The U.S. Brewers Association reported that while overall beer sales were down in 2019, craft brewer sales grew by 4%, reaching 13.6% of the U.S. beer market by volume. In Canada, the number of brewing facilities increased by 12.9% in 2019, with 94% of breweries classified as small, local operations. Canadian craft beer sales increased ten-fold over the past decade. Flavored beer continues to have a strong presence.
According to Mintel, more than 100 new flavored beers landed on North American retail and grocery shelves in 2020, representing more than 40% of total new product activity. However, with many breweries selling innovative new flavors directly to customers (and never hitting retail shelves), the actual number of new flavored beers is likely to be much, much higher.
Many breweries have added value to their products, delighted customers, and increased market share with flavored beer offerings. However, there are a myriad of technical considerations when adding flavor to beer. Is it better to use raw ingredients or a liquid flavor? What sanitary and safety concerns should be addressed? When is the best time to add flavor to achieve the desired result?
To understand the nuanced pros and cons of adding liquid flavor to beer, we spoke with Stephen Rich, Brewmaster, Certified Cicerone, Prud’homme Beer Sommelier, and BJCP Certified Beer Judge.
In part two of our interview, we’ll ask Stephen about flavored beer trends and how brewers can create delicious beers that build customer loyalty and their brand.
Q: What are the pros and cons of adding liquid flavors to beer?
Stephen Rich: Any time I’m thinking about adding a new raw material, ingredient, process, or technology to the brewing process, I review the pros and cons with my team and with suppliers. Specifically, we discuss the pros and cons in the context of our values, what we do, and why we do it. We also examine the pros and cons through the lenses of quality, safety, and flavor perception.
Pro: Accuracy & Consistency of Dosing
A big benefit of adding flavor is the accuracy and consistency of dosing capability compared to the corresponding raw material. As you know, a pound of raspberries may present a different amount of character this year than it does next year. Or even this week than it does next week. The accuracy and consistency of using a flavor, which in turn affects the accuracy and consistency of the perceived taste—is among the most significant advantages of liquid flavor.
Pro: Range of Customizable Flavors
Another plus of using a flavor is the broad range of options and ready availability of supply throughout the entire year. When sourcing raw materials, you have seasonality, location, and availability considerations that can create challenges for brewing flavored beer.
Pro: Ease & Flexibility of Adding Flavors
Depending on the ingredient and the quantity, adding raw materials could present logistical and safety concerns. For example, how feasible is it to add 500 pounds of raspberries to your batch? Is it a safety concern to physically lift those raspberries into the tank? What about later in the process when you have to get them out? How easy will it be to clean any mess that is created?
Adding a liquid flavor or extract could be significantly easier and offers process flexibility. You can add liquid flavors to the tank, in-line between processes, during fermentation, during maturation, in the bright beer tank, pre-filtration, or post-filtration. Every brewer will need to define the addition stage that is best suited for their desired result.
Pro: Reduced Safety Concerns
Using a flavor also carries fewer safety concerns, especially if the corresponding raw material is heavy and requires lifting into the tank. Of course, it will depend on the size of your production and your capabilities. Some brewers have systems in place for precisely those situations. In those cases, adding sizable amounts of raw material will be less of a concern.
Pro: Reduced Risk of Hygienic Contamination
I think another great pro for adding flavors is the reduced risk of hygienic contamination compared to the corresponding raw material. Any time brewers add anything, whether it’s a filtering medium, fruit, spice, or flavor, the risk of contamination should be a real concern.
Ingredients like cocoa nibs or vanilla beans are relatively easy to sterilize, but how would you ensure 500 pounds of raspberries, with a much more complex surface, are safe to add? Pasteurization isn’t ideal because it will affect the fundamental characteristics of the raspberry. Or let’s say you’re a small brewer who got the raspberries from a local farm down the road. You might not even have the opportunity to pasteurize them.
So from my perspective, depending on the raw material, a flavor addition may have the advantage of reduced contamination risk since liquid flavor is available in a sterile format.
Pro: Improved Sustainability & Reduced Beer Losses
Adding a flavor usually results in reduced beer loss compared to adding the corresponding raw material.
Let’s say you’re making 1000 liters of beer and decide to add 500 pounds of raspberries. Initially, you’ll be increasing our total volume, but the fruit will inevitably absorb some of the beer. After processing and separating the beer from the fruit, you’re going to end up with less than 1000 liters of raspberry beer. It will be richly flavored, but typically, you’ll have less product to package.
