Raising a Glass: Top Beverage Trends for 2021


Consumer focus on wellness and convenience have been amplified by the pandemic, influencing the beverage market. While many turned to comfort food during 2020 as a way to cope with the year’s uncertainty, health-conscious and plant-based offerings are expected to see a resurgence in 2021.

Further, long-established spending habits have been impacted by restrictions and remote work, leading consumers to re-define convenience.

Bag-in-Box Wines
Acceptance of bag-in-box wines has been growing in Canada over recent years, benefitting from improved quality, as well as the format’s convenience and longer shelf life. And, lockdowns served as the perfect catalyst to accelerate this process.

The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch reported wholesale sales of large-format alcohol, including boxed wines, were up significantly in March. And, last year, the B.C. Wine Institute also reported that B.C. VQA Wine saw its first market-share decline since 2012, citing an increase in large-format sales — including bag-in-box options, which are not available to B.C. VQA Wines — as a key factor.

“Boxed wines had actually been improving, quality-wise, even before the pandemic, so it’s no longer so much of a joke to buy them — that stigma is going away,” explains Bret Yonke, senior manager, Research & Insights, Technomic.“The pandemic also caused a lot of consumers to panic and stock up early on and box wine is a perfect fit for this, as it has a longer shelf-life than a bottle of wine. Combine that with the quality being better than ever and you have converted consumers who are willing to make repeat purchases.”

Herbal Functional Tea
Also tied to demand for healthful offerings is interest in herbal and functional teas. “Tea is a versatile vehicle that operators have been able to experiment with in order to satisfy consumer demand for natural ingredients and flavours,” Yonke points out. “This has caused operators to test new varieties and flavour combinations, often in LTOs.”

In Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants’ Culinary & Cocktail Trend Forecast for 2021, Pep Miro, director of Operations at Kimpton Vividora Hotel, Barcelona, highlighted the role herbal teas play in the trend toward ‘healthier’ cocktails. Hard kombucha was also called out as part of this trend.

Boozy kombucha was also highlighted on Whole Foods’ The Next Big Things: Top 10 Food Trends for 2021 list and is pointed to as a kind of follow up to the popularity of hard seltzer, with the added benefit of live probiotic cultures.

“Kombucha is quickly gaining traction, as it is thought to have numerous health benefits, from improving digestion to boosting immunity,” shares Yonke. “Floral flavours like lavender, hibiscus and rose have been appearing in more tea applications as well and these flavours are particularly appealing during the warm summer months.”

Coffee at Home
The pandemic has led many consumers to change their morning routines and create new habits, which has significantly impacted the morning daypart at foodservice. “Coffee is one of the top beverage categories being consumed less often from foodservice and more often at home due to the pandemic and consumers working from home,” explains Yonke.

And, according to NPD’s Retail Tracking Service, it’s been a record year for coffeemaker sales. “So, more and more people are equipping their kitchens with coffee makers and the fastest growing category is the upscale machines — the fancier machines in the $200-plus range,” says Vince Sgabellone, Industry Analyst, Canada Foodservice, The NPD Group. “And, once you’ve spent that money on a high-end appliance, you’re going to want your return on that investment.” Which, he explains, means that even after consumers can return to old habits, they will continue to use this equipment to make coffee at home.

“Among consumers who are purchasing coffee less often from foodservice…17 per cent say they purchased a coffee machine,” says Yonke. And, looking beyond equipment, he adds, “34 per cent say they’re buying premium/higher-quality coffee from stores/online to make at home…and four per cent say they’ve subscribed to coffee-subscription programs that mail new varieties each month.”

And, in response, café chains are bolstering their offerings through other channels. For example, Aegis Brands’ Second Cup and Bridgehead brands have seen growth through retail channels during the pandemic and Second Cup launched an e-commerce platform in April. As Steven Pelton, CEO of Aegis Brands, explains, following required shutdowns, Bridgehead saw 10-times growth in its online sales. The brand also expanded its retail presence by launching its products at Farm Boy and Whole Foods locations in Ottawa.

Home Cocktail Kits
The pandemic and its restrictions on operations have led bars and restaurants to turn to make-at-home cocktail kits as an alternative revenue stream.

For example, JOEY Restaurant Group acted quickly during the early days of the pandemic to offer take-home versions of its signature drinks. “Since then we’ve had a chance to look forward, embrace the reality of staying at home and [have been] creating brand new cocktail designs to complement our selection of classics, as well as JOEY and LOCAL favourites,” shares Jay Jones, Bar Development leader, JOEY Restaurant Group. “Guests have been so wonderfully supportive of our at-home creations. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to offer our cocktail culture beyond the bar.”

