Asian Flavors Shake Up Hard Seltzer
In 2020, three separate groups of drinks entrepreneurs realized there was a hole in the flavored malt beverage (FMB) space. It resulted in Lunar, Drunk Fruit and Nectar, a trio of different hard seltzer brands that incorporate Asian flavors, such as yuzu, lychee and more.
The founders’ motivations were personal, but the business’ launches were auspiciously timed with increasing consumer interest in Asian flavors. After all, Asian Americans are the country’s fastest growing population, according to the Pew Research Center. And they’re a population that likes to eat and drink.
Worldwide, among so-called “ethnic foods,” Asian food—a catch-all for a broad range of cuisines that hail from the Asian continent—might be the fastest-growing. Between 1999 and 2015, market research firm Euromonitor found that sales at Asian fast food restaurants, a key indicator of global food trends, grew by 135 percent. It far outpaced rates of growth for categories including Middle Eastern, chicken, pizza, and Latin-focused cuisines. More recently, Zion Market Research estimated that the global Asian food market would hit a staggering value of $231 billion by 2028. Steven Tang, cofounder of Drunk Fruit, cites the community’s spending power: In February 2023, Numerator found that Costco’s “typical shoppers are Asian American women.”
It was only a matter of time until hard seltzer took note. Even as the category’s stratospheric rise stabilizes, demand for Asian flavors is fueling growth for some brands.
Filling a Niche in Hard Seltzer
Lunar Hard Seltzer was born four years ago when Kevin Wong and Sean Ro were eating Korean fried chicken late one night at a New York City restaurant.
“It struck us,” says Wong, “why are we drinking Black Cherry White Claw and Bud Light? Why isn’t there a drink that fits what we’re eating not only from a quality standpoint but a flavor and pairing standpoint?”
Wong and Ro started homebrewing hard seltzer. It was 2019 and the category was exploding, plus, hard seltzer’s neutral base provided a good canvas for big flavors. They gravitated toward fruits that would connect with members of the Asian and Asian American community: yuzu, a citrus fruit sourced from Japan; passion fruit from Taiwan; Korean plum from South Korea; and lychee from Thailand.
That same year, while visiting Japan, Drunk Fruit cofounder Kenn Miller fell in love with chuhai, a carbonated shochu-based beverage that often features Asian fruits. With friend and cofounder Steven Tang, the two started experimenting with their own DIY concoctions. Soon Miller and Tang realized they could build a business piggybacking on the success of hard seltzer. The pair ultimate settled varieties including yuzu, lychee and melon.
Market research aside, Wong said these flavors run deep in the consciousness of Asians and Asian Americans. “My summers throughout my childhood were spent in Taiwan, [with] my grandmother taking me to outdoor markets where she’d buy me lychees,” he says. “Biting into a lychee in the sweltering summer heat, that’s a core memory to unlock, and to be able to share that experience in this format is what we want to do.”
Fueled by a Younger Audience
Millennial and Gen Z consumers may in part be driving interest in the Asian-flavored hard seltzer trend. Nectar, which counts Asian pear, mandarin, lychee and yuzu flavors among its offerings, has found noted success on TikTok, a well-known bastion of those age groups.
“The first video went viral and got 300,000 views in three days and suddenly, we had hundreds of people across the U.S., blowing up my phone and asking for the drink,” cofounder Jeremy Kim told Digiday last year.
“Younger generations are so much more globally connected, eager to experience new tastes from all over the world,” says Jennifer Creevy, food and drink director at trend-forecasting firm WGSN. She predicts we’ll continue to see more Asian-inspired flavors pop up from different regions, particularly calamansi from Southeast Asia.
Caleb Bryant, associate director of market research firm Mintel, echoes this sentiment. “Twenty three percent of Gen Z and 22% of millennial alcohol consumers say they would try a new flavor of an alcoholic beverage if it was internationally inspired,” says Bryant. Given that Asian-inspired flavors and ingredients are trending across multiple food and beverage categories, “Asian-influenced hard seltzers [are] an area for future product development.” Bryant cites that 14% of Gen Z and 13% of millennial alcohol consumers are interested in trying yuzu-flavored ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages.
Big-name brands are already trying to capitalize on this demand. In March 2022, White Claw released Citrus Yuzu Smash.
“When we started Lunar, we got plenty of comments like, ‘This is niche, this is only for Asian people’…[some] retailers and distributors dismissed this ‘trend’—that’s dismissive of a community I’m part of,” says Wong. “When White Claw comes out with something yuzu-flavored, in some way, that’s validating for us.” Still, he believes that brands with genuine, emotional connections to these ingredients are better ambassadors for them.
“White Claw can come out with a yuzu hard seltzer,” says Tang. “But we Asian Americans are uniquely positioned to take drinks of true Asian origin and make them more accessible here in the United States.”