What we’ve been drinking:
We worry about an obesity epidemic, but in 2010, we were still chug-a-lugging soda, which remains the most consumed beverage at an average of 45 gallons in a year. And our professed concern for the environment? Last year we drank more bottled water than ever before.
As 2011 winds down, the prognosticators are turning toward 2012. The Food Channel combined the results of its reader survey with intelligence gathered from the market analysts at Mintel, Culture Waves, and the International Food Futurists to identify the top 10 beverage trends that will shape our drinking habits in the coming year.
What we will be drinking:
1. Do-it-Yourself Flavor
Beverage companies have been experimenting with a profusion of flavors looking for the new blockbuster. Refrigerated cases overflow with lychee water, ginger-peach iced tea, and rhubarb-lemongrass soda. We’ll be taking matters into our own hands with powdered and liquid flavor enhancers that are added to water or seltzer; coffee and tea creamers in new flavors like honey-vanilla crème and white chocolate caramel latte; and Coca Cola’s new Freestyle machine with a touch-screen that turns you into an instant mixologist with more than 100 flavor variations.
2. The Buzz Around Chocolate Milk
Chocolate milk is all over the map. While school districts are questioning its place in their cafeterias, new studies seem to indicate that it’s a better choice than sports drinks for athletes looking to develop more muscle and less fat, and improve oxygen uptake during workouts. New products include straws imbedded with chocolate beads that flavor each sip, and a boozy chocolate milk for grown-ups with the tagline: “Retaste your youth at 40 proof.”
3. Cold Coffee is Hot
The iced coffee market has grown by 20 percent in the last five years. Dunkin’ Donuts, the nation’s largest retailer of coffee—hot and iced—reports that more than a fourth of the yearly, billion cups of coffee it serves are now iced. Iced, frozen, and slushie coffee drinks are available everywhere. Home brewing systems are growing in popularity and you can always grab a pre-bottled iced coffee or ready-to-mix concentrate. Iced coffee is not just for summer anymore.
4. Drink to Your Health
The category of functional beverages is exploding. Bottled waters are enhanced with vitamins and fortified with minerals that claim to battle diabetes, improve digestion, and promote improved bone and cardiovascular health. Sugars are being reshuffled as we steer away from high-fructose corn syrup and back to cane sugar; and away from artificial sweeteners toward natural, zero-calorie plant-based sweeteners like stevia and agave nectar. You can fire up with an energy shot, mellow out with a stress busting anti-energy drink, or sharpen cognition with one of the ‘think drinks.’
5. Simple, Seasonal Sips
The local foods ethos is coming to your highball glass. Beers are going seasonal, artisan distillers are cooking up local spirits, and bartenders are embracing a style that’s been dubbed ‘Market Fresh Mixology,’ whipping up cocktails with natural mixers made in-house and freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices. Even the hotel minibar is now stocked with local brews and regional wines.
6. Fizz-free Combo Meals
Fast food and quick-serve restaurants are looking beyond fountain drinks. McDonald’s is urging its customers in ads to ‘drinkcessorize’ with its new smoothies and frozen lemonade, and Sonic Drive-In is promoting milk shake happy hours. Popeye’s is experimenting with soda-lemonade blends, Burger King has toyed with a breakfast cocktail of orange juice cut with Sprite, and they’re all testing the waters for alcoholic beverages.
7. Craft Beer is Booming
Sales of craft brews are seeing double-digit increases, even while overall beer sales are flat. In the midst of a mature industry, craft brewers are acting like frisky teenagers as they tinker with ingredients and techniques to brew experimental batches with ingredients like fruit, tea leaves, lavender, chiles, and Nutella. There are so many small, independent artisan brewers popping up around the country that most Americans now live within 10 miles of at least one specialty producer.
8. Bourbon’s Rebirth
It’s the biggest bourbon boom since Prohibition. Just a few years ago, distillers were ready to consign the bourbon category to that great liquor store in the sky; today, inspired at least in part by the popular period TV series Mad Men, classic cocktails are making a comeback as the twenty- and thirty-something crowd bellies up to the bar for whiskey—specifically bourbon whiskey. Small batch premium and super premium bourbons are now commanding the same respect and high prices that had been the domain of single-malt scotch.
9. Drinks and a Show
Restaurants like to dazzle us with presentation: the pampering turn of a peppermill; the deft, table side deboning of a whole fish; the oohs and aahs of a made-to-order zabaglione that’s whisked and flamed in its copper bowl. Now we’re seeing the same star treatment for cocktails. Juices are squeezed a la minute, syrups and purees are ladled right under our noses, and mixed drinks are given a deliberately theatrical, tooth-rattling ride in cocktail shakers.
10. How Low Can They Go?
Happy hour has always been a diet disaster, and drinkers, especially women, have always pushed for lower calorie choices. There’s a caloric arms race as the big players compete for the title of the lightest of the light beers on the market. Miller had just released its MGD 64, claiming it to be “as light as it gets” at 64 calories, when Bud Select 55 stole the title with a mere 55 calories in a 12 oz. bottle. Pre-mixed, low-calorie cocktails—a category that barely existed just a year ago—is giving a boost to liquor store sales, and restaurants like Morton’s Steakhouse, McCormick & Schmick’s seafood restaurants, Applebee’s, and even that ode to caloric excess, the Cheesecake Factory, have developed low-calorie cocktail menus.