Wild Yeasts & Sour Beer

As sour beer becomes more popular, more producers are foregoing traditional kettle-sourcing processes to inoculate their brews with wild yeasts, often found in unusual places. Pennsylvania-based Levante Brewing Co. has developed a yeast called Philly Sour, which was found on the bark of a dogwood tree in a local cemetery and is now sold worldwide. 

“I don’t know if the enthusiasm for hops will ever really wane, but with so many beer options available, there is definitely the space for some breweries to focus more on other ingredients,” said Gerard Olson, owner of Forest & Main Brewing Co. in Ambler, PA. That brewery every spring forages for yeasts from flowers on the property and uses them for that season’s saisons.

The Philadelphia Inquirer calls Philly Sour (and Norwegian yeast called kveik) “beer’s mostly unsung heroes.” The professor who isolated the Philly Sour yeast, “sends students into the neighborhood with Ziploc bags to collect samples, leaves, scrapings from bark, and other materials that might have yeast on them. Those materials are tested for fermentation.”

Read more (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Chocolate’s Beer Roots

Chocolate beer sounds like a faddish flavor, but its roots run deep. Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans fermented cacao fruit to make a beer-like drink called chicha.

Chicha is usually made from corn, but there are regional variations made from other new-world plants like potatoes, peanuts and cacao beans,” reads an article from The Seattle Times. Chicha was studied by archaeology professors at Cornell and Berkeley who found “The roots of the modern chocolate industry can be traced back to this primitive fermented drink.”

Read more (The Seattle Times)

By August, any manufacturer labeling their fermented or hydrolyzed foods or ingredients “gluten-free” must prove that they contain no gluten, have never been through a process to remove gluten, all gluten cross-contact has been eliminated and there are measures in place to prevent gluten contamination in production.

The FDA list includes these foods: cheese, yogurt, vinegar, sauerkraut, pickles, green olives, beers, wine and hydrolyzed plant proteins. This category would also include food derived from fermented or hydrolyzed ingredients, such as chocolate made from fermented cocoa beans or a snack using olives.

Read more (JD Supra Legal News

When Black Fire Winery in Michigan began struggling through the pandemic, owner Michael Wells (pictured) had to pivot from a tasting room. “I’ve had to rethink the way I have been doing things. My original business model was to sell out of the tasting room, but now I’m looking to make a huge presence online and outside the tasting room.”

Wells, the first Black owner of a commercial winery in Michigan (and believed to be the only Black commercial winemaker in the state), now sells online in 38 states and is looking to can his beer and hard cider (currently only available in his tasting room). Winemaking is a second career for Wells. He began as a home winemaker, experimenting after coming home from his job with the local fire department. After he retired, he opened Black Fire Winery and now tends to 11 acres of wine grapes.

Read more (Detroit News)

New Trend: Performance Beer

Inspired by the beer tents popular at the finish line of high-endurance events like marathons and triathlons, creative breweries are adding electrolytes to beer. They are turning  alcohol into a hydrating drink, but still giving drinkers a buzz. 

The market is small, constituting just 1% of the craft beer market (and craft is just 13% of the total beer market). But performance beer is selling well with consumers wanting alcohol with fewer calories.

Read more (Bloomberg)

The World of Fermented Foods

In the latest issue of Popular Science, a creative infographic illustrates “the wonderful world of fermented foods on one delicious chart.”  It represents “a sampling of the treats our species brines, brews, cures, and cultures around the world,” and is particularly interesting as it shows mainstream media catching on to fermentation’s renaissance. Fermentation fit with the issue’s theme of transformation in the wake of the pandemic.

Read more (Popular Science)

Researchers at Washington State University are developing a nutrient formula for yeast that could make fermentation easier and more predictable for cider makers. 

“Cider apples don’t have as many nutrients for yeast, unlike grapes,” said Claire Warren, a microbiologist for WSU’s School of Food Science. “I want to make a nutrient base for yeast used with cider apples so fermentation can be more predictable batch to batch and year to year.”

The difference between hard cider and apple juice is the role of yeast. Yeast converts the sugar in cider apples into alcohol. Though much is known about how yeast interacts with grapes, little is known about how yeast interacts with apples. Researchers are studying the analytical information behind a cider apple, hoping their research will improve production.

Read more (Washington State University)

Despite a year when cideries around the world were forced to close down taprooms and cancel restaurant sales due to the pandemic, cider sales grew 9% in 2020. 

“I know some of you are barely hanging on — but you are hanging on,” said Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association (ACA). “We did not waver, we held our shares and we kept growing.”

McGrath presented industry statistics at CiderCon 2021, the ACA’s annual global cider conference. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the conference was virtual this year. Nearly 800 people from 18 countries and 41 states attended the three-day conference. 

Smaller, local cider brands sparked consumer interest in 2020. Sales of regional cider brands  grew 33%, while national brands  declined 6%. 

The impact of the pandemic, though, has been severe on certain sectors of the industry. On-premise cider sales (in restaurants, breweries and taprooms) declined nearly 70% from 2019. 

“We’re resilient, we’re tough, we’re savvy. You couldn’t have predicted how your business would have stood up to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” said Anna Nadasdy, director of customer success at Fintech, a data company for the alcohol industry.

Nadasdy’s keynote on expected consumer trends in 2021 cited the key drivers influencing consumer behavior — the economy, politics and natural disasters. Here are seven of her takeaways for cideries: 

  1. Consumers Buying all Alcohol Types

Though consumers have long been loyal to one type of alcohol — beer, wine or spirits — the “beer guy or wine gal” label is disappearing. Over one-third  of consumers are purchasing from all three major categories. 

Hard seltzer is the third largest beer segment (16% of dollar share, behind domestic premium and imported beers), but it’s the fastest growing. This is exciting for cider makers, Nadasdy notes — hard seltzer in 2018 was the size of the cider market today.

  1. Fruit-Flavored Cider is Growing

Though apple cider still dominates the cider market with 52% of sales, fruit-flavored cider grew three points in the past year to 12% of sales. The top three fruit-flavored products are: Ace Pineapple Craft Cider, Incline Scout Hopped Marionberry Cider and 2 Towns Ciderhouse Pacific Pineapple Cider. 

(Other products in the cider category include: mixed flavors, dry cider, seasonal cider/perry, herb/spice cider.) 

  1. Cider is Making Waves in Craft Beer

Cider — tracked as part of the overall  craft beer category — is proving a worthy participant.Cider has 11% of the dollar share, second only to the category leader, India Pale Ale (41% of the  market). 

“That’s really impressive for such a small base,” Nadasdy says. “Even though you guys are a smaller segment, you still have a lot to contribute to the overall beer category. And I think it’s important when you’re having these conversations with retailers that you are able to point out these wins.”

  1. Hard Kombucha is Gaining Ground

Cideries are competing with hard kombucha. Though hard kombucha is a fermented tea and not a cider, retailers consider hard kombucha and cider comparable drinks. And hard kombucha sales are growing quickly.

“Although small now, keep an eye on (hard) kombucha,” Nadasdy said.

  1. Prepare for Changed On-Premise Sales

Once wide-spread vaccination is in place and on-premise dining returns, expect fundamental changes such as  more online ordering, healthier menu choices and a rise in food tech like tablet menus. The National Restaurant Association listed other significant changes that will impact cideries:

  • Streamlined menus. There will be fewer menu items, with 63% of fine dining operators and half of casual and family dining operators saying they will  reduce their offerings.
  • Alcohol-to-go. Seven in 10 full-service restaurants added alcohol-to-go during the pandemic. Thirty-five percent of customers say they are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers alcoholic beverages to-go. 
  1. Rosé-Flavored Cider is Out

Every brand of rosé-flavored cider is losing sales. The top three brands showing the most significant losses in this category are: Angry Orchard, Bold Rock and Virtue. 

  1. Cans Are King

Cans are leading the dollar share of the market, growing at 1.5 times the rate of bottles. Six-pack (11-13 ounce) cans are now the top share item with 29% of total cider sales. This is followed by six-pack (11-13 ounce) bottles and 4-pack (18-ounce) cans. (These figures do remove shares of Angry Orchard, which sells in bottles. Because Angry Orchard dominates 40% of the cider market, they skew the data.)

One of the biggest hurdles in the food and beverage industry is getting a product to market — an even bigger challenge for fermented food and drink brands featuring live bacteria.

“Fermented foods in general are still relatively new in the commercial marketplace. When we started, most beer distributors knew nothing about it. And that’s still a big challenge, how to communicate what you have. What is a fermented food? Why should people care about it?” says Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO of Dr Hops Real Hard Kombucha. Rood shared his advice during a TFA webinar, Launching a Fermented Brand.

Rood officially began Dr Hops in 2015 with co-founder Tommy Weaver. They met in a yoga class, and turned their passion for health and great hops into a kombucha beer they started brewing in Rood’s kitchen. 

At the time, there was a lot of variety and craft beer and kombucha, but hard kombucha was unheard of. “You don’t have a lot of focus on health in alcohol,” Rood says.

Rood went to investors with a pitch deck that outlined why traditional alcohol products don’t appeal to a health-conscious consumer — craft beer is made with gluten, cider is high in sugar and hard alcohol is too strong for regular use. Dr Hops, meanwhile, is gluten-free, low in sugar, unfiltered, made with organic ingredients and full of active probiotics.

“We have a passion for creating more delightful, health-conscious alcohol, and really pushing the envelope with that,” Rood says. “One of our biggest challenges is still how to communicate that into a very tiny amount of time to consumers, retailers and distributors.”

Starting in a category that didn’t yet exist, figuring out licensing took years. Dr Hops began with $13,000 raised from a Kickstarter campaign, then crowdsourced another $10,000  the following year. By 2017 — with labelling, alcohol licensing and product stability figured out — investors pledged $115,000, enough to start small-scale commercial production. Dr Hops officially went to market in 2018, self-distributing and selling at street fairs and beer festivals. 

“Part of the key to selling stuff without a huge marketing budget is focus,” says Alex Lewin, webinar moderator, Dr Hops advisor and TFA Advisory Board member. “Dr Hops started in the Bay Area, and  won over  relationships we had with some retailers — we had some real advocates. Don’t do a national launch if you have no budget.”

Rood stresses education is a key piece of marketing for the fermentation category. 

“How much is the whole community speaking about and educating the world about and celebrating the value of live fermented foods? The more we’re all doing that, the more it works to sell these products,” he adds.

Test audiences, consumer feedback and word-of-mouth marketing have been key to Dr Hops success.

“The fact that we were able to grow our business almost three times in 2020 even in the pandemic with no marketing is one of the best things we have to say about what we have. People want this,” Rood says.

Highlighting strengths helps Dr Hops distinguish itself in a newly-competitive field of hard kombucha brands. Dr Hops’ product line includes flavors that compare to well-known alcohol beverages. Their Kombucha Rose flavor is a substitute for wine, Ginger Lime for a cocktail, Kombucha IPA for beer and Strawberry Lemon for a mimosa. 

“While people might not understand hard kombucha, they pretty much already have a preference between beer, wine, cocktail and champagne or spritzers,” Rood says.

Health is core to Dr Hops, but higher-alcohol drinks are also higher in calories. Seltzer has been a key competitor to hard kombucha because seltzer’s calories are low. 

“But it’s not interesting,” Rood says. “If you really love alcohol or food or beverage in general, you want something more interesting than that. At this point, we’re willing to gamble on enough people who care about transparency and authenticity that if we put the nutrition label on there and list all the ingredients, even if it doesn’t compare very well on a calorie level, there’s enough else to it that people are going to try it.”

Bringing Sool to America

Disappointed to find so little premium Korean sool in the U.S., Kyungmoon Kim @kimsomm_ms (who helped open Jungsik restaurant in New York City). Sool is Korea’s all-alcoholic beverages. In January 2020, Kim, a master sommelier, launched KMS Imports, the first importer of Korean sool featuring a small selection from nine producers. Kim wants to establish sool and soju, a Korean version of vodka, as a major spirit category and teach Americans about Korea’s brewing and distilling traditions.

“I believe soju can follow in the footsteps of mezcal: Fifteen years ago, nobody knew mezcal,” Kim says. “You could only find the cheapest grade bottles with worms inside. Now, regardless of cuisine, you can find mezcal behind the bar, and people appreciate nuances in flavor profiles and regional production. Soju has its own unique story, and once people understand it, they will want to learn more.”

Check out the SevenFiftyDaily article for a fascinating history into Korea’s ancient brewing traditions.

Read more (SevenFiftyDaily)