Big beer sales are down, but popularity of eccentrically flavoured craft beers is up
Big breweries scrambling to catch up to microbrews and sell beer mixed with just about anything
A couple years back, Forked River Brewing Company in London, Ont., decided to brew a seasonal, rhubarb-flavoured wheat beer for the summer.
"We were flavouring it with locally cold-pressed rhubarb juice to give it a little sourness," said David Reed, Forked River's president and co-founder. "People get excited about that."
The initial 30-litre keg sold out in an afternoon. The next summer, they made 3,000 litres.
"Our production of that beer was [up] fivefold over last year," Reed said.
All the rage
Forked River is riding the wave of popularity of flavoured beers that has been surging over recent months and shows no sign of cresting.
Overall, per capita beer consumption in Canada has been falling for years now, losing ground to wine as the popular drink of choice.
According to Statistics Canada, domestic beer sales in Canada totalled about $7.7 billion in 2013, about the same as the three previous years.
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Nationally brewed beers — or commercial beers produced by the biggest companies — have seen sales decline.
The exception has been local and regional beers, driven by what Agriculture and Agri Food Canada calls a "consumer thirst for variety [that] has fuelled the growth of new products."
"As a result, there has been a proliferation of new domestic offerings," the department said.
And local and regional craft brewers like to play around with flavours.
"They want to try interesting, experimental things," says beer writer Ben Johnson.
"They say, 'Oh, if I brewed a beer with raspberries, that'll be delicious,' and they try it, and it's successful, and people try it, and they say 'Wow, that's amazing.'
"So, it's opening up people's minds to more interesting flavours and showing people that beer can be more interesting."
Weird and weirder
Interesting is one word for some of the beer flavours out there right now.
Some of the more outlandish are coming from craft brewers in the U.S., and they include Oregon's Rogue brewery with its Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale.
Wynkoop brewing's Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout is made with malts, barley, hops and "25 lbs of freshly sliced and roasted bull testicles."
Here in Canada, Barrie, Ont.'s Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery — whose catch phrase is "Normal is weird" — has dozens of flavoured beers, from stouts that taste like coconut or even birthday cake to Orange Mungus and Bizzango Mango Island, both fruit/vegetable beers.
Fruit-flavoured beers are continuing a trend that started with the recent radler craze in Europe.
First invented in Germany in the 1920s, the radler — originally, a lager mixed with grapefruit juice — is enjoying a resurgence, with lemonade or citrus-flavoured sodas sometimes substituted for grapefruit juice.
From perhaps one or two offerings just a couple of years ago, this past summer, dozens of radlers appeared on the market, many to strong reviews.
That hasn't gone unnoticed by the big players in the beer business.
"The big brewers ... see this, and they see craft brewers nibbling away at their market share, and they say, 'Maybe we should do some flavoured beer,'" said Johnson.
"And they do something like dump in a bunch of fruit concentrate or sugar or syrup, and they invent beer-a-ritas or something like that."
Big beer wants in
Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light Lime line introduced the Lime-A-Rita in 2012, and in eight months, it became the leading flavoured malt beverage on the market, selling more than 500,000 barrels, according to the company.
It was quickly followed by Straw-Ber-Rita, which, the company says, "blends the refreshment of Bud Light Lime with the taste of an authentic strawberry margarita." Anheuser-Busch says both Lime-A-Rita and Straw-Ber-Rita "are best enjoyed over ice."
The line now also includes raspberry, mango, apple, cranberry and lemonade flavours.
"They're brewing beer with flavours to [attract] people who wouldn't drink beer, because a lot of the beer they're brewing doesn't taste like beer," Johnson said.
"Any time you're encouraging people to drink your beer frozen, it's not really beer anymore. They see that their market share is eroding with 'real beer' drinkers, and so they're trying to bring more people in to their beer."
Little guys are winning
It's a far cry from the flavoured beer produced by smaller operations, says Johnson.
"The craft brewers are making flavoured beer with a lot of natural ingredients. They'll find local produce or hibiscus or coffee or chocolate and add that to their beer," he said.
Reed of Forked River says he doesn't see the flavoured products from the big corporate brewers as a threat and dismisses the possibility they will dilute the overall flavoured-beer brand.
"We're using fundamental ingredients. We're using barley, malt, hops, yeast and water," he said.
"And if we can augment a beer with a flavour that works and is complementary, like coffee or rhubarb or barrel aging or even down to bacteria — you can add lactobacillus or brettanomyces into the beer to give another added dimension — definitely [we'll do it].
"Fundamentally, we're making beer, though."
And that should never be served on ice.