Flavors—sometimes you want ’em, sometimes you don’t. At least that seems to be what is going on in the beverage business these days. For some categories, the greater variety of flavors a beverage can come in, the better. For others, coming out with a bunch of new flavors may actually do more harm than good. The trick is figuring out exactly where your brand falls when it comes to flavor innovation.
So, which beverage categories are ripe for more flavor innovation and which appear to have peaked in this regard?
One category that could see more flavor innovation in this new year is CSDs. It’s a category that could use some new excitement to help reverse declining sales, and some innovative flavors—tastefully done, mind you—could be just what it needs. So far, much of the flavor innovation in soda has been designed to appeal to younger drinkers. But I’ll bet that some grown-up flavors, using more wholesome ingredients, could catch the interest of older drinkers.
On the alcohol front, the new year brings some very interesting developments when it comes to flavors. For one thing, a study released just as 2013 was coming to a close revealed that flavored vodkas—an enormously popular trend which has really boosted this category—may have already peaked in popularity. Restaurant Sciences LLC, , an independent firm that closely tracks food and beverage product sales throughout the foodservice industry in North America, reported that the sales of on-premise flavored vodkas fell 11.7 percent from Q3 2012 to Q3 2013. Analyzing more than 170 million drink orders, the organization uncovered that flavored vodkas lost nearly one percent of their on-premise spirits market share from Q3 2012 to Q3 2013. So, it appears that while flavored vodkas remain quite popular, consumers may not be open to any additional flavors for their vodka in 2014.
Another spirits segment where flavors can be tricky is whiskey. The Wall Street Journal reported that Brown-Forman Corp. Chief Executive Paul Varga plans to take a “conservative” approach to rolling out new flavors for Jack Daniel’s. While Tennessee Honey, introduced in 2011, has done great, Varga and his team have correctly realized that for some beverages, too much flavor can go too far. After all, when it comes to a heritage brand like Jack Daniel’s, already savored so much for its inherent flavor, too much tinkering can probably do more harm than good.
I was walking the floor at the Holiday Buying Show in New York, jotting down notes and sampling a few brands when I was approached by a woman with a clipboard and a handful of Japanese beverage brochures. She must have had a keen eye for media as the word “press” on my attendee badge would have been barely visible from more than a handful of feet. “Would you like to taste Japanese spirits?” she asked me. Of course I would.
I was intrigued and impressed by her assertiveness—I’ve been to literally hundreds of trade shows and beyond a few stray hired hands unenthusiastically handing out postcard-size flyers promoting particular exhibitors, marketers rarely venture out beyond the confines of their booths to proactively increase traffic at their stands. As I learned when I reached the array of saké producers at the Japanese beverage alcohol pavilion, shochu marketers are really determined to broaden awareness of their venerable spirit to U.S. consumers and beyond.
I definitely have had my share of exposure to the drink. A few years ago I spent an evening at a shochu bar in Tokyo, where a local gentleman, who was eager to practice his English explained that younger Japanese (legal drinking age) consumers are moving away from saké—something they view as their parents’ drink—and toward shochu. That’s part of the reason why there’s such an opportunity in the U.S. for sake because it still has relatively low awareness and market penetration here and virtually nowhere left to go on its home islands.
One of the challenges stateside saké marketers have been facing is a lack of distinguishable branding—there’s a great deal of visual homogeneity among many of the brands on my local store’s shelves (not to mention, difficult-to-pronounce names for Westerners), despite the fact that there are amazing variations in flavor. As I mentioned in a previous column, that’s starting to change as marketers bring dynamic design elements and simple, memorable names to their products. There are similar hurdles for shochu marketers. But I do think that will change for shochu too, as importers ramp up their marketing efforts and continue to figure out how to market in the U.S., beyond the specialty shop and Japanese restaurant or izakaya.
Of course, bottles need to contain accessible products and I’m convinced that once more legal-drinking-age consumers sample shochu they’ll be converted. On the rocks most are remarkably drinkable with tremendous flavor complexity. Those made from barley provide a good bridge for whiskey drinkers. Those made from rice are good for those who’ve already discovered sake, as many of the aromatic elements are reminiscent of their rice-based cousin. And then for something truly unique and delightfully complex, there’s shochu distilled from sweet potatoes. Meanwhile, rum drinkers might find brown sugar-based shochu appealing.
I hope to see shochu—and the hotbed for shochu production, the Japanese island of Kyushu—represented at a larger number of industry trade shows with even more foot traffic from curious distributors and retailers. Kanpai!
When it comes to the beer-versus-wine-versus-spirits image wars, one need look no further than the local multiplex or the nearest home theater system. Wine traditionally has been put on a romantic pedestal with sprawling establishing shots of lush vineyard landscapes and dreamy little picnics in those idyllic settings, punctuated with clinking glasses of pinot noir. Even when the lead characters are severely emotionally and morally compromised, as in everyone’s favorite go-to grape movie, “Sideways,” wine still comes out of it with its religiously exalted status intact. But for every “Sideways” or “Bottle
Shock,” there’s a “Take This Job and Shove It” (I know I’m dating myself here) and “Beerfest.” Beer is relegated to the role of social lubricant for redneck layabouts and over-imbibing fratboys.
