Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Tapping Beverage Trends The annual VIBE Conference brings beverage flavor and service trends front and center

The annual VIBE conference has master mixologists stirring up creative and on-trend sips. Tony Abou-Ganim’s Monkey Shine is a mix of Absolut Mandarin, Cointreau, Campari, fresh citrus and guava.

Finding new ideas, or better yet, learning the best ways to adapt them to your operation, is an integral part of any conference. Take the topic of cider, for example: An explosive category in the United States, cider is now widely available from small and major brewers alike, and even the craft-beer makers have started to develop a range of traditional and flavored ciders. Mostly limited to brew-centric bars until recently, cider has started to break wide open as younger consumers, unburdened with preconceived notions, have found it refreshing and flavorful—especially younger legal-drinking-aged women.

At the recent VIBE Conference, held each March in Las Vegas, beer expert Stephen Beaumont hosted a session that attracted a standing-room-only crowd of chain restaurant beverage executives interested in sampling six examples of widely available ciders, including one draft version. The styles varied in crispness, astringency, aroma and sweetness (Americans who say they prefer dry styles of beverages have long been known to favor a sweeter touch than Europeans, and many ciders have been tweaked just so for the U.S. market).

Tastings like these are essential when making decisions about the next operational or product step. Operators who have not already considered adding America’s original hard beverage onto their menus left with a greater awareness of what cider drinkers are buying these days.

One cider, as mentioned, was served from a draft system, a topic that has attracted attention throughout the on-premise beverage world. Not only are ciders claiming their place among the tap handles, cocktails and wines served that way are increasingly seen as viable options.

Tapping New Notions
Doug Frost, Master of Wine and Master Sommelier, gave conference attendees the chance to sample a group of the same wines served in two different formats: directly from the bottle and from a draft system. They also heard about the nuts, bolts and potential problems and opportunities from experienced hand Mary Melton, director of beverage for P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, where draft wine has been available in some units. Whatever the costs and challenges operationally—a different gas mix for established lines, slightly different equipment (brass couplings and some types of stainless steel can disastrously affect wine after extended contact)—the proof was in the glasses. Wines served from the draft system compared with the same wine from bottles were generally found to be at least as good as, and, in a majority of cases, better tasting, fresher and livelier. The verdict wasn’t unanimous, but an informal show of hands indicated that tap wines won the room and some significant converts.

Cocktails served from a tap system have stirred a certain amount of controversy, pitting handmade classic cocktail purists against bartenders and operators as interested in swift customer service and staff efficiency as they are in observing the niceties of decades-old drink-making methods. But the promise—multiple (often fresh) ingredient drinks mixed ahead and served speedily—attracts most operators, especially those looking to serve beverages with a wider range of flavors without sacrificing efficiency.

At a panel discussion about pre-batched draft and bottled cocktails, Kathy Casey of Seattle-based Kathy Casey Liquid Kitchen, pointed out that operational requirements should be properly analyzed before taking on such a system. These include: careful recipe development and batch preparation; draft line maintenance; frequent keg agitation; and start-up costs. Regular customer preferences must also be taken into account, but batching cocktails to serve en masse is a time-honored practice that holds promise for upgrading cocktail programs in more mainstream operations today, says Casey. One example from the panel: At the Imperial in Portland, Ore., two cocktails are routinely served on tap, with depletions of a draft Vieux Carré hitting ten gallons each week—a volume difficult to manage if each drink was made à la minute.

Flavor Findings
Conferences like VIBE are replete with research presentations. One, commissioned by the organizers, gathered more than 1,000 online consumer responses to questions posed by chain restaurant operators. Among the important findings: Despite the economic uncertainty, Millennial consumers most frequently reported dining and drinking out, and are not only going to more pricey locations but are more likely to order higher-priced beverages. They are also more likely to try a new drink experience and are more likely to order a second drink.

Not surprisingly, drink menus were cited as the most influential factor in what a customer ordered. Among the other insights: Craft beer drinkers prefer theirs on tap; seasonal beers continue to grow in interest; consumers expect to see 12 or more wines offered by the glass; and strawberry, pineapple and cranberry are the leading flavors sought out in cocktails, while mango and passionfruit are the leading emerging flavors. Among all cocktails, “signature” and “fresh” are the most preferred.

The impact of the Hispanic population on mainstream culture—especially Hispanic Millennials—has begun to focus the attention of beverage professionals. According to Donna Hood Crecca, Technomic’s senior director, adult beverages resource group, these consumers are mostly young, more male than female, and are primarily Mexican in origin; they will continue to provide an increasing share of restaurant and beverage income.

Most importantly, the Hispanic population’s spending power is likely to increase from $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in just five years. And while Hispanics only make up 15 percent of legal age drinkers today, that, too, will continue to change. Current estimates indicate that the percentage nationally will grow to 18 percent by 2025 and 21 percent by 2035. Some regions will see far speedier growth.

Technomic research found that Hispanics are more likely to drink at a bar or restaurant than the general population, especially frequenting fast-casual and family dining restaurants, where they consume beverages on a regular basis. As well, Hispanic consumers favor beer, especially when it comes to imports and Mexican brands, though they also consume domestic, light, flavored malt beverages and cider more than the general population. They are more likely than the general population to consume rum and tequila, and they are also more likely to have ordered wine in a restaurant in the past month than the general population.

Untapped Opportunities
For all the attention paid to potential breakthrough beverages, there’s plenty of research that indicates that the Millennial consumer isn’t finding what he or she wants at chain restaurants. According to Warren Solochek of The NPD Group, full-service restaurants are in a contracting environment, with fight for consumer share the main issue. Smaller chains and independent restaurants are doing a better job than big chains because, as he said, they aren’t usually tied to strict beverage policies set at the national level. Chains usually have core menus that only sometimes allow tweaks at the edges.

“What sets apart small chains and independents is they do things like local sourcing, which for food items is clearly important,” says Solochek. “For beverages, it means the kinds of ingredients added into the mix are very unique establishment by establishment, and bartenders tend to have a greater ability to experiment more and the opportunity to create unique cocktails.”

As most consumers, especially Millennials, prefer their dining and drinking out experiences to be unique, satisfaction ratings tend to rank independents higher than chains. Casual-dining restaurants still mainly attract Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, with Millennials showing a more adventurous spirit in terms of seeking the new and intriguing rather than the familiar and reliable. The casual-dining segment has a big opportunity to use its beverage menu to better appeal to Millennial consumers.

From opportunities in tap and draft systems to flavor trends and demographic preferences, this year’s VIBE conference hit on the highlights of building business through beverages.

About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.