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Expert Topic Adding RTDs to a Brewery Portfolio

As brewers continue to look for ways to branch out in an increasingly crowded marketplace filled with drinkers who have diverse tastes, some have started to look at the ready to drink (RTD) cocktail space. These use both brewing and distilling equipment to can drinks that resemble familiar bar and backyard favorites.

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10 Barrel Brewing, now owned by Tilray Brands, has been in the RTD space for several years, turning out canned cocktails that follow trends and touch on memories. All About Beer editor and ProBrewer contributor John Holl spoke with 10 Barrel’s innovation and chief RTD brewer, Ben Shirley about recipe development, marketing, and the flavors that play a big role in this beyond beer category.

John Holl: When you start thinking about putting out a new canned cocktail, where does the process start, what is the creative process like?

Ben Shirley: It’s twofold. We do find some inspiration on our own. The Disco Lemonade is a great example. We wanted to use something indigenous. That’s why we went with a huckleberry, blackberry type flavor, something that you can find on the roadside here in Oregon.

And then even deeper, we kind of thought, how else can we make that marketable? Lemonaid is always a good route. So that was the beginnings of that. But then you got something like the AMF that we actually released as an April Fool’s joke on Instagram. And it was one of the most liked and commented posts in quite some time. People kept asking for it for months and months until we kind of found that the higher alcohol cocktails are doing much better in certain regions.

So we thought we can kick that up to the highest percentage possible that the government will allow or certain markets will allow before having legal hurdles. So we just went down to our bar, and a high end bar in town, and a dive bar, and asked for one and got the run down on how they make it. Then we put our twist on things.

Others are just pretty classic, but we want to bring some complexity to them, because we’ve found that a lot of the vodka sodas that are out there are kind of simple, linear, and don’t sell so well. We want to make them taste 90 percent original with that 10 percent twist to make it our own. Instead of [a customer] having to buy 15 ingredients, they can buy a four pack of our cocktail.

John Holl: What about the actual process of making them?

Ben Shirley: The process is trial and error. At the beginning, it was kind of difficult, but once you get into a rhythm, you know how and where to start. If I’m using a spirit base, I know how much alcohol I need to achieve a specific strength. So I’ll start with that, and you need to water it down and add some sweetener, and then different flavors.

We have a kitchen here in the break room that I use as a makeshift laboratory. Everyone calls me the mad scientist. I’ll make anywhere from 100ml, 200ml or 400ml samples because I can get away with using very little ingredients.

Sometimes I’ll make 15 different iterations before we come up to something fun. The process is faster than beer because you don’t have to brew it you don’t have to ferment, it clarify it, carbonate it. The fastest I’ve ever turned a beer around was 10 days, I can pretty much be done with the cocktail or happy with it in an afternoon.

John Holl: Does seasonality come into play with these drinks?

Ben Shirley: Absolutely. Most of our core brands, Margarita, Greyhound Mule, Mai Tai, they’re sticking around quite a bit, I would imagine the Disco Lemonade and AMF will be year rounders. Golf Tea, I think we see do better in the warmer months. We keep an eye on them all and if they aren’t moving, or slow, then we can maybe pull back.

For the most part there is seasonality. So it’s not so much as when we produce it, but more of when we release it. There are certain times of year where some cocktails are better to release then other, so we will design some to release in the spring or fall and let it run its course. If it’s doing well, we’ll just keep producing more.

John Holl: Where do these fit in with the beer space?

Ben Shirley: We have seen the trend of the drinking crowd and newer generations pivoting from traditional beer drinking. With beer it’s fairly limitless but there’s only so much you can.

Traditional beer is four ingredients, and you can only do so much when you start incorporating food products or making wacky. It starts to become something different than beer. And so people are drinking less, they’re drinking different, they’re drinking lower alcohol. But as far as cocktails, that portion still exists, people still drink wine, spirits, and beer. But we find if we can diversify and add a product, a quality product to the table our company obviously benefits from that we can generate some revenue and be known for a little more than just an IPA brewery or sour brewery. We didn’t think about this when we built this program, but we’re finding it is helping a portion of our company survive because it’s now a different offering.

John Holl: Where’s your creativity taking you these days?

Ben Shirley: It’s funny you ask that. Right now I’ve got three soda inspired malt beverages. I actually make a very high strength, seltzer base and ferment sugar and use that as the alcohol and so I’ll control the strength of the cocktail depending on where we want it to be. I’ve got a vanilla coke that’s 9% abv. I’ve got a cherry coke I’m working on, and a cactus cooler. I’m working on greyhound and Moscow Mule versions of flavored malt beverage. Those are pretty traditional as far as flavors and ingredients just minus the alcohol.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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