Soda Pop That Packs A Punch

So there's this dude named Mike, and he goes, "Lemonade is good and all, but I bet it tastes better with alcohol." He squeezes a bunch of lemons, adds some sugar and malt liquor. Then he carbonates the stuff and sticks it in a bottle. Mike's totally casual about it, but everybody loves his brew so much that success sort of sneaks up on him "like a windshield sneaks up on a bug." That's what it says on the six-pack. It used to say this stuff is reallygreat--"as in when you die and go to heaven and you go up to God and say, 'Hey there' and He says, 'Hey there' back, this is what you'll smell on His breath."

Now, we ask you, who wouldn't suck on that bottle? Mike's Hard Lemonade Co. of San Francisco sold 7 million cases last year, its second on the U.S. market. Now the business is full of fictitious cool guys--Jed, Rick, Del, "Doc" Otis and even One-Eyed Jack--who sell fizzy-lemon malt beverages. Like wine coolers, these "malternatives" go down like soda but pack a beer's worth of alcohol (about 5 percent). And their promotions convey a hip, zany image--both on the Web and in the stores and delis where they're sold. That's why critics are so riled. "These are learner drinks," says David Jernigan of the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems. "They make a mockery of the industry's claim that it doesn't market to kids."

Hard soda isn't a new idea. In 1995, England's Bass Brewers introduced a malt lemonade called Hooper's Hooch. It was a hit, and by 1996 copycat "alcopops" had flooded the British market. Health advocates disliked the kid-friendly promotions (some brands had fluorescent labels and psychedelic logos), and politicians were soon demanding reform. Taxes and packaging restrictions followed, and the market lost its fizz. U.S. brewers stoutly deny that their malternatives are for kids. "We market this in a very responsible manner," says Russell Barnett of Mike's Hard Lemonade. Other brewers take the same stand. "Doc" Otis is intended strictly for someone "over the legal drinking age who enjoys a malternative," says Francine Katz of Anheuser-Busch.

Critics don't doubt that, but they see the sophomoric marketing campaigns as a sure lure for teens. To confirm that suspicion, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, has lately been conducting focus groups in which kids share their insights. Ten high-school kids from the New York suburbs chatted with CSPI's pollster recently. Their knowledge was impressive. Ever heard of hard lemonade? the pollster asks. They volunteer brand names. Does this stuff taste like beer? "No," they sing out. What's the appeal of a drink like this? One of the kids explains, "It's an opportunity for someone who doesn't like beer to get the same effect."

You could say the same thing about cough syrup or strawberry daiquiris. Kids have always liked candy-flavored cocktails, and it's unlikely they would all stay sober if Doc and Mike and Henry stopped squeezing lemons. "There are all kinds of alcoholic beverages mixed with juices and sweet liquids," says Katz, "brandy Alexanders, grasshoppers, pink ladies." True enough. But so far at least, no bottler is using a talking grasshopper as a mascot.