New malts hit the market

SIPS

Flavors range from raspberry to root beer

Sips

April 24, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You may have noticed some unfamiliar labels near your favorite beer at the liquor store. In the past year, there's been an explosion of malt beverages called "malternatives," aimed at folks who are looking for a new taste in alcoholic drinks.

Like beer, these beverages are brewed from malt, although the percentage of malt is lower than in beer, so the liquid doesn't darken and brewers can add other colors and flavors, says Ray Klimovitz, a Baltimore native and owner of Klimovitz Brewing Consultants Inc. of Chippewa Falls, Wis.

Malternatives come in a variety of flavors ranging from raspberry to root beer, orange to iced tea. Some manufacturers add the flavors of various liquors to mimic the taste of cocktails.

The alcohol content of malt beverages hovers in the range of 5 percent by volume, about the same as many beers and lower than traditional malt liquors like Colt 45. Most malternatives are sold in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles at a price range of $6 to $7.

The new malts are proving to be especially popular among younger adults, at least among those more attracted to "hard iced tea" than to a traditional brew. "It gives the twentysomethings an alternative when they go into the bar," says Klimovitz.

About 70 million cases of malternative beverages were sold in 2001, and the industry expects sales of about 100 million cases this year, says Gary Hemphill, senior vice president of the Beverage Marketing Association, a research and consulting firm. That's not bad for a category of beverage that took off only about a year ago.

These drinks have not been without controversy, however. Some manufacturers recently got into trouble with the federal government for the labeling on their malternatives.

A case in point is Skyy Blue, one of the newest products on the market. Its original label described the drink as a "malt beverage with natural flavors -- containing vodka." But federal rules make it illegal to put distilled spirits in a malt beverage.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) recently ruled that malt beverage makers can use distilled spirits brand names but can not claim that their drinks contain those spirits.

Hemphill likens the malt-beverage phenomenon to the explosion of choices in the soft-drink category during the past couple of decades. Twenty years ago, consumers looking for a refreshing nonalcoholic drink didn't have many choices other than carbonated soft drinks, Hemphill says. Then in the 1980s and '90s, there was an explosion of teas, coffees, sports drinks and bottled waters.

"To some extent, there's a parallel here," he says. Consumers in the beer market are "open to new products and looking for new choices." Judging from displays in the stores, the industry is striving mightily to provide alternatives, and jostling for position in what is proving to be a profitable niche.

Already this spring Joe Falcone, beer manager at Wells Discount Liquors on York Road, has significantly expanded the shelf space he devotes to these drinks. And with new products headed to market in the next few weeks, he's looking for ways to expand again.

But while cases of malternatives seem to be flying out the door of local liquor stores for springtime celebrations, the flood of new labels may not continue. Hemphill says that while industry observers expect malternatives to carve out a respectable niche in the market, the number of new brands hitting the stores will probably taper off.

In the meantime, fans of these beverages will have a lot of new tastes to sample.

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