O&B took a similar approach and has been updating its offerings to suit the season, offering mulled wine and Mayan hot-chocolate kits for the holiday season. As Raj Rijhwani, bartender at Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality’s Maison Selby, explains, cocktail kits play into the same convenience trend as canned hard seltzers and wines, which have been gaining in popularity. As he points out, for small gatherings, it’s a convenient option that’s more elevated, but doesn’t require much planning.

“While restaurants and drinkers alike are eager to get back to normal life at the bar, cocktail kits have now become a permanent and ongoing part of providing a complete guest experience,” adds Jones. “Expectations of quality and diversity will continue to rise.”

Rijhwani calls out approachable recipes with unique ingredients as those that have performed best as kits. And, he adds, he and the O&B team are working toward offering weekly, smaller-batch offerings for its cocktail kits. “We’ve had a few people who have asked for more options,” he explains, pointing to regulars missing the usual bar/cocktail experience as those driving this demand.

Alternative Milks
As interest in sustainable and healthy offerings continues to grow, plant-based alternative milks have been gaining traction.

“The plant-based trend has been popular in entrées (most notably, burger patties), but is beginning to take off in beverages via plant-based milks,” says Yonke. “Almond and coconut milks have started to saturate the market and new varieties are starting to pop up,” he adds, pointing to oat milk’s rapid growth.

“Demand for oat milk has surged in recent years, thanks in large part to its sustainable footprint and superior taste,” agrees Pelton.

And, for evidence of this trend’s push into the mainstream, look no further than Tim Horton’s national launch of Silk Almond Beverage, which took place this summer. And, as Sgabellone notes, this is a trend that skews toward the younger demographic, which continues to grow its influence on the market.

And, even Starbucks, which has been offering alternative milks in Canada for more than 16 years, has been seeing increasing momentum. During the company’s Q4 2020 earnings call, Patrick Grismer, the company’s EVP and CFO, noted its dairy-alternatives share of U.S. company-operated net sales “nearly doubled in the quarter.”

“Looking ahead, other seed- and nut-based milks are expected to gain traction,” Yonke adds. “One drink to keep an eye on is horchata…[it’s] a type of [spiced] plant-based milk starting to appear on more Canadian menus.”

Smoothies and Juice
With consumers feeling stressed and drained due to the pandemic, many are turning to beverages with benefits as a means of ensuring overall wellness. In fact, according to Nourish Food Marketing’s 2021 Nourish Network Trend Report, 56 per cent of consumers use beverages to treat a specific condition, including general prevention efforts.

Fruit and vegetable-based beverages that contain vitamin C, fermented ingredients and other functional ingredients that ease anxiety or aid sleep play into the benefits consumers are seeking in the current environment.

“One of the things we’re seeing with smoothies is a focus on super-foods and functional benefits (immunity support, probiotic, et cetera) being touted,” shares Yonke. “Immunity-boosting will definitely be big moving forward.”

Yonke also points to the health halo associated with smoothies and the customization offered by popular chains such as Booster Juice as factors that appeal to consumers. Though, he notes, “Not everything they serve is super healthy, but people think it is and it makes them feel good about what they’re ordering.”

Sgabellone adds that foodservice smoothie sales have taken a hit for the same reason coffee has. “The on-the-go smoothie customer is also sheltering at home.”

However, as Aimee Harvey, Technomic’s senior managing editor, explained during the company’s 2021 Canadian Trends Outlook webinar, 31 per cent of Canadian consumers have been buying more healthy items from restaurants during the pandemic. “A lot of consumers see eating better-for-your food as a way of comforting themselves,” she explained, pointing to functional ingredients — especially those that can alleviate anxiety — as being of particular interest.

Umami Cocktails
The pandemic has altered consumers’ already shifting alcohol-consumption habits. As Kimpton’s Culinary & Cocktail Trend Forecast for 2021 points out, because consumers are indulging less, when they choose to treat themselves, they are more likely to opt for more memorable cocktails.

This has fuelled interest in unique cocktail offerings incorporating umami ingredients. In Technomic’s U.S. 2021 trends forecast, “new umami applications” was identified as an upcoming trend, including “trendy umami components in cocktails,” calling out ingredients such as kosho (a Japanese condiment made from chilies and citrus), seaweed, fish sauce, soy sauce and gochujang.

“Pandemic life has only deepened the thirst for great flavour experiences — making cocktail indulgence a truly necessary reward,” agrees Jones. “Both traditional and contemporary fermented ingredients have been embraced for their inherent umami…Certain spices, vegetable juices, teas and vinegars (shrubs) are other key creative options to add accent or build sensory structure with umami.”

O&B’s Rijhwani points to a bacon-fat washed Old Fashioned as a drink that has seen great popularity. He also calls out tomato water as a common and easy-to-make ingredient for adding umami to beverage creations.

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