Crushing on Craft Brews

Local brewers and c-stores collaborate on unique flavors that create consumer buzz.

Crushing on Craft Brews

July 2021   minute read

By: Carol Angrisani

Kwik Trip’s first collaboration beer got its start when category manager Kim Jenks sent an email to a local brewer with a subject line that read, “Crazy Idea for a Friday Morning.”

The idea was anything but crazy. Rather, it was a novel plan for Kwik Trip, based in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Karben4 Brewing in Madison, Wisconsin, to produce a beer made with Kwik Trip’s very own coffee. Karben4 jumped at the opportunity, and together the two companies produced several batches of Glazer Bean, a chocolate coffee stout brewed with Kwik Trip’s Karuba coffee.

The limited-edition beer exceeded Kwik Trip’s expectations, so much so that the companies have launched three other collaboration beers since the November 2019 introduction of Glazer Bean. The Urge Tracker Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream Stout hit shelves in February. The beer was inspired by Kwik Trip’s Nature’s Touch Urge Tracks ice cream. Karben4 added nitrogen into the cans to give it a creaminess and similar mouthfeel of ice cream. Prior to Urge Tracks, Kwik Trip and Karben4 launched Hot Spot Hazy IPA in April 2020 at the height of the pandemic. To underscore its exclusivity to Kwik Trip, the beer was named after Kwik Trip’s hot foods program. In May, Kwik Trip and Karben4 Brewing brought back the Hot Spot Hazy IPA just in time for summer.

Convenience stores are tapping into the limited-edition beer business with collaboration brews that incorporate their exclusive coffees, confections and baked goods.

Kwik Trip shoppers love the collaboration beers because they are tasty and unique and feature attention-grabbing labels, said Jenks. “This drives traffic to the stores and awareness to our beer category,” she said. An added bonus is that customers who come in specifically for the beer often pick up incremental items.

Such partnerships come at a time when craft beer is rising in popularity. The percentage of adults who drink craft reached 44% last year, up from 35% in 2015, according to the Brewers Association, the Boulder, Colorado-based trade association for craft brewers. These figures are expected to rise over the next few years as more of the Gen Z population enters the craft beer age range, according to the association. Data from NACS Convenience Voices indicate that 25 to 34 year-olds make up the largest share (47.5%) of craft beer purchasers in the convenience store channel, followed by 35 to 44 year-olds (31.3%) and consumers 24 and younger (15%). Males account for 62.5% of craft beer purchases. When it comes to beer occasions, nearly 60% of shoppers participating in the NACS Convenience Voices mobile intercepts program said they purchased craft beer to relax either by themselves or with a significant other, and 23.6% said they would share beer to connect with close friends or family.

“There is a big craft beer following in Wisconsin, and these drinkers tend to like to experiment with new offerings,” said Jenks.

Convenience stores are the perfect fit for craft beer, said Zak Koga, co-founder and owner of Karben4 Brewing. “Convenience stores are (or will be) in every community in our country, and it makes a lot of sense to connect with the local community and put forth an honest effort to bring personal value to everyone who walks in those doors,” Koga said. “What better way than to give them a beer that was made locally and specifically for them!”

Along with Kwik Trip, other convenience stores are tapping into the limited-edition beer business with collaboration brews that incorporate their exclusive coffees, confections, baked goods and more. Sheetz, Wawa and OnCue are among them.

Sweet Brews

Sheetz, the Mid-Atlantic chain with nearly 600 stores, has partnered with several breweries to incorporate the flavors of its exclusive products into limited-edition private label craft beer. In late May, Sheetz released its largest scale limited-edition craft beer to date: Project I Scream, Brew Scream, in partnership with Chicago-based Goose Island Beer Company. Brewed with Sheetz Bros. strawberry and banana puree, the limited-edition strawberry and banana milkshake IPA is a light and fruity beer with a hint of hop to balance the sweetness. The $7.99 four-packs of 16-ounce cans of Project I Scream, Brew Scream were available in Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. In partnership with Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina, Sheetz released a limited-edition golden pale ale infused with Sheetz’ Glazed Vanilla Donut Holes this past holiday season. Four-packs of 16-ounce cans sold for $7.99 in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia.

Among other beer collaborations, Sheetz connected with Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Virginia, to brew a wheat ale made with its private-label watermelon gummy candy. Called “Project Watt-Ahh-Melon Ring,” the tart watermelon beer was available for a limited time last year in select Sheetz stores in Virginia and North Carolina.

More than 100 pounds of Sheetz-brand Watermelon Gummy Rings were used in the brewing process to provide fermentable sugars, as well as watermelon aromatics and flavors, said Brian Nelson, Hardywood’s head brewer.

“Being part of this collaboration allowed Hardywood to reach new customers with an innovative beer concept that would have not come to life without the spirit and excitement brought to us through the Sheetz team,” Nelson said.

The watermelon beer followed the release of an even more unusual brew: “Project Hop Dog,” an IPA brewed with Sheetz’ hot dogs. It was released last year in partnership with Neshaminy Creek Brewing in Croydon, Pennsylvania.

Coffee Porters

Wawa is another c-store chain that has raised a glass to collaboration brews. Along with getting a fill-up, snack or made-to-order hoagie, Wawa customers could get craft beers infused with Wawa’s own Winter Reserve coffee this past holiday season. The Pennsylvania-based chain with more than 850 stores along the East Coast released three limited-edition beers made with the specialty coffee over the holidays. The winter-themed brews included an English-style imperial oatmeal stout aged in Jamaican rum barrels for seven months.

OnCue wanted to craft a beer that tasted like memories of customers' personal hometown heroes.

The new brews build on Wawa’s growing partnership with Pennsylvania-based 2SP Brewing. Wawa and 2SP have partnered for other collaborative beers, including “Snow Bird Reserve,” a craft beer created in celebration of its Northern customers who spend the winter in the South. Introduced in February 2020 in Wawa’s Florida stores, the vanilla porter also was brewed with Wawa’s Winter Reserve Coffee. To strengthen the local connection, Wawa and 2SP involved Tampa-based Coppertail Brewing in the project.

Gary Kost, Coppertail Brewing’s marketing director, said the partnership is mutually beneficial because it enabled the brewers to reach new customers with a variety of packaging sizes. Snow Bird Reserve, for instance, was sold in single cans as well as in 12-packs and other packaging.

This past December, the OnCue convenience store chain, based in Stillwater, Oklahoma, teamed up with Iron Monk Brewing Co., also in Stillwater, to launch a limited-edition craft beer named Hometown Hero.

About 325 cases were sold over three months in OnCue stores, according to Dave Monks, Ph.D., co-founder of Iron Monk Brewing. He describes the lager as tasting bright and crisp, with “just a hint of malty goodness.”

“Thoughts of your personal hometown heroes might just prompt warm recollections and thoughts of good times, and we wanted to craft a beer that tasted just a bit like those memories,” Monks said.

Clearly, convenience stores are no longer limited to selling beer from only the big brands. Whether it’s a stout, lager, porter or other small-batch style, limited-edition craft beer can create excitement and a point of differentiation in a competitive market.

Carol Angrisani

Carol Angrisani

Carol Angrisani is a New York-based writer who has been covering the food and beverage industries for more than 20 years. Visit her on Twitter at @carolangrisani1.

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