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Not so long ago consumers chose beverages solely based on factors like taste, refreshment and price. But today they have more complex criteria for both alcoholic and alcohol-free products.
Increasingly, they look for transparent ingredient statements, clean labels and natural flavors, whether they’re ordering a turmeric latte, a pomegranate smoothie or a pineapple mojito.
Less is better
“Almost all consumers are looking for, at least on some level, foods that are fresh, real and less processed,” declares Food & Beverage Culture Year in Review 2017 by The Hartman Group, a Seattle-based market research firm.
Those desires are key drivers when operators create cocktail and mocktail recipes and assemble wine and beer lists. They also inform the development of housemade bar goods and the decision to purchase prepared bar products. Among the latter are such ingredients as:
• High quality fresh juices
• Flavored syrups and purees
• Products that are organic, sugar free and calorie free
The right way
“Today, more than ever, organic and natural products are important to our customer base,” says Brandon Wise, vice president of beverage operations at Sage Restaurant Group, a multi-concept operator based in Denver.
Wise says that approach flourished more a decade ago in Portland, Ore., and other forward-thinking West Coast cities. Operators there embraced sustainable and natural wines, beers and spirits, typically locally or regionally produced. The ethos has since spread across the country. “It isn’t done because it is trendy, but because it is the right way to do things,” says Wise.
Organic on principle
Consumers are not looking for a “less processed” label when they choose a beverage, says The Hartman Group. Rather, they believe that “less processed products are self evident.” In fact, 65 percent of consumers — and 72 percent of millennials — look at a product’s label to determine if it is “minimally processed.”
Wise says many small beverage producers follow organic guidelines on principle, but decline to pay the high administrative cost of obtaining organic certification for their products. “When we consider a liquor, wine, beer or soda, we look at how it’s made — maybe not for the word ‘organic,’” says Wise.
Keeping it local
With consumers regarding products from close to home as natural and sustainable, local and regional beverages are ascendant in restaurants and bars.
For example, Emporium Kitchen and Wine Market, Sage Restaurant Group’s new American brasserie in Fort Collins, Colo., has a beverage list dotted with small-batch spirits from a Colorado family-owned distillery and artisanal Oregon fruit brandies, all made with high quality, natural ingredients.
Other highlights are an all-Colorado craft beer list — including pils and weissbier from a brewer with a tasting room just a couple doors from the restaurant — and brunch cocktails mixed with fresh juice from a local presser.
Gun Smoke, Emporium’s best-selling cocktail, features Oregon artisan vermouth infused with cocoa husks from a Fort Collins chocolate shop, mixed with custom-blended bourbon, amaro and housemade bitters. The whole batch is smoked over apple and hickory wood.
“This is an example of taking care with every ingredient that goes into a drink,” says Wise.
At Bellemore, Boka Restaurant Group’s New American fine-dining spot in Chicago, cocktails showcase one-of-a-kind flavors made with clean, seasonal and often local ingredients and culinary-inspired techniques.
“All of the fruit that we use behind the bar — lemons, oranges, apples — we buy organic from smaller farmers, for the most part,” says Boka beverage director Lee Zaremba. He and chef Jimmy Papadopoulos favor clean, natural ingredients and sometimes collaborate on drink creations.
Two of Bellemore's more creative drinks are:
• Saturn’s Return, Zaremba’s riff on the Saturn, a traditional tiki drink. It features artisanal gin, persimmon in place of the typical passionfruit and orgeat syrup made from toasted hazelnuts rather than the customary almonds.
• Pumpkin Seed Milk Punch, featuring housemade milk made from pumpkin seeds spiked with bourbon and finished with burnt Ceylon cinnamon and tonka bean.
Personal versus prepared
“Bellemore is a smaller restaurant, with about 130 seats, so I love making almost everything by hand because I want it to be as personal as possible,” says Zaremba. However, at Somerset and Devereaux — two higher-volume concepts in the Boka group — using high quality prepared bar products saves considerable labor. “We’re doing three services a day in each of those properties,” says Zaremba. “So I’m not hand-making my orgeat there. I'm buying a very high quality orgeat. There are unquestionably some amazing products out today.”
Flavors and styles are fleeting in the beverage world. But the consumer thirst for transparency and clean, natural ingredients promises to have a long-lasting influence on how restaurant and bar operators do business.