The shandy, a lager traditionally mixed with lemon-flavored sodas in Europe, is undergoing a flavor revolution stateside.
The alcoholic beverage has made a splash in the U.S., with most of the earliest offerings resembling their cousins across the pond. But brewers have come up with new ales that use flavors like pumpkin and cranberry to court Millennial-led interest in bold flavors.
The shandy phenomenon is still fairly new to the U.S. market. It was first introduced in 2007, when MillerCoors’ Jacob Leinenkugel became the first company to brew a shandy style in the U.S. The brewer debuted Summer Shandy that year in Wisconsin with plans to sell the beer over the course of four months. It sold out in one. The next year, Leinenkugel sold Summer Shandy in four Midwest states—and it sold out again.
“It made us the beer of choice for summer—people wait for Summer Shandy to start the season,” said Jake Leinenkugel, president of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co.
Leinenkugel’s shandy line has performed well since its debut, with sales rising at an average rate of nearly 22% the past two years. If the brand were its own standalone craft brewery, it would be the ninth largest in the U.S.
Shandy sales are broadly off to a strong start this year, up roughly 19% through July 26 according to Andrea Riberi, senior vice president of alcoholic beverages at Nielsen. Nielsen estimates shandy sales totaled $127 million in 2013—up 82% from two years ago.
But there has been just one problem. When the weather cools, shandy sales also dip.
“The American public thinks that shandy is for the summer, and part of that is because the leader of the category calls it ‘Summer Shandy,'” said Alan Newman, founder of the Traveler Beer Company. “To some degree it has been pigeonholed as a summer beer, but I think that perception will change over time.”
Nielsen estimates two-thirds of shandy sales are made during an 18-week period from the beginning of May until the end of August. But Riberi believes shandy brewers can extend the season by offering new and interesting flavors like pumpkin.
Traveler is sold by Alchemy & Science, which is a subsidiary of Boston Beer Co. (SAM) The company’s Curious Traveler performed well during the summer but volume slowed when September hit.
Traveler found a solution when it debuted a pumpkin-flavored shandy called Jack-O. Because Jack-O was such a huge hit, September and October were Traveler’s strongest sales months in 2013.
“We extended the season by putting in Jack-O,” said Newman. The company is bringing back Jack-O this year and also gearing up for the winter launch of a Jolly, a wheat ale with orange and pomegranate. Newman said orders for Jack-O this year are “through the roof,” while Jolly is also gaining early attention.
Jake Leinenkugel said the Summer Shandy strategy made sense at the time, but that brand’s strong performance has also led the brewing company to think about what’s next.
Leinenkugel’s Orange Shandy hit shelves last year and is returning for this fall. The company is selling a new seasonal shandy, called Cranberry Ginger Shandy, for the winter months. Orange Shandy sold strongly in September and October, but sales cooled by late November.
“That’s the hurdle we are looking to see if we can get over,” Jake Leinenkugel said. “The spice and tartness of Cranberry Ginger seems like the ideal fit.”
The success of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy has inspired others to jump into the category, with varying approaches to the brewing process and flavor profile. Traveler’s shandies are American craft wheat ales brewed with real fruit. Meanwhile, Heineken’s Amstel Radler (a term synonymous with shandy) is a mix of 40% Amstel lager and 60% lemon juice. Heineken’s offering has an even lower ABV than other shandies on the market.
“What is interesting is we are seeing that [the brewers] are starting more flavor innovation to address the other seasons,” said Nielsen’s Riberi. “The major shandy manufacturers are trying to make this a year-round beverage.”