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March 2, 2020 Straight Up Advice: What are the Biggest Drink Trends for Bars and Restaurants?

drink trend

Managing drink trends is definitely a balancing act. Ignore what’s popular? You’ll seem out of the loop. Go all in embracing the latest and greatest? You’ll seem desperate.

That’s why we talked to owners, managers, and bartenders at bars and restaurant. Our goal: to find out which drink trends are actually taking off, and how they’re integrating these popular beverages into their operations. Here’s what they said…

*Quick note: We’ve altered names and locations to protect the innocent. Let’s just say many complaints revolved around seltzer drink trends, and these owners and managers don’t want to offend their fizz-loving clientele.

“Hard seltzer. Spiked seltzer. White Claw. Fizzy alcohol. Customers call it many different things, but it’s clear they want it…badly. There’s no escaping the alcoholic seltzer drink trends for bars and restaurants.”

-Pete, bartender at a sports bar in Boise, ID

Let’s get this seltzer business out of the way first. We talked to over a dozen bar and restaurant folks about drink trends, and seltzer came up in half of the responses – often accompanied by a sense of discouragement.

Is barely-flavored sparkling water really what customers want? Yes, yes it is – and it’s one of those drink trends that’s not fizzing out anytime soon. There’s even a “Seltzer Land” hard seltzer festival making the rounds in major US cities this summer.

Why does the seltzer trend irritate bartenders and mixologists so much? Because for the most part, they look at these hard seltzers as well…just bad drinks. They’d rather be using their skills to mix up gourmet cocktails, not popping the tab on a can of White Claw. 

So Leslie, a bartender at a bar in Detroit, Michigan, took a more proactive approach to seltzer drink trends:

“Sure, it annoyed me when we couldn’t keep White Claw (gross) in stock. But then owner and I decided this drink trend was really an opportunity. We started making in-house hard seltzer in funky flavors, with cool garnishes. The margin was higher, and so were my tips.”

If you follow Leslie’s lead, check out the various methods for DIY hard seltzer.

“Strange things mixed with beer is a big deal around here…”

-Maddie, bartender in Austin, TX

Another drink trend that’s starting to emerge is customers requesting mixed drinks. But it’s not what you think. They’re asking bartenders to mix beer with juices, teas (especially kombucha), and even liquors. You could think of this drink trend as Shandy 2.0, according to Maddie:

“Honestly, it’s like customers are trying to out-weird each other. They get experimental at the bar, and ask me to mix some wild stuff into their beer like whiskey, sweet tea, and honey. Tea is the main ingredient people keep asking us to add to their beer, so we always have plenty of it pre-brewed.”

If you want to get a head start on what seems to be a quirky drink trend, try any of these 17 beer cocktail recipes.

“Ironically, ‘alcohol-free’ is the biggest drink trend we’re seeing lately. Customers keep asking for mocktails and non-alcoholic beer, and Dry January is wayyy over. It makes me think that zero proof might be a movement that’s sticking around.”

-Charlie, owner of a pub in Bethesda, MD

Charlie isn’t alone in noticing that some of the hottest drink trends for bars and restaurants don’t involve a drop of alcohol.

If you think it’s just alcoholics, pregnant women, and keto dieters who are abstaining from alcohol, think again. It seems that “average drinkers” just want to switch things up sometimes and enjoy a beverage sans booze. In fact, the latest research shows that between now and 2023, worldwide demand for non-alcoholic beer will increase by 52.5%.

So how are bars and restaurants tackling this very dry drink trend?

“First, we’ve added a mocktail section to our cocktail list with 3-4 seasonal options. These are drinks that my bartenders have carefully crafted to be delicious, satisfying and complex – just like any well-made cocktail. If I can provide one piece of advice it’s this: making ‘virgin’ versions of cocktails will piss off customers big time. That’s not a mocktail, that’s a cop out on one of the biggest drink trends I’ve seen in a while,” explained Charlie.

As for beer without the alcohol, this drink trend seems to have really taken off in the craft brewing realm. For example, in New Orleans, NOLA Brewing Co. is making waves for their canned non-alcoholic Hop’d Tea. That’s right, it’s a blend of tea and hops…so is it even beer? The jury is out. But what’s clear is that customers can’t get enough of these strange brews.

Some bartenders we spoke to think it’s the novelty factor: they just want to try something different that’s worth sipping and savory. Others think it’s the latest health kick:

“It’s no secret that alcohol adds calories to a drink. Whether they’re trying to ‘live clean’, go on a diet, or get in shape, it seems that our healthiest looking customers are the ones pushing these non-alcoholic drink trends,” added Charlie.

Like hard seltzer, the mocktail and non-alcoholic drink trends challenge what it means to be a bartender. Like Leslie, Charlie is looking on the bright side:

“I view these crazy drink trends as a way for my bartenders to push themselves, to get creative. At the same time, it makes my customers happy when we can give them what they want.”  

“A few years ago, craft beer snobs seemed intent on proving that no beer was too bitter for them. Now? Drink trends are all about fruity IPAs and milkshake IPAs that include milk sugars. Yup, craft beer bros are now asking for milkshake IPAs.”

-Vince, bartender at a bar in Pittsburgh, PA

According to Vince and a few other bartenders we spoke to, fruity beers are a big deal. Serious, bitter beers are old news and the latest drink trends are sweeter and more, well, fun.

For proof, look to the can art coming out of the most popular breweries today…they’re featuring tropical patterns, bright or pastel colors, and fruit-forward names like “Busta Lime IPA”.

In the Upstate New York, the most popular breweries that constantly sell out are pumping out beer with whimsical ingredients that sound more dessert-like than ever. For example, at Mortalis Brewing in Rochester New York, one of the most popular concoctions is “Milk of the Gods IPA” featuring watermelon, key lime, toasted coconut, milk sugar, vanilla beans…oh, and some hops for good measure.

“What I love about drink trends is how fast they can change directions. I mean, even a few years ago, I’d have people saying… ‘I’ll have your most bitter IPA.’ Now it’s like, gimme your creamiest, fruitiest IPA,” added Vince.

The bar Vince works at is known for having a diverse selection of craft beer. So Vince made sure to explain that just because fruity sours and IPAs are popular now, he’s not ditching those bitter IPAs.

“You gotta have balance. Some customers are trend hunters, they want to try the next big thing that everyone is drinking and posting about on Instagram. Other customers know what they like and couldn’t care less about drink trends,” concluded Vince.

It’s clear when it comes to drink trends for bars and restaurants, the only constant is change. The secret is continuously evolving your selection to include plenty of classics, while making room for what’s new, now, and most importantly…what customers are craving.

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