The Future of Flavor Kelly Hensel | December 2017, Volume 71, No.12

A look at five flavor trends that will resonate with consumers in the coming years and how technology is helping companies take flavor to a whole new level.

Sharing a plate Ethiopian food.
These days when the subject of food arises—at least among industry professionals, academics, economists, and those in Silicon Valley—it is often to ponder its future. What will food look like in 10, 15, or 20 years? How will we be able to produce enough food to feed a growing population? What technological innovation will be the next big thing?

These are, of course, all important and relevant questions. But it’s important to keep them in perspective. At the reThink Food conference organized by the MIT Media Lab and the Culinary Institute of America and held last month in Napa Valley, Calif., a theme emerged that might serve as a tenet for anyone working in the food industry: The future of food is food. That is, at the end of the day, whatever technology we implement or solution we develop, we need to remember that it always comes back to the food. And what is the No. 1 driver of all food purchases? Flavor.

With insight from more than 20 flavor companies, chefs, and market research experts, here are five flavor trends—alcohol infusion, fermentation, East Africa and Southern India, herbs and botanicals, and maple and honey—to watch in 2018 and beyond.

1. Alcohol Infusion
According to Mintel, craft beer continues to experience growth in the United States. In fact, its share in the beer category nearly doubled from 2010 (5.2%) to 2015 (10.2%). With a focus on continual innovation, the craft beer segment has seen a surge in demand for flavored beer. Overall, as many as three in five U.S. alcohol drinkers say they are interested in fruit-flavored beer, with other flavors, such as spicy, tart/sour, and beer blended with juice, tea, and soft drinks, also showing strong potential (Mintel 2016).

Sweet Action Ice Cream flavorsThis cross-category blurring has also led to an interest in beer- and alcohol-flavored food. The trend has taken hold in two categories where flavor innovation is no stranger—ice cream and confectionery. One of the most popular flavors at Sweet Action Ice Cream, a Denver ice cream shop, is Stranahan’s Whiskey Brickle ice cream.

“The whiskey is an elemental part of the flavor, and it wouldn’t be the same without it, for sure,” explains Chia Basinger, co-owner of Sweet Action Ice Cream. “The goal on that one was to create a true whiskey ice cream instead of using whiskey as an ‘extra touch’ … Stranahan’s is perfect for it—it’s a high-quality whiskey (and one of the first of the new craft whiskeys in the country), and its flavors are a perfect match for the ice cream and the toffee candy.”

The beer/alcohol-flavored ice cream trend is also filtering down to larger craft brands, such as Graeters, which has collaborated with Braxton Brewing to release limited-time offerings. The companies have partnered to release two beer flavors, and in September they debuted their first ice cream collaboration—Stout & Pretzels Ice Cream—which uses Braxton’s Dead Blow Tropical Stout.

As Basinger noted, alcohol often pairs well with confectionery, so it’s no surprise that beer- and alcohol-flavored candy and chocolate are increasing in popularity. David Horrocks, research chef and member of the global and North American marketing team at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), notes that this “blurring of boundaries will continue to be evident in 2018 and beyond.” In fact, he has seen Rosé and Moscow Mule—both trendy alcoholic beverages of late—being introduced into confections.

Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Nunu Chocolates’ entire business is centered around the pairing of beer and chocolate. Not only do owners Andy Laird and Justine Pringle have 10 craft beers on tap at their Café & Tap Room for visitors to enjoy, but they make an assortment of chocolates that feature the craft beers and liquors, such as absinthe and moonshine, in the ganache of their truffles.

Others are taking the ingredient known for flavoring beer—hops—and infusing it directly into foods and beverages. Hop Pop Soda is a caffeine-free, carbonated soda, flavored and bittered with Galaxy and Citra hops that can be enjoyed on its own or as a cocktail mixer. B-Hoppy Hop Candy comes in varietal-specific flavors, including Saaz, Cascade, and Motueka. Charles Martell & Sons coats its full-fat, cow’s milk cheese in a layer of toasted Hallertao Hersbrucker hops, while HopTown Pizza, located just outside of Yakima, Wash., sprinkles its pizzas with Cascade hops sourced from a local farm.

It appears that a prediction by Mindy Segal, pastry chef and owner of HotChocolate in Chicago—that we will begin to see everything and “anything flavored with beer”—may reach the mass market level in the coming year. And food ingredient companies are preparing to meet the demand by developing specialized flavors. In October, Kalsec introduced a range of beer flavors for food applications that feature IPA, lemon shandy, porter, pumpkin, and wheat.