According to one industry analyst, beverage alcohol shouldn’t be divided into three separate categories—beer, wine, and spirits—anymore, but rather, four. “The flavor category has established itself as a standalone fourth category in beverage alcohol,” says Bump Williams, president and CEO of Bump Williams Consulting, which advises suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers, and he notes that the category—which he says encompasses products like flavored malt beverages (FMBs), RTD spirits-based products, hard seltzers, and ciders—continues to lead beverage alcohol in sales growth and innovation year after year and has gained the most share of total beverage dollar sales from 2019 to 2022.
Indeed, flavors are driving much of the excitement in the beer category today, whether it’s through line extensions of traditional beer products or the exploding FMB segment. The emergence of hard seltzers and the resulting deluge of flavors in the space over the last four to five years has helped pave the way for expanded flavor offerings across the entire malt beverage landscape. “Thanks to hard seltzers like White Claw, Topo Chico, and High Noon, consumers are more open to flavors in their beer,” says Ed Mulvihill, director of sales and marketing at Peco’s Liquors in Wilmington, Delaware. Moreover, the abundance of FMBs today has helped grow the ranks of beer drinkers, the retailer says, as various flavors tend to appeal to different consumer demographics.
Other factors are also influencing the flavored beer trend. “The boom in cocktails and mixology has led to a rise in unique ingredients finding their way into RTD beverages, along with exciting cocktail flavors in the FMB market,” says Williams. As an example, he points to products like Mark Anthony Brands’ Cayman Jack Margarita-flavored FMB, which has been enjoying a double-digit growth rate over the last year. Trending cocktail flavors similarly play a role in new product introductions at Fifco USA, which markets brands like Seagram’s Escapes, innovations director Jaime Polisoto says. Seagram’s Escapes Spiked, for example, recently added Mango Mai Tai and Passionfruit Margarita expressions to its portfolio.
Culinary trends are additionally factoring into new flavored beers and FMBs, whether they’re culturally or ingredient focused. Williams points to influences from Central and South America, along with exotic fruits like prickly pear and tamarind, that have recently made their way into FMBs. At Molson Coors Beverage Co., research is extensive before a new flavor is launched. “We spend a lot of time with our consumers to understand what they want from the flavor space,” explains vice president of marketing for above premium flavors Joy Ghosh. The company also works with “insights and foresights providers” who track food, beverage, and culture trends “to help find flavors that are broadly appealing and can be scaled, while also delivering something unique that helps grow the total flavor space,” she adds. Recent flavored introductions from Molson Coors include the Simply Spiked lemonade and peach lines, as well as the Topo Chico hard seltzer portfolio.
Fifco even relies on “crowd sourcing” to aid in new product introductions, Polisoto reveals. For the company’s upcoming winter release under the Genesee Specialty line—only available for a limited time in some eastern markets—Fifco solicited input from brand influencers and consumers via on-premise events and social media. Citrurs Pils, a pilsner-style ale with tangerine and lime flavors, was recently announced as the fan favorite for the line.
Beyond ‘Beer-Flavored’ Beer
The recent wave in FMBs is helping to build the consumer base of beer products, marketers and retailers agree. Ghosh explains that typical hard lemonade consumers tend to skew 45 years and older, are white, and reside in rural or suburban areas. But Simply Spiked has brought in new consumers to the segment—specifically those aged 21-34—along with black consumers, she says. According to Val Price, general manager of the seasonal Independence Beer Garden in Philadelphia, “a lot of people want more than just beer-flavored beer,” and the ensuing offerings from suppliers have expanded the consumer base for malt beverages. “As a beer garden, it’s important for us to have something for everyone,” Price says, so that beer lovers and non-beer lovers alike are drawn in. Independence Beer Garden’s menu includes flavor-focused beers like Southern Tier Juice Jolt IPA ($7 a 16-ounce draft pour) and Captain Lawrence Orange Crusher ($9 a 12-ounce can).
Overall, fruit essences have had the biggest impact in the beer flavor space, whether the base is an IPA, hard seltzer, or malt beverage. “Peach is the hot flavor right now,” says Williams, and marketers and retailers agree. Simply Spiked Peach was introduced in May, and according to Ghosh, it emerged as the best performing new product in the second quarter based on dollar share. Anheuser-Busch InBev, meanwhile, introduced Busch Light Peach for a limited run this summer.