So from a sustainability or conservation perspective, using a liquid flavor will allow you to reduce your losses in processing and reduce the amount of water it takes to make a liter of beer. Historically, the water-to-beer ratio hasn’t been much of a concern, but more breweries are starting to reexamine this issue.
The environmental impact from shipping in raw ingredients is also something to consider. Getting local fruit from down the road is straightforward. But if you’re getting dragon fruit shipped from across the world, the carbon footprint can add up. If your brewery values sustainable production and seeks to reduce the ecological impact, then you’ll need to ask yourself if shipping fruit from across the world matches your values.
Con: The Potential for Negative Perceptions in the Market
Now for the cons. I think the biggest downside of liquid flavor is nontechnical. Unfortunately, the perception (or optics) of adding a flavor isn’t always as favorable as the corresponding raw material. In some markets, this won’t be much of a concern. But for small and medium-sized craft brewers, this negative perception around flavors could impact potential marketing opportunities.
Some breweries have developed a very strategic approach to flavored beers. Essentially, they pick three to five beers and use these as a base to create new variants by adding flavor. So instead of creating a new beer every quarter, they roll out a unique flavor for their imperial stout base, for example. They now have a system to make hundreds of variants quickly and strategically.
Con: Challenges with Delivering the Desired Perceived Flavor, Color, and Body
It may sound counterintuitive, but achieving the desired perceived flavor may be easier with the raw material. While adding 500 pounds of whole raspberries can include some challenges, fruit generally delivers a more robust, more nuanced flavor.
Delivering the same depth of taste with a liquid flavor may not be as simple. Finding a flavor with the right combination of notes requires technical expertise, including understanding usage rates. With flavor, adding more rarely produces good results. You risk incorporating non-desirable characteristics along with the flavor, like a medicinal or metallic taste.
The fruit also contains characteristics that the liquid flavor can’t always replicate, like a specific color, sweetness, or body.
Q: If brewers choose to add liquid flavors, what are the ‘watch-outs’ or technical considerations to note?
Stephen: I’ve found the best place to add a liquid flavor is the last possible process, i.e., in the bright beer tank, after filtration or centrifugation, and before packaging. With this approach, the flavor goes through a minimum number of processes. My goal as the brewer is to deliver the best experience with the final perceived flavor and aroma of a beer, whether canned, bottled, or on tap.
Other technical considerations:
- Always be aware of dissolved oxygen and minimize its presence in your process to extend shelf life and improved taste.
- Always follow strict sanitary processes.
- Although adding flavor to the bright beer tank produces excellent results, you can explore the point at which you add the flavor. Will the outcome be different if added in the brewhouse, during fermentation, in maturation, or in the bright tank?
- During any experimentation, consider how downstream processes may alter the flavor impact of the beer or the flavor added, such as filtration, centrifugation, or pasteurization.
- Before adding flavor, assess whether it will react to any chemistry in the beer that may change its profile. Is there anything in the beer that may affect how the flavor is perceived, like lactose, acids, or bitter notes?
Weighing Pros & Cons
Overall, the pros and cons of adding flavor are subjective and affected by your brewery’s purpose. The weights you assign to the advantages and disadvantages will align with your values and your market. For some brewers, the pros will significantly outweigh the cons. For others, the one or two cons associated with liquid flavors will drive them to use raw material.
For any brewery, large or small, I view many of the pros as opportunities worth examining to add value to their operation and brand.
About Stephen Rich
Stephen is a Brewer, Certified Cicerone, Prud’homme Beer Sommelier, and BJCP Certified Beer Judge. Starting in 2004 as an eager homebrewer, he now has over 10 years of professional brewing experience working with a range of brewhouses, cellar equipment and packaging operations. Stephen managed one of Ontario’s most ambitious Brewery builds and rebuilt one of Ontario’s first Craft Brewpubs.
Stephen will be speaking at Brewers Lectures on March 26, 2021. This annual event brings together beer professionals and companies that redefine the brewing industry in Canada and worldwide Register for the three-day virtual event and continue learning from Stephen.
And look for part two of our interview in the coming weeks. You’ll discover more insights about the flavored beer market and Stephen’s perspective about how brewers (especially small-to-midsize craft brewers) can build loyalty and market share.