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Central Standard

How LaCroix Sparkling Water Went From Midwestern Staple To Status Symbol

Alissa Walker
Flickr - CC

Before LaCroix Sparking Water became a trendy drink, it was a favorite of Midwestern moms.

That’s according to Vox.com reporter Libby Nelson, author of "Why LaCroix Sparkling Water Is Suddenly Everywhere."

In her article, she traces how the bubbly drink  — which she remembers from her Kansas City childhood as “the pastel cases of tasteless soda that my Girl Scout leader packed into her minivan” — went from a Midwestern staple to a status symbol.

“It was this question that had been in the back of my mind for a little while,” she told guest host Brian Ellison on KCUR’s Central Standard. “Over the past year or so, everybody I knew on the East Coast was suddenly talking about drinking (LaCroix), which was the canned filtered water I knew as a kid.”

Nelson, who usually covers education policy for Vox, knew she was onto something at a work brunch earlier this spring, when someone brought a case of LaCroix.

“I had made homemade bagels or something, but what people were really excited about was the sparkling water,” she said. “And that was the point where I was like, OK, something’s going on here. This isn’t normal.”

The frenzy for the canned carbonated beverage has included “LaCroix over Boys” T-shirts, memes featuring the pamplemousse flavor … and even a cake decorated to look like a LaCroix box at Whole Foods in Willamsburg.

“This is very clearly beyond just being a popular beverage. It’s very much a phenomenon,” said Nelson.

While growing up in Leawood, Nelson recalled LaCroix as the drink that her mom’s friends would quaff in the 1990s if they were trying to be healthy. During college, she worked off and on at a summer camp in Minnesota. Alcohol wasn’t allowed at the camp, so she and her colleagues drank LaCroix as “sort of a nice treat at the end of the day.”

“So I remember it as very much a Midwest thing. It’s definitely not the kind of thing that East Coast people would usually be like, ‘Oh, this is the cool drink of the summer now.’”

There are a few reasons why LaCroix rose above the pack, said Nelson. One was its ubiquity; you can find it everywhere. It’s nationally distributed and bottled in a bunch of different plants around the country.

Also, our drinking habits changed. Starting in 2008, people started cutting back on sugary sodas and turned to bottled and sparkling water.

The word also spread via bloggers, especially those who covered motherhood, fitness and healthy eating, and also by writers in the TV industry in Los Angeles.

“Everybody I talked to who drank it … all roads led either back to the Midwest … or led to L.A. to some office they worked in that ordered LaCroix,” Nelson said.

In the 1990s, the Wisconsin-based LaCroix pitched itself as a middle class drink.

“It was like the good solid American alternative to European sparkling water,” Nelson said. But now it’s found a new life with a different audience.

“It’s this very interesting product that started out really beloved by people who had good taste, but were not tastemakers per se, and then 20 years later, it was discovered by 20-somethings in Brooklyn,” she added.

According to Nelson, the response to her article has been “really overwhelming.”

“In some ways, it was a really nice validation that when you think you’ve picked out a phenomenon, and you’re always a little bit worried that, 'Oh, have I just written about what my friends are talking about and nobody else cares?'

“This was one where I was just floored by the amount of readership it got.”

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.