Flavored malt beverages have been around in a variety of forms since the 1990s and are still entering the market as refreshing alternatives to the everchanging tastes of alcohol consumers. What one might consider a malt beverage is any fermented drink where the main ingredient is the grain of the barley plant, which is malted before it is processed. Beer and flavored malt beverages are generally considered to be the two most widely-known and accepted malt beverages. Beer is made with malted cereal grains (and occasionally barley or other grains), hops, and water that is fermented using yeast. A “malt beverage” is an alcoholic drink that is made using a malt base where the grains are introduced into the germinating process by soaking them in water, then halting them from further germinating by drying them with hot air. This breaks down complex sugars in malt prior to fermentation and when natural or artificial flavors are added, what is called a “flavored malt beverage” is produced.
One of the more commonly used malt bases is Neutral Malt Base which is an alcoholic base derived from malt but without any of the malt characteristics such as color and odor. To be considered an official malt beverage in terms of tax categories, flavored malt beverages are required to be made with a legal malt base, and at minimum 51% of the final alcohol in the product must come from that malt base. If a malt beverage is produced containing over 6% alcohol by volume, only 1.5% of the volume of the final product may contain alcohol made from flavorings or non-beverage ingredients.
All of these new formulations, brewing methods, and marketing ploys have blurred the lines between alcoholic beverage categories making them very unclear and more than a little difficult to define. Some manufacturers of flavored malt beverages may decide to market their product as a flavored beer or a drink brewed like a beer, making the choice between a traditional beer and flavored malt beverage confusing for some consumers. Traditionally, any brand of hard soda or seltzer is considered a flavored malt beverage product even if it is produced using a fermented sugar base and not derived from malt. Confusing though it may be, consumers are responding positively to new approaches and innovations in the flavored malt beverage market, and manufacturers are taking advantage of this opportunity to draw more customers and grow their brands. From large companies to small brewers, each has created a flavored malt beverage product to reach drinkers who more often than not choose alternative flavors over beer. This consumer behavior has not just carved out new market spaces, it has grown flavored malt beverages by more than 3000% between 2015 and 2016.
Numerous products continue to enter the flavored malt beverage market with a variety of flavors, health-based benefits and alcohol bases. Ready-To-Drink beverages like flavored malts have demonstrated double-digit global growth in 2020. In fact, “Beyond Beer” products were the only beverage alcohol category to grow during the COVID crisis, appealing to consumers across all demographics who proved receptive to the marketable qualities of convenience, refreshment and flavor. And while these so-called “malternatives” first appeared on shelves in the 1980s when tax code changes cleared the way for malt-based drinks to qualify as beer for tax purposes, they had their critics who referred to them as “alcopops” due to their being seen as carbonated, sweet and affordable drinks that were meant to attract young drinkers normally shopping for sugary sodas. However, despite the varied criticisms from all of the alcoholic beverage consumer sub-groups, one fact remained a constant: they sold off the shelves.
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