By Maeve Webster
For the over two decades that Boulder, Colorado’s Avery Brewing Company has been brewing beer, it has mostly been known for its brash, unapologetically in-your-face brews. The brewery has produced a wide variety of beers that clock in above 10 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), including the 17.2 percent ABV Pump[KY]n Ale, spiced with a heavy dose of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and cloves to stand up to the high alcohol content. The brand’s 5 Monks bourbon barrel-aged “quintuple” ale is the highest gravity beer in Avery’s history, at 19.4 percent ABV. It’s not just alcohol content that puts Avery over the top – they also brew a number of exceptionally hoppy and bitter beers, including their best-selling Maharaja Imperial IPA at 102 IBUs (International Bittering Units) and Mephistopheles’ Stout at 107 IBUs.
But things may be changing. Two years ago the company released the first in a series of low-alcohol beers, Avery’s 3Point5 India Session Ale, with the name referencing the beer’s ABV. Founder Adam Avery told Paste magazine, “There’s a movement toward experiments in subtlety … we’re trying to figure out how to make super flavorful beers that aren’t really high alcohol.”
Avery isn’t alone. Throughout the industry, brewers, distillers, cocktail bars and restaurants are embracing a wider range of flavor profiles and alcohol contents in order to reach and cater to a wider audience. In many ways, these lighter profiles reflect America’s maturing craft beer and spirits industry. When the craft movement first began, many artisan brewers and distillers created attention-getting products as a reaction to the prevalence of light, easy-drinking styles on the market, setting off a race to create “bigger and badder” beverages. Hoppy IPAs soon became the go-to beer style, blowing through the 100 IBU ceiling. Soon breweries were marketing beers with 300, 400, 600, even 1,000 and 2,000 IBUs (though whether these measurements are accurate or even possible is much debated).
But today, craft spirits and beers are widely available and the industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Now microbrews and craft cocktails are no longer a specialty beverage for many consumers, but rather the default option. But wider acceptance, availability and consumption also mean that high-proof, shock-your-palate beers didn’t always make sense. A beer with 10 percent ABV is often too potent for a mid-day lunch, and chefs and bartenders are looking for beers and cocktails they can pair with a wide variety of dishes. Rich and bitter is fine for red meats, but what about seafood and pasta? And, more importantly, both for the consumer and for the bottom line, diners could enjoy a few drinks over a meal or evening – no more “one and done” – without the risk of overindulging or palate fatigue. Also, consumers who are less familiar with high ABVs and IBUs have a more approachable entry point.
Now brewers and distillers are looking to new, authentically low-alcohol styles and drinks from around the world, particularly Europe, to create a more well-rounded product line – think ciders, German radlers and Bohemian-style pilsners. The trend is best exemplified by the popularity of flavorful, traditionally low-alcohol session or saison beers, which have increased their presence 26 percent on beer menus in the last year alone, and a whopping 325 percent in the past four years, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends. And we expect to see even more session beers on this year’s spring and summer bar menus.
Restaurants and cocktail bars are following suit, dividing the menu into sections like “Low Alcohol” and even “No Alcohol,” or organizing a bar menu by flavor profile instead of the central spirit. This year’s Tales of the Cocktail conference will include a session on “Low Octane Libations,” noting, “If you haven’t already spotted a ‘low alcohol’ section on your favorite cocktail menu, you will soon.” This is particularly true as the line between the kitchen and the bar continues to blur, and restaurants and food-forward cocktail bars place a greater emphasis on beer and cocktail pairings in addition to, or even in place of, wine pairings.
But make no mistake – bartenders take these drinks just as seriously as their more potent counterparts, balancing a variety of spirits, fortified wines, apéritifs, bitters, tinctures and house-made syrups and juices to create drinks that justify traditional cocktail prices. San Francisco’s Nico makes its own low-proof spirit from a sake base for its low-alcohol menu, while Miami’s The Federal uses low-alcohol fortified wines and vermouths in variations on classic cocktails, like bloody Marys (made with agave wine) and mojitos (made with mint syrup lager). Swapping out ciders and beers for hard liquors also means the restaurant doesn’t have to spend $200,000 on a full liquor license (twice the cost to build out the restaurant, according to Eater).
Now drink menus have something for every taste and pairing. Chicago’s Analogue uses emoticons to denote flavor profiles; for example, 🙂 means “refreshing.” New York’s The Dead Rabbit, which has won seemingly every major “Best Cocktail Bar” award, breaks their bar menu into a variety of flavor categories: Sharp, Ambitious and Fresh. The “Low-Spirited” section of the menu is described as “low-alcohol, pleasant, simple, clean,” with drinks that use sparkling wines, sherries, and ports mixed with citrus and bitters. The eponymous Dead Rabbit cocktail features a quinine-infused apéritif wine, Manzanilla sherry, peach, orange, chamomile and Bittermens Boston Bittahs.
In fact, sherry has grown 22 percent on restaurant drink menus in just the past year. Almost all of the hallmark ingredients used in low-alcohol drinks have grown on drink menus in recent years. Port is up 41 percent over the past four years, while vermouth is up 60 percent. And the apéritifs often used in these cocktails, like Lillet (up 134 percent over four years) and Aperol (up 449 percent), are some of the trendiest ingredients in drinks today.
For both producers and restaurant/bar operators, offering a wider range of beers and spirits that appeal to a variety of tastes just makes good business sense. Margins are often high, customers can purchase and drink more with less risk, and they reflect an industry-wide shift towards more personalization and customization. And variety is the key. It doesn’t mean that strong flavor profiles and high-proof beers and spirits are going away anytime soon, but it does mean that they may no longer be the only option, or even the focus, on drink menus.
This article has been provided by Maeve Webster, senior director, and Mike Kostyo, publications manager, of Datassential, a leading consulting firm and supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry.