High-ABV products power innovation 

IN flavoured alcoholic beverages

Tired of losing sales to higher alcohol beverages like spirits and wine, brewers of beer and flavoured alcoholic beverages seem to be saying: "if you can't beat them, join them". ​​​​​​​Tom Vierhile examines a new generation of high-ABV products that offer consumers twice the alcohol content or more of ‘regular’ products

Considering the amount of press given to craft beer and the huge growth in new craft brewers, it is easy to come away with the impression that everyone is drinking more beer these days. The actual data says otherwise. According to GlobalData, per capita consumption of beer in the US is expected to actually decline by 4.9% from 2016 to 2020. At the same time, spirits consumption is expected to rise 4.3%, and wine consumption is projected to sprint ahead by 9.8%. These are not the kind of numbers you want to see if you are a brewer and have any plans for future growth.

The question is, how do you turn this around? The answer seems to be by duplicating some of the characteristics attracting consumers to spirits or wine. Alcohol content is an obvious consideration. When it comes to alcohol, consumers – especially younger millennials – seem to believe that more is better. And while higher alcohol contents can significantly change the flavour profile and "drinkability" of beer, flavoured alcoholic beverages (FABs) are more of a blank slate offering plenty of room to innovate.

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The high-ABV approach is already working for some brands

Café Agave's new Cold Brew Spiked Coffee is the world's first high-ABV cold-brew coffee

Targeting a new consumer 

BASE with high-ABV products 

The high-ABV approach is already working for some brands. Mike's Harder from Chicago-based Mike's Hard Lemonade has been available for more than a half-decade, but has recently become a sales sensation. The company claims the brand is the top-selling flavoured malt beverage in the US convenience store channel, enjoying a sales increase of over 19% for the 26-week period ending 2 April 2017. 

The 8% ABV drink is similar to the core product, but ‘harder’ since it has nearly twice the alcohol content of Mike's Hard Lemonade (5% ABV). The company says Mike's Harder appeals to a “different consumer than Mike's", a consumer who tends to be younger, and is more likely to be male.

MillerCoors takes aim at the same consumer with several new offerings. Steel Reserve Alloy Series Spiked Blue Razz is rolled out in December last year in 24-ounce cans, the signature package of high-ABV FABs. Building on the success of existing flavours like Hard Pineapple, Spiked Watermelon, BLK Berry, and Spiked Punch, the brand is focused on the single-serve opportunity. 

According to sales data quoted by MillerCoors, dollar sales growth of "high alcohol flavour singles" in convenience stores is up over 13% for the year-to-date through 23 September 2017. Also new is Redd's Wicked in a watermelon flavour aimed at 21–27 year-old millennial males. Perfect for the "pre-party occasion," the drink has 8% ABV with a bold, natural fruit flavour. It rolled out in the US market in February.

A seductive alternative

to beer

Two FAB heavyweights – Seagram's and Smirnoff – are also revving up to join the high-ABV FAB market, potentially taking it to new heights in 2018. Seagram's Escapes Spiked has an 8% ABV and is packaged in 23.5 fluid-ounce cans said to be perfect for "turning up the night". The three-flavour line – Jamaican Me Happy, Strawberry Daiquiri, and Calypso Colada – was in a phased rollout from October 2017 through January 2018. 

Smirnoff Ice Smash is chasing the high-ABV FAB opportunity with a February 2018 launch in the US. The four-flavour line of 8% ABV drinks "from the most recognisable brand in flavoured malt beverages" debuts in 16 fluid-ounce cans in strawberry lemon, original lemon lime, screwdriver, and cherry lime flavours.
These entries join some other notable high-ABV products launched over the last year or so, including Extra Kinky premium malt beverage. This 8% ABV flavoured malt beverage is geared toward women and comes in pink, gold and blue varieties in 23.5 fluid-ounce cans. 

Claimed to be a "seductive alternative to beer," the pink flavour is said to be an "extra naughty fusion with hints of mango, blood orange, and passion fruit." Clubtails Cuba Libre is a 10% ABV "classic" cocktail packaged in a 24 fluid-ounce can and is said to be inspired by the Hispanic cocktail of the same name, which features rum blended with cola and lime.

The most creative new high-ABV FAB launch does not come from an industry heavyweight, but from a newcomer. Café Agave's new Cold Brew Spiked Coffee is the world's first high-ABV cold-brew coffee and hopes to cash in on millennials' growing love of the sub-category. The 10% ABV product uses a wine base instead of spirits or malt, is lightly sweetened with agave nectar (instead of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup), and is packaged in 187ml cans for more of a premium positioning. Café mocha, vanilla cinnamon, salted caramel, and espresso shot are the four available flavours.

The high-ABV approach is already working for some brands

Health concerns and 

high-ABV FABs

With so many companies now focused on the high-ABV FAB opportunity, it will be interesting to see if growing worries over binge drinking have any effect on these new product plans for 2018. The latest news on binge drinking is not good. According to a 2017 study conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), binge drinking (defined as the consumption of five or more drinks on an occasion for men and four or more for women) is on the rise.

Examining responses to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, researchers found that 33% of US adults reported binge drinking over the past year. This data (from 2012–2013) represents a significant increase from the results from a 2001–2002 survey that found 23% of US adults binge drinking over the past year. Not only is binge drinking up, but "extreme" binge drinking is also rising. The percentage of Americans drinking at two to three times the normal level of binge drinking and three or more times the normal level of binge drinking rose from 5% and 3%, respectively, for the earlier period to 8% and 5% for the later period.

If high-ABV FABs are seen to be providing permission to binge drink, or normalising the practice, the alcohol beverage industry could be innovating itself into a tight spot in the future.

Café Agave's new Cold Brew Spiked Coffee is the world's first high-ABV cold-brew coffee