Trend Watching: Is Beer Looking to ‘Sweeten’ Its Deal with Drinkers?

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Us humans are a fickle species.

For as much as we are individual snowflakes, there is still even more that binds us together, ingrained predispositions that go back to our earliest ancestors. Fight or flight, companionship and even the kind of food we like to eat.

While our tastebuds can take us in all sorts of directions – cilantro or soap? – there is still one unifying taste to which we return time and time again: sweetness. It’s a choice determined by our culture and biology, all the way into our chromosomes.

Americans_Have_the_Fever_for_Flavor

Via Nielsen, preferred tastes by gender for flavored alcoholic beverages. Click to enlarge.

So is it a surprise that it constantly finds a way to sneak into the drinks we love? Juices and sodas easily satiate a need for sweet, but even our booze continues to turn that corner, offering more options that either incorporate sweetness or tackle the taste straight on. After all, honey is the 2015 flavor of the year for a reason.

Whenever people talk about trends in beer, it’s always the same few things: sours, session IPA, lagers, cans.

That sour trend? We’ve wondered about it since 2011. Session IPA? Gaining steam since 2012. Lagers? Maybe consider source of flavor. Cans? It’s a vessel, not a trend.

Old feels new again all the time. Trying to talk about hot trends in beer ignores the fact it’s like jumping in a time machine and throwing a dart at a year to visit. “Trends” are cyclical or simply never ending. History can teach us that.

The next “big thing” in beer? It’s already here. It always has been.

When talking trends, people often point out beer styles. But what if we simply go a bit deeper and rather than analyze a particular kind of beer, we focus on what might make it popular in the first place.

Better yet, look at it in the perspective of all alcohol and not just our beloved brews. Across the board in 2015, the theme of “sweet” has taken hold of booze, as consumers show over and over they’re looking for a particular flavor to complement their favorite wine, liquor or beer.

Wine

Look no further than the sudden rise of rose, which has excelled this year even after a 39 percent increase in sales of premium imported rose in 2014. Like other wines, rose offers an eclectic mix of flavors, with many focusing on characteristics of “fruity” and/or “sweet.”

Sweet red – “grocery store merlot without the hypocrisy” – rose 7 percent in sales in 2014 and continues a climb alongside red blends, the sweeter version of which is popular in grocery stores.

Naturally, “sweet and bubbly” are in style.

Spirits

Fireball isn’t the only flavored spirit making drinkers go crazy:

Flavors like cinnamon, peach and honey have exploded into the spirits category: The former now generates more than $200 million annually in Nielsen-measured off-premise (store-bought) channels, and the latter two each generate over $100 million. And to top that, all apple-flavored beers, flavored malt beverages and spirits account for a staggering $350 million of annual sales.

Infused cocktails may be A Thing, but even flavored bourbon is helping that liquor grow with lots of honey-laced brands popping up. Iconic Jack Daniel’s is getting help from whiskies flavored with honey and cinnamon. Jim Beam is rocking with cherry, maple and apple. Hell, even Crown Royal  is buoyed by an apple brand.

Beer

Why does all this matter? Because the most important demographic for beer – Millennials – also happens to hold the same position with wine and spirits. It certainly helps that this group will soon hold the most purchasing power of any generation and also happens to be rather promiscuous with their alcohol choices. For as much as Millennials love beer, they’re also showing plenty of affection for wine and spirits.

So when we talk about trends, that’s why it’s worthwhile for us beer enthusiasts to look across the board and not just at our navels, full of sours and session IPAs. Brewers may try to start trends and we may show them support, but it’s still the vast majority of all other beer drinkers who are the ones to make something happen.

Like Not Your Father’s Root Beer, the darling child of 2015 beer sales that has outsold craft’s biggest brands from Lagunitas IPA to New Beglum Fat Tire and Sam Adams Boston Lager. Squint hard enough at this chart and you’ll see lots of other sweetly flavored beers making it big, like brand lineups from Redd’s, Mike’s Hard and Bud Light Ritas.

But fruit-flavored styles also have done well, with the rise of shandies/radlers. Those beers have become top sellers for Leinenkugel Brewing, which sells a projected 90 percent of that style. Widmer Brothers launched the Hefe Shandy over the summer to capitalize on the growing segment and try to boost sales for their flagship Hefeweizen.

“There’s obviously cross-branding opportunities,” Kurt Widmer, co-founder of Widmer Brothers, mentioned to me over the summer. “When we looked at doing a shandy, it made most sense to come back to the Hefe as the perfect starting point, rather than reinventing the wheel.”

Hell, even IPAs have turned the corner. No longer do people want bracing bitterness in lieu of an India pale ale that’s “juicy.” Then again, that movement for IPAs as a whole took a big step forward in 2015, as legacy brewers started to tweak their recipes to better reflect consumer demand for tropical and fruity tastes and aromas.

Does all this count as a trend? Our preference for the sweeter side of things may be something biological, but it sure is showing more selling power these days as we continue our march away from mass lagers to more flavorful options. Maybe that bitter beer face hate had a point after all, just 20 years later.

 

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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13 thoughts on “Trend Watching: Is Beer Looking to ‘Sweeten’ Its Deal with Drinkers?

  1. Great post and great blog! In wine at least, there have always been sweet offerings of various forms. Way back in the day, many wines were sweet or fortified (for example “dry” champagne as we know it was only introduced in the mid-1800s, before it was all sweet stuff). Manischewitz, the “fighting varietals” of the 80s, White Zinfandel, Moscato, and now Sweet Reds & blends. And remember wine coolers like Bartles & Jaymes? What’s interesting is that the way “sweet” is marketed changes a lot over time, but it’s always out there in some form. How long will the “sweet red” trend last before it’s replaced by something else? Who knows. The hard-soda trend isn’t really fundamentally new either. RTDs like Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, remember Zima?, have been around for a long time, but individual brands come and go. People, especially Americans, definitely have sweet teeth, but it seems they are somewhat fickle in how they get their sugar fix and what flavors are the carriers (today’s Not Your Dad’s Rootbeer may be tomorrow’s Zima). This is just a unsubstantiated theory, but I think the strongest, most enduring products/brands have “balance”. A well made IPA has to have the malt backbone and sweetness to balance out the bitterness of the hops. That’s a category that’s definitely here to stay.

    • Excellent points, and thanks very much for adding some needed historical context on the side of wine, Ian.

      As luck(?) would have it, I was just talking about Zima yesterday and its flash in a pan. I admit I’m very interested to see where the alchopop segment goes, as Not Your Father’s is branching out, bringing lots of Big Boys along, like Boston Beer, AB InBev and the like.

      • Thanks Bryan. I think the big boys will always be jumping on every new bandwagon that comes along. They have to to keep growing and stay relevant, and they have the distribution muscle, so once they see a trend work, they hit it hard. You can see this in Redd’s Apple Ale, “ciders” like Smith & Forge (you can imagine that focus group “we want to market hard cider to men”), etc. Bud Lite Mixx Tails, etc. But consumers also crave authenticity and I’d venture to say that’s why these things end up as flashes in the pan. But the big producers are on to the next thing… They call it “innovation”. Good craft producers have the authenticity, and I think it’s more dangerous for them to chase trends purely to chase trends because they risk losing what makes them attractive in the first place. If Lagunitas or Stone came out with a Shandy, I’d begin to worry..

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