Flavorful brews

“Malternative” beverages and flavored beers are bringing excitement—and sales—back to the beer category.

Historically blondes may have more fun, but of late in the beer case the more vibrantly colored flavored beers and malt beverages are the ones having the hotter time.

Mainstream beers have been losing market share for several years now as consumers switch to wines and spirits, but malt beverages in flavors like cola, lemonade and iced tea, along with related products like hard cider, continue to build steam.

Malternatives—malt beverages with added fruit juices or other flavorings—account for 2.5% of beer sales, according to New York-based Beverage Marketing Corp. There were 55.6 million cases (24 12-ounce units) of malternatives sold through September, up 15.7% from the same period in 2010. “Beer has been underperforming the overall alcohol beverage category for a number of years now,” says Gary A. Hemphill, managing director. “[Brewers] have been trying to introduce new products that to compete with spirits and add excitement to the category.”

That is exactly what the major players such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, have done to offset declines in their flagship brands. St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, for example, manufactures the popular Bud Light Lime and Michelob Ultra Pomegranate Raspberry flavored beers, along with Bacardi Silver and Tequiza malt beverages.

One of the products Chicago-based MillerCoors is promoting is Sparks, a malt beverage packaged in 16-ounce cans in Original (cherry and citrus) with 6% alcohol by volume (AVB); along with Iced Tea, Lemonade and Blackberry (8% ABV).

Craft brewers are also making flavored beers a greater part of their portfolios. F.X. Matt Brewing Co., based in Utica, N.Y., is coming out with Saranac Blueberry Blonde Ale for its summer seasonal brew, along with Saranac Shandy, a lemonade-based beer. “We find when it comes to seasonal beers that the fruit-flavored beers are really growing,” says Fred Matt, president.

In late February Matt plans to introduce a Chocolate Orange flavored beer as part of its High Peak series.

Aluminum bottle

Aside from the great taste, company officials say part of the appeal of the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey-based ready-to-drink malt beverage line is that it is packaged in a 12-ounce aluminum bottle.

“Consumers want convenience and flavor,” says Sean Wachsman, associate brand manager for Jack Daniel’s at Brown-Forman in Louisville, Ky. “The launch of the Jack Daniel’s RTD has gone well because the 12-ounce aluminum bottle is unique to the category and provides brand in hand in a very premium format. Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails are delivering against the heavy flavor trend, evident in the growth of the whiskey category in the U.S. and the proliferation of flavored whiskies and ever-expanding flavored vodka category.”

Three new Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails are launching this spring: Downhome Punch Light, Watermelon Punch and Berry Punch.

Diageo recently launched Smirnoff ICE ¡Tropical Fruit!, the 11th addition to the Smirnoff Ice Premium Malt Beverage line, along with Smirnoff Signature Screwdriver. “With its proprietary juice flavor technology, Smirnoff Signature Screwdriver replicates the taste of the classic cocktail and provides the mixed drink experience without the hassle of mixing,” says Heather Boyd, brand director, Progressive Adult Beverages, at Stamford, Conn.-based Diageo-Guinness USA.

Diageo also produces the popular Jeremiah Weed Flavored Malt Beverages, the newest addition to the Jeremiah Weed line. They are available in 23.5-ounce cans and six-pack 12-ounce cans. “This specific line of flavored malt beverages is more male-centric than other competing products, from the name to the authentic graphics, package design and can format,” Boyd says.

Vermont Hard Cider Co., the Middlebury, Vt.-based manufacturer of Woodchuck Hard Cider, is also touting the adult male consumer with its seasonal lines of hard cider. “We’ve been pushing the boundaries with cider for the last four or five years,” says Bret Williams, president and CEO. “We have a Private Reserve line. Last year we produced the world’s first pumpkin cider. We brought it back again this year. It has been a huge success and is bringing more men into the category because we are running a closer parallel to craft beer.”

Vermont Hard Cider’s other new product is Farmhouse Select—a 100% pure Vermont apple cider with Belgian yeast and a 6.9% alcohol content that is packaged in a 750-ml stopper bottle. “Our original projections were that we thought we would ship around 300 cases for opening orders and quite frankly our opening orders came in at 15 times that,” Williams says.

Gluten-free options

Orders have also been exceeding expectations for Bard’s Beer, the sorghum malt craft beer marketed by Minneapolis-based Bard’s Tale Beer Co. Using sorghum instead of barley allows it to be gluten free. “To make it taste like beer, we malt the sorghum and we are the only ones who do that. It is like our ‘secret sauce,’ and is why we taste like beer while our competitors are more cidery,” says Brian Kovalchuk, CEO.

Kovalchuk admits sales were initially slow, but the product took off as the gluten-free craze swept the nation. “Now that the market is proven, retailers keep asking us if we’ve got more,” Kovalchuk says. 

When pigs swig

Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. is brewing excitement in its beer case by merchandising a line of private label craft beers under the Pig Swig label. The Charleston, S.C.-based chain has teamed with Thomas Creek Brewery in Greenville, S.C., to develop the line of beers, which so far consists of the year-round Pigpen Pilsner and Pigtail Ale, and Christmas seasonal Seven Swines ‘a Swigging, a bock beer flavored with allspice that pairs well with most holiday foods, including baked ham and even pies.

Piggly Wiggly introduced Pig Swig last May. “The timing was just perfect,” says Nick Long, Piggly Wiggly’s beer and wine category manger. “Everybody hears about how the craft beer business is just booming.”

Long says Piggly Wiggly decided to offer a private label beer after seeing the success it had with its private label Grace Bridge wine, which was introduced in 2009 and is bottled by Brownstone Vineyards in Lodi, Calif.

The beer is being promoted in-store. “We have displays in the store and we promote it on a consistent basis to make sure the customer sees it,” Long says. “We give it the proper cold box space and we are just making a big presence.”

Plans call for expanding the line. “We want to add a summer brew and an Oktoberfest style beer,” Long says.

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