The Sun Wine & Food Fest is among the largest and most popular food and drink festivals in Connecticut. Held in an expo hall at the sprawling Mohegan Sun casino, it attracts hundreds of guests who sample more than 1,000 dishes and libations. Many people make an annual tradition of attending.
The event is an excellent showcase of current consumer trends. In 2019, The Sun Wine & Food Fest included several low-ABV drinks that proved popular with attendees. A year later, this trend is in full bloom.
So what did we see at the 2020 festival? Below are seven trends that stuck out while we walked through the huge expo hall, a handful of side events and the casino itself.
1) There’s Room For Craft and Macro Seltzer
What hard seltzers will consumers prefer in 2020? The wave of craft versions — or macro brands like the new Bud Light Seltzer?
Judging by the festival, the answer is both.
Nobody seemed turned off by the idea of hard seltzer from Bud Light, even if that might seem like muddled branding.
“This is where the market is going,” says Eric Jones of Levine Distributing, who was sampling Bud Light Seltzer. “There’s no astringent aftertaste. There’s low calories, less sugar and low gluten.”
Across the hall, leading Connecticut craft brewer Two Roads poured their new H2Roads Craft Hard Seltzer. The brand uses real fruit, and no artificial flavors, so the product comes out colored, as opposed to the category’s traditional clear beverages.
“We’ve had a great response from that brand,” says Caitlin Guelakis, Two Roads sales manager. “People who are used to drinking clear seltzers like that ours has the colors from real fruit.”
Both booths generated large crowds. The hard seltzer trend is still growing healthily, with room for multiple styles and price points.
2) Peanut Butter Whiskey
One of the hottest booths in the expo hall was Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey.
Launched in San Diego in 2018, Skrewball is a fast-growing brand. Last year it obtained nationwide distribution through partnership with Infinium Spirits. The flavored whiskey tastes great straight, and mixes with cranberry juice for a peanut butter and jelly cocktail, which taps into the ever-present trend of childhood nostalgia.
How popular is Skrewball at Mohegan Sun? “It has surpassed Fireball,” reports Nikki Loiselle, bar manager at Comix Roadhouse, one of many bars at the huge casino. “About two months ago, people really started buying it a lot. It’s good on the rocks, or with Baileys or RumChata.”
3) Consumers Understanding Bourbon
The interest level in bourbon has long outpaced consumer knowledge. Ask a typical drinker the difference between bourbon and whiskey, and truth is, they’ll likely struggle for an answer.
The tide of knowledge appears to be turning, however. Drawn in by the massive boom in brown spirits, and then exploring around the category, consumers are finally learning the language of bourbon.
“They’re definitely trying to learn,” says Chris McAteer of North East Beverage, which was onsite representing the classic brands of Buffalo Trace. “I’d get people who tell me that they’re bourbon drinkers, but have never heard of Blanton’s. They had gotten into tunnel-vision drinking. They tried a cocktail, and liked a whiskey in it, and that became the only bourbon they drank. Now they’re trying to break out of that.”
Another whiskey rep, who preferred to stay off the record, compared consumers’ bourbon knowledge today to when people first got deeper into wine. Initially they understood a few major varietals, like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Then consumers learned to explore through the different regions and styles. Same now with bourbon: they’re learning through their taste buds which brands they like.
4) Low-Cal Wine
A brand we have covered for years, FitVine was present with a new label. It’s reflective of a broader movement.
As the nutritional trend sweeps through craft beer and the overall alcohol category, look for more wines to reduce their calories. FitVine was perhaps a couple years too early in this trend, but should settle nicely into the market, now that consumers are demanding healthier drinking options.
“On its own, without any advertising, FitVine has become a top ten brand for us in Connecticut,” says Tracy Barrette, sales representative for distributor Hartley & Parker.
5) Familiar Varietals and Blends
Watch festival attendees pick through hundreds of bottles of wine, and you’ll notice that most people stick with what’s familiar. Traditional varietals and California red blends remain top picks.
“People like to know what they’re getting with wine,” says Jeremy Mitchell, sales representative for Hartley & Parker. “That’s why they like the red blends. If they try something new, they don’t want to lose money if they don’t like it.”
The more discerning drinker thinks in terms of regions, with an understanding of the style and quality of that area. But when it comes to the broader wine-drinking demo, simplicity seems key in 2020.
“The price point has a lot to do with it. You might see some more experimenting this year because of wine’s price point going down, with more quality wine in the $14-$19 price point,” says Shane Dones, zone manager for Brescome Bartom. “But people have really become varietal-loyal. They’re more loyal to varietals than to brands.”
6) IPAs, IPAs, IPAs
To no surprise, the many breweries at The Sun Wine & Food Fest brought a plethora of IPAs.
Consumers are nowhere near tired of this dominant trend, especially as hazy IPAs splinter into sub-styles. And as the battle continues between bright bitter West Coast IPAs and their hazy juicy East Coast counterparts, many breweries are releasing both styles — or beers that land somewhere in between.
“There are definitely still people who prefer something that’s more malt-forward and bitter,” says Chris Moniz, sales representative for Newport Craft. The Rhode Island brewery brought two different IPAs, reflective of West versus East coasts. “Some people these days are getting into IPAs because they feel compelled to. Hazy IPAs are the perfect way for these people get into IPAs, because those beers cut out the bitterness.”
7) Sour Beers Connect Broadly
While sour beers will never reach the sales of IPAs, they have found a firm niche in the industry, appealing to beer nerds and newbies alike.
Sours are a great first step into craft beer for consumers crossing over from other categories. “A lot of people who don’t like beer like sour ales,” says Tom Maynard, sales manager for Revival Brewing Co., which brought its Pinky Swear raspberry sour ale. “We can’t make sours fast enough.”
Drinkers who prefer the smoother, fruiter flavors of wines and cocktails will find familiar profiles in the easy-drinking sours like kettle and gose. And for the craft beer aficionado, more breweries are releasing coolship series and barrel-aged sours.
“It really is a multidimensional beer style,” says Jason Vincent, co-owner of Epicure Brewing. “The diverse profiles of these beers are helping extend beer drinkers into other dimensions of the category.”