“Tropical flavors also continue to heat up,” notes Williams, pointing to the growing popularity of pineapple, passionfruit, and guava flavors. Seagram’s Escapes was apparently ahead of the tropical flavor trend as its Jamaican Me Happy flavor—which Polisoto describes as “the perfect balance of strawberry, lemon, guava, and watermelon flavors”—was launched some 17 years ago and remains the line’s top-selling flavor. In fact, this coming spring Fifco will build on Jamaican Me Happy with the introduction of the Jamaican Me Happy Happiness series, featuring even more flavors.
Combinations of fruit flavors are also popular. Seagram’s Escapes Spiked, the FMB line’s higher abv offerings, feature several flavor combinations, such as Pineapple Cherry Lime and Blood Orange Peach. “Fruit-flavored combinations provide the opportunity to be unique,” Polisoto says. “Fruit combinations allow consumers to explore new flavors, including those that may be trendy.” Indeed, in March Seagram’s Escapes Refreshers will launch, she reveals, featuring cane sugar and real fruit juice. Planned flavors include Pineapple Cherry, Strawberry Açai, Kiwi Lime, and Mango Orange. Williams agrees that dual flavors appeal to many consumers. “Combination flavors offer a great way to provide both familiarity and excitement,” he says.
Flavored beer options aren’t just limited to fruit expressions; savory and spicy flavors are also trending. “Herbs and spices are a big winner in the flavor landscape in 2023, and this is primarily due to the ongoing performance of cheladas, as well as the malt version of Fireball that has been expanding its retail presence,” Williams wrote in August in his monthly industry update to the clients for which he consults. Constellation Brands’ Modelo Chelada Especial is a big driver in this segment. In addition to the flagship, which comprises Modelo beer, tomato juice, salt, and lime, the chelada line includes five flavors—Limón y Sal, Mango y Chile, Piña Picante, Naranja Picosa, and Sandía Picante. “The strong performance of our flavors has enabled Modelo Chelada to become the No.-1 RTD chelada in the category,” says Greg Gallagher, vice president of brand marketing. Gallagher says dollar sales for the brand jumped more than 50% for the 52 weeks ending July 16, and the flavored line extensions have helped expand the brand’s consumer base. “While our core drinkers skew Hispanic, our flavor-forward cheladas appeal to and have been increasingly growing with non-Hispanic buyers, as consumers everywhere are looking for authentic and bold new flavors,” the beer marketer says.
Boston Beer Co. has also been exploring savory beer expressions, albeit on a limited basis. In July 2022, the brewer produced The Real Dill golden ale, featuring pickle brine from The Real Pickles brand, as a draft-only release at its downtown Boston taproom. This summer, the offering returned, along with limited four-pack can sales, again only at the taproom. According to Megan Parisi, head brewer at the site, consumer response has been strong. “When we first released The Real Dill, it was even more popular than we had imagined, and that’s why we brought it back,” she says, and she hasn’t ruled out the return of Real Dill next year.
Boston Beer’s Twisted Tea, meanwhile, is leading the surge in malt beverage-based hard teas. Its success has prompted spiked versions of established tea brands, including Lipton and Arizona. Molson Coors recently unveiled Peace Hard Tea, in partnership with Coca-Cola, in the Southeast. “Tea-centric packages have generated strong incremental dollar gains versus a year ago,” Williams said in his August report.
Despite the recent flavor trends, some established beer flavors still endure. While not as anticipated as in years past, seasonal pumpkin beer releases continue to have a place on the shelf and at the bar. “In the fall, pumpkin beers are always our No.-1 flavored beer,” says Price from Independence Beer Garden. And at Peco’s, pumpkin brews remain the store’s top seasonal beer. The brews are featured in a big autumn-themed display called “Peco’s Pumpkin Patch” each year, as well as in a special section in the cold box.
Ghosh encourages retailers to feature popular flavored beers prominently on shelves and in coolers to drive sales. “Sampling is also a powerful tool to drive trial with consumers, especially with new innovations,” she says. Simply Spiked is supported with its own truck that makes visits to festivals, as well as on- and off-premise locations.
The Molson Coors executive and other marketers agree that while expressions may cycle in and out of popularity, flavored beer products are here to stay. “Flavor is key to FMBs, and there are always opportunities for new flavors to emerge,” Ghosh adds. She and Constellation Brands’ Gallagher note that they’re constantly researching and anticipating evolving consumer trends in an effort to launch flavors that have broad consumer appeal. Fifco’s Polisoto adds that as beer consumers discover new flavors from around the world, the industry will be quick to respond. “Beer consumers will continue to want choice,” she says. “And they’ll continue to crave new flavors.”