And you can forget about spirits. Anytime characters drink Scotch or bourbon on screen, they’re usually slumped over a bar, sipping to forget personal crises. Or they’re just plain evil.
Dennis Hopper’s “Pabst Blue Ribbon” exclamation may be the more iconic “Blue Velvet” quote, but one of the first lines Hopper’s sadistically depraved Frank Booth utters in David Lynch’s classic is “Where’s my bourbon?” Not exactly a clip the Kentucky Department of Travel is using in its tourism videos.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What about ‘Sex & the City’ and its impact on the modern cocktail culture.” I’m not talking about mixed drinks that are so diluted by fruit flavoring and pretty colors that that the base spirit barely expresses itself. I’m talking about connoisseur-oriented distillates, enjoyed neat, on the rocks or in a carefully crafted classic drink that retains the notes and nuances of the high-proof liquid.
Then you’ll say, “What about ‘Mad Men’ and the classic cocktail mini-renaissance it inspired?” Well, if you haven’t realized by season six that Don Draper is a functioning alcoholic with a therapist’s smorgasbord of issues, then I don’t think you actually have AMC.
Filmmakers (and TV show runners) just don’t seem to be capturing spirits and beer with the same flattering lens and lighting that they are wine.
But there is hope. I recently saw Ken Loach’s “Angel’s Share,” which combines a story about the strife of the Scottish working class with a bit of a mini “Ocean’s Eleven”-style heist and an absolute love letter to Scotland’s most venerated product. A must see, especially if you’re in the Scotch whisky business.
On the malt-and-hops front, next month brings the release of the indie romantic dramedy “Drinking Buddies.” Having already seen it, I must say, it really nails the vibe of the craft beer industry. Its main characters work in a Chicago brewery—Revolution, a real craft outfit whose name wasn’t changed for the film—and the opening title sequence featuring enormous sacks of malt, mash tuns, hop pellets, fermenting tanks, kegs and, of course, a delicious brew being poured is like porn for beer geeks.
Let’s hope that these two films are signs that the tide is slowly turning and that the cinema’s liquid love affair becomes a bit more inclusive.
The Brewers Association traded the Beltway for Broadway for the sixth edition of Savor, its craft beer/food pairing extravaganza, hoping the one-year detour to the Big Apple would boost craft’s profile in the eyes of the largest media market in the U.S. and, arguably, the world.
The annual rite of late spring had made its home at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum—save for its inaugural edition, which was at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.
“Being in New York puts craft brewers on center stage,” Brewers Association craft beer program director Julia Herz told Beverage World during the event at Manhattan’s adjoining Metropolitan Pavilion and Altman Building. “In D.C. we had Brewers on an amazing stage, but New York is a great home for a year and we’re reaching a different audience.”
The organization already had hosted 6,500 at the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in the nation’s capital in late March and decided one event in the first half of 2013 in the District was enough. Savor had provided an opportunity for brewers to meet with their legislators, but CBC fulfilled that objective this year.
“Why not come to the biggest media and food market?” Herz added.
Missing from last month’s event were the National Building Museum’s stately, atrium-style high ceilings and towering columns, but the classy, low-lit cocktail party vibe was still intact at the New York venue. As was the foodie’s paradise of culinary creations prepared under the direction of chef Adam Dulye, designed to pair with everything from a pilsner to a Russian imperial stout.
But despite New York City’s cred as a media and gastronomic center, the city still lags behind cities like Portland, Ore, Philadelphia and Chicago when it comes to being considered a “beer town.” That’s been gradually changing, especially with the efforts of established locals like The Brooklyn Brewery—the No. 11 craft brewer in the country this year celebrates its 25th anniversary—and Sixpoint Brewery. And a few new ones are opening in the city each year. Additionally, distributors like Manhattan Beer and L.Knife-owned Union Beer have been leading wholesalers of craft. New craft-centric beer bars seem to be opening every month as well; a local organization has created the Good Beer Seal to recognize such destinations.
Still, New York’s been a tricky market, especially when you consider how much competition there is for the drinker’s attention. And, of course, space isn’t something that’s in particular abundance in New York City.
Many craft breweries outside the region—including larger, established ones like Savor supporting brewery New Belgium—have yet to enter the market.
John Bryant, co-founder of Spokane, Wash.-based No-Li Brewhouse had considered the market, but has been hanging back, largely because of packaging issues.
“We were looking at New York and we were advised early on that the 22-ounce bottle package, which is what we’re in, wasn’t really relevant to the city,” Bryant explained as he poured from those same bottles of No-Li’s Jet Star Imperial IPA and Wrecking Ball Imperial Stout. “The were saying a lot of the smaller stores, up and down the street, are carrying six-packs, but they weren’t doing a lot of 22s on the shelf….But we’ve since been learning that with the 22, people are actually starting to experiment more.”
