Straddling the line between wine coolers and beer -- and, if Heublein salespeople have their way, shelved in such a location, too -- is a fairly new product: Keelers Shandy. A blend of beer and lemon flavoring, it responds to the same sorts of tastes and occasions that a sparkling hard cider would.
Travelers to Great Britain may remember shandy there: it's a common drink, often mixed in pubs or at home, even available out of the occasional soft drink vending machine. Its history reaches back, according to David McDonough, Heublein's vice president for product development, to a time when sailors had to worry about consuming enough vitamin C. They carried lemons to squeeze into their beer and, as McDonough puts it, "carried the tradition back to shore."
The idea of using beer as a mixer is common in Europe, says McDonough. The British drink not only shandy but also lager and lime and, in some places, a beer and orange combination. But American beer drinkers are used to drinking their beer straight. "People here have to be educated about the mixability of beer," says McDonough.
When Heublein decided that the American market was ripe for a shandy, it considered importing brands, but settled on producing it domestically. Heublein does import a lemon concentrate from Scandinavia, for its authentic and natural flavor, says McDonough. Schmidt & Sons, a brewery in Philadelphia, blends the lemon with beer under Heublein's specifications. The result is a golden colored, sweet yet tart, bubbly drink. It does, as McDonough points out, seem to answer the same market call as does the flood of wine coolers coming into stores today.
"There has been a trend over the last few years toward low-proof, flavorful drinks," says McDonough. "These are drinks that are characterized by being lower proof, light-tasting, sparkling, single-serve and drunk cold. There is a trend toward moderation in the consumption of alcohol, and a trend toward an active lifestyle that is conducive to wanting refreshment in a beverage."
Keelers Shandy has been on the market for almost two years, and only in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, Heublein's chosen test market. In that close geographical area, a variety of consumer reactions to the new drink can be observed. "We wanted to get a heterogeneous consumer base in which to test the product," says McDonough. "Washingtonians are very different from southern Virginians, are very different from people in northern Maryland." So far the profile of a Keelers drinker "skews somewhat toward female, generally above average income, a little better educated," McDonough says.
With Keelers Shandy, as with a sparkling hard cider, the job of selling carries with it the job of educating. But McDonough feels that in the case of shandy, that job is a little bit easier: instead of changing a market concept, they simply have to create a new one. "At least what we have going for us with shandy is that it is unknown," says McDonough. "With cider, we would have to unlearn what people already know it to be."