H2Whoa — the radical rebranding of water (2024)

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Every generation has had its own modish way tohydrate. Louis XIV insisted on spring water ferried by mule from Châteldon in the Auvergne; in more recent times no backstage shot from Fashion Week seems to be complete without abottle of Fiji somewhere in the frame.

The latest water brands to cause a stir are making drinks that behave more like beers or energy drinks. They’re provocative, eye-catching and come in a can — and they’re an increasingly noisy part of a single-serve water market inthe US that’s worth $34.4bn and growing.

Market leader Liquid Death — tagline: “Murder YourThirst” — comes in a tallboy with gnarly heavy-metal stylings. It launched in 2019 with a plain stillwater sourced from the Austrian Alps, before diversifying into sparkling. Today, it’s a $1.4bn hydrationbrand encompassing plain water, iced teas,seltzers and electrolyte powders, plus merch ranging from Liquid Death watches and hair pomades tosweatshirts and cat toys.

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The brand was conceived by the Californian graphic designer Mike Cessario after he noticed fans backstage at Vans Warped Tour drinking water out of Monster Energy cans. “A lot of the brands that are in the alternative space are really unhealthy,” he said to Eater in 2021. “It’s a lot of cheap gross beer and energy drinks. We wanted to give people permission to participate in this cool rock ’n’ roll brand without needing to consume something gross.”

Liquid Death contains nothing more toxic than H2O, but it cultivates a noxious image. It’s notorious for its tongue‑in-cheek marketing and funny, often gory videosand memes. Its viral content has made it one ofthemost-followed drinks brands on TikTok, while partnerships withcounterculture celebrities including Machine Gun Kelly andskateboarder Tony Hawk have alsohelped buildits credibility with Gen Z.

Liquid Death positions itself as an environmentally friendly brand — “Death to Plastic” is another of its mottoes. But while its fans may still considerit underground, you can now buy it at Tesco (atthree timesthe price of Evian — a case ofEmperor’s New Clothes?).

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Following along in Liquid Death’s wake is the canned water brand Not Beer — a “zero-carb, zero-alcohol, zero-taste ‘beer’” that is cheerfully absurd.Derived fromlocal water sources inthe US,and packaged in liveryreminiscent of Budweiser, it “allowstheconsumer to buy into the beerfantasy world of good times withoutanyof the downsides that comewith alcohol”, says founder DillonDandurand, aformer investment banker and co-founderof the bean-basedpasta brand Brami,which is made from the high-protein,low-carb “superbean” lupini.

“Feeling comfortable drinking water in a social settingis not the only problem Not Beer solves,” he says. “The main thing is that your current water options are boring and invoke next to no emotion. Not Beer is your fun water option. It evokes those feelings alcohol companies sell us — fun, relaxation, confidence, inclusion.”

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Fresh out of the UK grime scene comes Drip, a cannedwater from the rapper and TV personality Big Zuu (‘‘‘Drip’ means clothes,” he says. “If you’ve got drip, you’ve got style”). Drip doesn’t explicitly court the beer market — Big Zuu is Muslim — but like its peers the company is setting out to be a lifestyle brand, producing video, musicand street art collabs under the title Drip Curates. Also keen to tout its green credentials, it’s canned at sourcein the chalky South Downs in the south of England. I blind-tasted it against some competitors and it was good: pure and polished.My nine-year-old, meanwhile, enjoyed strutting around the house brandishing the flashy black-and-gold can, like some kind of proto-lad.

Hydration has become aspirational

“Hydration has become aspirational,” says Joanna Lowry, head of strategy at Protein brand agency. She citesthe rise of the Stanley cup, the $900 Dior water bottle and “a wave of new luxury water-filter systems like Walter and Endless Rhythm” as testament to this. “Drinking canned water is a way to lead a life of self-optimisation while still retaining a countercultural spirit.” It’s slightly depressing to think that today’s version of sticking it to TheMan amounts to chugging water and paying three times the price for it. Butyou have to applaud the evil genius of the brands that made it so; they are the new homeopaths.

It’s well documented that increasing numbers ofadultsare now reducing their alcohol intake. It’s estimated that between a fifth and a quarter of young adultsare now teetotal. And the canned-water-as-beer phenomenon is just one example of a boom in proxy drinks that offer abstainers alcohol-free refreshment with adult positioning. A corollary of this trend is the rise of hop water, especially in the US — sparkling mineral waters thatare flavoured with hops, giving them a citrussy bitterness vaguely reminiscent of a beer.

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Sierra Nevada Hop Splash, $23.28 for 12 cans

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Hop Wtr Classic, $36.99 for 12 cans

On a recent trip to a Whole Foods in NewYork, I encountered chiller cabinets brimming with hop waters from established brewers like Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas, as well as standalone brands like Hop Wtr, which comes in a range of fruit flavours, embellished with nootropics. (In the event I bought SierraNevada Hop Splash, which proved tobean excellent midday refresher.)

“Hop-water-type products check a lotofthose same boxes as non-alcoholic beerormocktails due to zero-ABV, and theyalsoalign with the ascension of sparklingwater consumption over the past 10years,” says Mary Guiver, principal category merchant forBeeratWhole Foods Market.

The British craft brewer Northern Monk launched the UK’s first sparkling hop water, Holy Hop Water, in 2021 — and it proved so popular that the brewer now produces four variants flavoured with Citra, El Dorado and Sabro hops. The plain Citra variety is wonderfully thirst-quenching — I drink it at home a lot. “It’s stocked in bottle shops for the traditional craft beer drinker, but we also know it’s being drunk by people who don’t drink any alcohol,” says head brewer and co-founder Brian Dickson, “as well as bands and people playing sports.”

This blurring of boundaries in water is something we’renow increasingly seeing in drinks across the board — a phenomenon that’s being driven by a new generation ofconsumers who are comfortable with definitions in general being much more fluid. Which makes a trip to Whole Foods a lot more exciting — but also a bit more confusing. So next time you reach for that can in the chiller,just make sure you read the small print.

@alicelascelles

H2Whoa — the radical rebranding of water (2024)
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