Bryant said he hoped Savor would attract a new level of attention. “Savor is in the capital of media, food and culture,” he said. “Boston’s great and North Carolina’s great, but New York’s where trends start.”
Eugene, Ore.-based Ninkasi Brewing Co. isn’t available in New York either, but part-owner and founding brewer Jamie Floyd was sampling Believer imperial red ale and Tricerahops imperial IPA, with an eye on the bigger, national picture. “It’s kind of more for the broader, national exposure,” Floyd revealed. We also spend a lot of time as a company working on food and beer pairings.”
As for entering the New York market, “We never say never,” Floyd said. “We’ve talked about it but we’re not looking for East Coast distribution at this point. We’re in the process of a $20 million expansion right now and that will allow us to continue to fill in more of the West Coast.”
One West Coast brewery that is available in the city is Hood River, Ore.-based Full Sail, though it took about 24 of the company’s 26-year history to finally get there. Founder and CEO Irene Firmat was pouring a pilsner from Full Sail’s LTD series and its Pub Series extra special bitter. “[Savor] is a celebration of beer and food and taking seriously, but still having a whole lot of fun,” Firmat said. Full Sail’s Savor participation extends back to the first edition in D.C. back in 2008. So which host city does Firmat prefer?
“I’m a native New Yorker,” she said, “so I’m a little biased.”
Craft brewers across the country have been known for their embrace of all things local and that dynamic has manifest itself further in New York City with the launch of Brooklyn Brewery’s Greenmarket Wheat. The brew, inspired by the Belgian wit style, is the result of Brooklyn’s collaboration with non-profit environmental group GrowNYC, which, among other activities, helps build community gardens and runs New York City’s best-known greenmarket in Union Square. The effort involved working closely with New York State farmers and malters.
The collaboration is result of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s 2012 Farm Brewery License legislation aimed at expanding the growth of craft breweries and increasing demand for locally grown products to brew beer across the state.
Greenmarket Wheat, which is brewed from 70 percent New York State-grown wheat and barley and packaged in a 750 ml cork-finished bottle, will be available on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Union Square Greenmarket and at Riverpark, chef Tom Colicchio’s restaurant where the beer was first poured during an unveiling event Wednesday afternoon. There are also plans to sell it at Whole Foods locations and other restaurants in the city interested in serving Greenmarket Wheat.
During Wednesday’s launch event, Brooklyn Brewery co-founder and president Steve Hindy described the path to making Greenmarket Wheat a reality.
“There is a demand for local produce, locally produced products and locally grown commodities and foods, but seven years ago you couldn’t get the grain to make this beer,” Hindy said. “Things have changed in the meantime thanks to the work of GrowNYC and the wonderful greenmarkets. [The markets are] such an incredible addition to the community in New York. There are people I see on Saturdays at my greenmarket whom I don’t otherwise run into. It’s not just a great place to buy your vegetables and your greens and everything else, it’s a great place to run into friends and it really creates a sense of community…The greenmarkets bring the bounty of New York to New York City and with this beer we’re supporting farmers upstate who are growing grain and providing a market for them.”
Hindy credits famed graphic artist Milton Glaser, who designed Brooklyn Brewery’s logo, as well as the iconic “I Love NY” logo, with bringing the brewery and GrowNYC together on the project. Glaser is a regular at the city’s greenmarkets and was also on hand at the unveiling.
“I’ve seen the city change so much in my time and one of the great changes in the city in terms of quality of life is the curious intersection of brewing and farming,” Glaser said. “Saturday morning is the time that my wife Shirley and I go out to start our day by going to the greenmarket…It’s a fabulous way to start our day and has so much improved the quality of civic credibility and comfort…I appreciate both the opportunity to continue to work for the Brooklyn Brewery and the greenmarket because of the common purpose of making feel good about being here and affectionate towards one another.”
Greenmarket Wheat uses raw wheat from North Country Farm in Watertown, N.Y., wildflower honey from Tremblay Apiaries in Chemung County, N.Y. and pilsner barley malt from Valley Malt in nearby Hadley, Mass. Malting only recently returned to the region.
“Throughout history there have been maltsters in any community where people grew grains and people drank beer,” noted Valley Malt owner Andrea Stanley. “And recently has that disconnect gone farther and farther away from where many of us live. And so in 2010 when we wanted to start using local grains in our home brewed beer, we found out that the closest malt house was in Wisconsin and we needed to grow a railroad car worth of grain if they were going to malt it for us. We decided that maybe we would step forward and maybe reconnect this part of our local food system.”
Right now, Brooklyn Brewery’s Hindy said, supplies of Greenmarket Wheat are only limited by the availability of local ingredients. “Really the only thing that’s going to prevent us from selling a lot of the beer is ensuring that we can get enough grain to brew it,” he said.
Brooklyn Brewery vice president and brew master Garrett Oliver says he hopes to be able to eventually boost the already high percentage of local ingredients used.
“We’ll keep the label saying 70 percent,” Oliver said, “but I’d like to be able to get to 80 percent, 90 percent and eventually 100 percent New York State-grown ingredients.”