. To really capture not just the flavor of juice but its slightly viscous texture, Double Punch has what co-founder Vikram Nayar calls a “full-bodied” mouthfeel.

“From a drinking experience standpoint, it feels more like you’re drinking a cocktail versus our current seltzers, which are more like a light beer,” Nayar says. “Hard juices are a little more rich, indulgent and flavor-forward.”

As sure a bet as juice seems to be in alcohol right now, these products are not without critics. Namely, some public health officials and even alcohol trade groups have raised concerns that so-called “crossover” beverages — which add alcohol to existing nonalcoholic brands — could appeal to children or confuse shoppers. In March, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed a law prohibiting stores from displaying spiked versions adjacent to their nonalcoholic counterparts. And where products like Simply Spiked or SunnyD Vodka Seltzer are stocked in Virginia, stores must hang signs “of sufficient size to notify the consumer that the product contains alcohol.”

Producers of juice-inspired alcohol say they’re not targeting kids at all, but instead adults who are perhaps nostalgic for the familiar flavors of their childhood. Even if they don’t drink actual fruit juice much anymore, adults might still feel affection for those colorful cartons and bottles. BeatBox co-founder Brad Schultz says that combining those memorable fruit juices and alcohol is, for adults, “an indulgence, a treat.”

“It’s comforting,” Schultz says of the nostalgic effect. “The majority of people look at the past as a positive, and they look back with fondness.”