The drink with a problematic kick
A brief history of Chelsea, the Anheuser-Busch soda
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A soda flavored with lemon, lime, apple, and ginger, and with a 0.4 percent alcohol content. Made by Anheuser-Bush, the beer company.
The USA (test-marketed in areas of Virginia, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Illinois; never sold nationally).
In 1978, as “Happy Days” and its spin-off, “Mork & Mindy” sat near the top of TV ratings and disco continued to dominate the pop charts, the USA’s culinary landscape was in the early stages of a seismic shift. Julia Child had reached a point of sufficient cultural saturation that Saturday Night Live lampooned her show that September, while the farm-to-table ethos of restaurants like Chez Panisse, which opened in 1971, was beginning to change the collective understanding of what was considered “sophisticated” food. At the same time, and in arguably the same spirit, more Americans were getting into fitness, with marathons popping up around the country and Richard Simmons on the verge of mega-fame thanks to “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.” The term “yuppie” was just on the horizon, coined in 1980, but the archetype already existed.
As beverage manufacturers surveyed the zeitgeist, they decided that what those Perrier-drinking, 10K-running folks really need was some new sodas, which they rushed to develop. “Suddenly this spring, TV commercials are jumping with parched young fitness freaks, all panting for sporty new soft drinks,” Newsweek observed in 1979, before adding a quote from the president of Pepsi-Cola: “We sell life-style.”
Anheuser-Busch wanted in on the action, and while they didn’t have any history of selling sodas, well, they could could give it a shot. They spent two years working on a product and in 1978, it debuted with in several test markets and with a $2 million advertising budget. It was called Chelsea and was priced at $2 for a six-pack (which works out to nearly $28 today—let’s just pause and marvel at that price point for soda). Chelsea had a citrusy taste but it also had an alcohol content of 0.4 percent and beer-like head when you poured it, and it was, of course, made by a beer company whose name was featured prominently on the cans and bottles, the latter of which had a foil seal for extra fanciness. Chelsea’s marketing slogan was “the not-so-soft soft drink,” playing up the inclusion of alcohol, even though the amount was small enough—lower than the 6 percent or so of most beer, or the 0.5 percent of most kombucha made today—that the drink could be sold to anyone. Even, potentially, kids.
That last part—that possibility of kids getting hammered on many bottles of expensive but slightly boozy soda—was, to many observers, the problem. Critics called it “baby beer” and said it was a gateway to alcohol consumption, a way for Anheuser-Busch to reach underage consumers. Religious groups and educators protested. The Virginia Nurses Association said it was “‘conditioning’ youth to acquire a taste for beer.” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch demanded that the company stop selling it.
In October 1978, just a few months after Chelsea launched in six test-market cities, Anheuser-Busch pulled it from the market, citing “inadvertent communication” in its advertising for creating the sense that the drink could appeal to anyone other than adults. “In the interests of corporate and social responsibility,” the company’s official statement said, “we have suspended all test-market advertising and promotion of Chelsea, and we are studying the possibility of overcoming certain in well-intentioned objections to the product.”
By December 1978, a retooled version of Chelsea was back in those same test-market cities, with less foam, only a “trace” of alcohol, and a new slogan, “The natural alternative.” But sales never took off—consumers weren’t interested in a pricey soda, and no amount of advertising could get the “sophisticated” label to stick in a meaningful, profit-generating way. Chelsea languished in the test markets until November 1979, when it was discontinued for good.
Despite Chelsea’s short and poorly-received tenure, it’s hard not to see it as a signal of things to come in the industry, a precursor to the drinks that would take its formula and invert it, with clearly alcoholic beverages sold with a cool, youthful, informal air. It was only two years after Chelsea’s end, after all, that wine coolers like California Cooler entered the market, becoming a billion-dollar segment of the industry, before yielding, in the early 1990s, to “malt-liquor-based surrogates like Zima and St. Ides that delivered the cloying fizzy fruitiness, but without any actual wine.”
That legacy is readily apparent right now, too, to anyone who’s gotten in on the hard seltzer trend of the last few years. As with the wine coolers of the 1980s, there’s a clear appeal here to people who want something light and sippable that doesn’t taste like alcohol—basically, a soda, but with a kick. Vox tried to explain the product’s appeal a few years ago, noting that regular seltzer has built its own cachet of late, and “hard seltzer has a relatively low ABV,” making it an easy step from one to the other.
If you go back just few years before hard seltzer blew up, you’ll find its own precursor, the drink that helped create the current cultural moment of boozy beverages that evoke non-boozy beverages, a thirst-quencher that taps into a certain nostalgic appeal for imbibers under 40 by reminding them of their youth while adding the kick of adulthood. That product: hard sodas like Not Your Father’s Root Beer, which “one of the fastest-growing products in U.S. beer aisles” back in 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal. The headline for that trend story was “Not So Soft Drink,” an unintentional nod to a product that seemed outrageous in its moment but may have foretold the trends to come.
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This has nothing to do with Chelsea soda, but it’s snack-adjacent, so allow me to recommend Kae Lani Palmisano’s excellent new personal-history essay in Food & Wine, “Dumpster Diving for Discount Desserts Behind the Entenmann's Outlet.”
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