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Not just for Christmas

By Sarah Britton , 28-Aug-2007

While consumers are happy to buy foods containing alcohol over the festive period, they are less willing to do so at other times of the year. But some manufacturers are trying to change this, as Sarah Britton reports

For far too long, products containing alcohol have been restricted to mince pies, brandy butter and Christmas pud - do you see the pattern here? But some developers are eager to advance alcoholic foods beyond their stodgy stereotypes and prove to customers that their products can be consumed throughout the year.

"It takes a while to convince retailers to use it outside of Christmas," says Carol Nash, business development manager at culinary alcohol supplier Thomas Lowndes. The company supplies Courvoisier cognac to dried fruits processor John Morley, which imports fruits and then adds value by chopping, blending and toasting them. The firm currently uses alcohol in mincemeat, which it supplies to Northern Foods and Walkers, but sales and marketing director Neil Chivers says the company is looking to expand into other areas.

"We're just beginning to move into how different alcohols work with different fruits. We do standard mincemeats with cognac, rum and whisky, but now we're looking at how compotes can benefit from different liquors. I think we need to work closely with the middle manufacturer and the retailer to see what value they add to products."

He concedes that alcoholic foods will never be mainstream. "I like alcohol, but it can only be a percentage of your portfolio of products because some people are resistant to it; some don't want it; and some people may be a little reserved about giving it to children. Also other areas, such as foodservice, might have dry sites where they wouldn't use any alcohol."

However, he is confident that there's an opportunity to branch out of the Christmas market and is also keen to make alcoholic foods appeal to a wider audience. "A couple of months ago we were looking at some of the trendy drinks and looking at how to extend the mincemeat offering to incorporate a broader consumer base - the current profile is typically very family orientated," he says. "We've been playing around with the idea of adding After Shock to mincemeat, and putting a concept into a wine bar, such as a mince pie with a refined shot in it."

Another fruit firm looking to cash in on alcohol outside the winter period is Bennett Opie. Traditionally, the company sold fruits with alcohol for Christmas, but it has recently started using regional alcohol in chutneys. "We've used a bit of cider in an apple chutney, a bit of wine in a plum chutney and we're currently working with IPA [India Pale Ale] beer," says purchasing manager Willliam Davies. The chutneys are served as condiments in pubs and he believes there's plenty of potential for the product.

"We're talking to one retailer at the moment about a cross-branded chutney and we're also looking at the foodservice market. There are also possibilities with chutneys and sandwich manufacturers, but it's one step at a time. Supplying the pub chains is less competitive than retailers."

He explains that trying to get new alcoholic foods into retailers is particularly challenging as they are reluctant to stray from what they know. "In the past, every time we sent samples in, we'd send a couple of new variants. We used to make combinations using exotic fruits and different alcohols, but the retailers said they only wanted the traditional products," he says. "As much as they liked Tia Maria and pears, they felt cherries and kirsch were more suitable. A lot of the issue is to do with buyers being new to the section and no one wanting to put their foot out there and try something new," he adds.

Savoury flavours

Ricky Wilson, innovation manager at Arla UK agrees that getting the go ahead from retailers is a real barrier for new product development (NPD) in foods that use alcohol. He is keen to explore options for alcohol in the savoury sector, but retailers are more interested in the firm's sweet products.

The company buys 25,000l of Courvoisier per year from Thomas Lowndes, the majority of which goes into sweet brandy sauces made in Arla's Staplemead factory, says Wilson. This is supplied to Tesco, Sainsbury and Somerfield for use with Christmas puddings and mince pies.

Additional Christmas offerings come from the company's North Allerton plant, which manufactures extra thick double cream with Courvoisier. "At the factory, they do a production run in November, it's shipped off to our distribution centre and that batch lasts until January," he says.

Although alcoholic creams are a successful part of the company's business, the facilities are only really used at Christmas, he claims. "We are trying to use them throughout the year, but it's very difficult to get people to buy into it. The first thing is to get the retailer behind it, otherwise products get lost on the shelf and people don't really know what they're supposed to use them for." The firm does put serving suggestions on-pack, but there is so much information on labels, consumers don't always read it, he says. "There are so many creams on shelf and, outside of Christmas, consumers won't be looking for alcoholic cream," he sighs.

Nevertheless, Wilson wants to move alcohol into new areas. "There's room to use alcohol in fermented creams - sour cream and crème fraiche - that's definitely the way to go," he says. "The biggest challenge is to produce a consistent product over 90 days, which is a fairly big ask. Every trial costs five or six thousand pounds - involving the production of 300kg of cream at North Allerton - it's a fair bit of money to gamble, so you have to be sure it'll work."

Thomas Lowndes is well aware of the difficulties of venturing into new categories. "We're conscious that in the savoury category there's an awful lot of room for growth, but we need buy-in from retailers as well as manufacturers," says Nash. "We'd love to see someone come up with some marinades and steak sauces. It would be a brilliant way to de-seasonalise our business and make consumers realise that you don't just have to have alcohol at Christmas."

She claims that, in the past, a microwaveable sachet of Grand Marnier sauce has been used with duck, but that it wasn't every retailer's cup of tea. "Very often, the retailer wants the protein to be in the sauce, but by the time you've left it in the oven for 40 minutes there may be no notes of the alcohol." It's much easier to put it in a cream, dessert or chocolate because it doesn't require further heating and also because the fat molecules lock in the alcohol, she claims.

Another reason why alcohol works well with cream is because of its preservative qualities. "You need a minimum of 3.2% alcohol in the cream to get a 90 day shelf-life because the alcohol kills bacteria," says Wilson. However, Courvoisier supplied to Arla is a whopping 60% ABV, making its alcohol content a third higher than that sold to consumers. This is because a lower percentage would mean adding free water to the product and thinning it, he explains. "The final alcohol content of food products has to be below 5%, otherwise firms can't claim back the duty. Arla claimed back nearly £1M last year," he adds.

Buy into brands

Wilson is a big fan of branded alcohols, noting that it's a growing market. "I looked at the data for Waitrose, which doesn't use branded alcohols and its sales have been falling, while ours have been growing year-on-year 5-10%," he claims.

Opie also supports the use of branded alcohols. "We came into the fruits and alcohol sector about five years ago and the products that were already out there mainly used cheap alcohols or alcohol flavours," says Davies. "People just bought it from the gifts section at Christmas and thought: 'that'll do for Auntie Betty', but when you tasted it, it was just so disappointing - it was dreadful."

In order to provide a better product, Opie went through numerous tasting sessions using a variety of alcohols and found that branded variants came out on top. "I think people understand that if they buy a product with, say, Grand Marnier, then they'll get a product where they can taste those flavours."

In contrast, Barry Colenso, master chocolatier at Thorntons, claims that, although the company uses brands because they are popular with consumers, the flavour is too weak to stand on its own. "In our brandy truffles, we use some own-label brandy, because the flavour of branded alcohol is too fine. It's similar to the champagne truffles we make. All the flavour comes from the champagne liquor - we use Marc de Champagne, which is 60% volume and is basically a by-product of champagne production. Otherwise, by the time you mix the champagne, it gets so diluted you can't taste it."

Morley's Chivers also claims that getting the flavour of alcohol in the end product is an issue. "The challenge with brands is that if you're paying that much more for it, then you need to ensure the taste is there when you've cooked out 75% of what was in the product originally."

But he claims that it's well worth using branded alcohols because they are viewed by consumers as a stamp of good quality. "The brand aspect offers the consumer the opportunity to buy into the image that brand portrays. If you look at the marketing campaign behind any spirit, there is an identity that people can relate to."

Make the right choice

However, brands aren't the only area where consumer perception can have a major effect on a product's success. Before thinking about which brand image is most appropriate, processors must choose which alcohol to work with.

Serious Foods is looking at using different alcohols to suit different meats in its range. "People expect certain classic dishes to have alcohol in them - if they didn't they'd feel cheated," says NPD director Emma Davies.

But she warns that processors must tread carefully when deciding on which alcohol to use. "Some alcohols have cheap connotations to them. For example, if you made a vodka jelly, then people would think back to their student days of having those horrible jellies at the bar!" Serious Foods avoids such issues by making a champagne jelly.

This may well prove to be a good choice of alcohol, as Thorntons' Colenso claims: "Champagne, rum, brandy and whisky are where the volume is." He believes that champagne appeals more to women, whereas rum, brandy and whisky are more male territory.

So be it savoury creams, meat marinades or chutneys, it is clear that alcohol is not going to be a seasonal food ingredient for much longer. Let's hope retailers start to take note. FM