market research for alcoholic beverages

Consumer Testing Alcoholic Beverages: Rules of the Road

The market for alcoholic beverages is dynamic, with new products being introduced – and dismissed – rapidly. Take, for example, the hard seltzer market. In 2020, the market was growing like crazy (US hard seltzer sales to jump by 270% in 2020), and now – in 2021 –  experts are projecting that the hard seltzer boom is over (Hard seltzer boom goes flat), due to too many brands chasing too few customers.

It is no wonder that alcoholic beverage manufacturers cover their new product bets with significant amounts of consumer testing. However, testing alcoholic beverages with consumers has some unique requirements not found in testing other products or services. For example, each state has regulations governing the testing of alcoholic beverages. New York, for example, requires a permit for each sample you are going to test for each day you are running the test. To evaluate two samples of beer over four days would mean you would need to get eight permits. And those eight permit applications need to be submitted at least 30 days before the test occurs. Bottom line: no way you can test your alcoholic beverage in New York in a week!

You need a partner who can help you navigate the turbulent waters of alcoholic beverage testing. Data collection partners who have extensive experience with testing alcoholic beverages are familiar and prepared for all of the challenges of these types of projects. Without this experience, your entire project is at risk.

Here are some more areas where your field partner should be able to support your alcoholic beverage test:

  1. State Regulations. We spoke above about the need to get permits to conduct tests with alcoholic beverages. But states often have additional regulations that you will need to plan for in your project. Some states limit the total number of and amount of each serving you can give a respondent. Depending on your project, that may increase your fieldwork time and require you to complete the test over two or more days. 
  2. Protecting Respondents – and Yourself. Obviously, testing alcoholic beverages is risky in that different people have different limits or sensitivity to alcohol. Some states require respondents to pass a breathalyzer test to prove they are not drunk when they arrive at the facility. You may need to use a breathalyzer to test whether the respondent is sober enough to drive home. In some cases, you should be prepared to have an alternative source of transportation for impaired respondents. Of course, all of this adds expense and time to your project, so make sure your data collection partner knows the regulations and is familiar with the testing protocols.
  3. Manufacturer Protocols. As the research firm, you should know your alcoholic beverage client’s protocols for consumer testing. If your data collection partner does not ask you about them and is not prepared to adjust their process to accommodate your client’s protocol, that is a huge red flag. You should discuss your manufacturer’s protocols well in advance of contracting with any field partner to avoid misunderstandings, cost overruns, and lost time.
  4. Beverage Serving Requirements. Depending on the alcoholic beverage, there may be specific storage and serving requirements that must be maintained throughout the test. Should the beverage be room temperature, kept in an ice bath, or refrigerated? Can you use disposable plastic cups, or must the beverage be served in a special glass vessel (e.g., shot glass, wine glass) that must be rented? If glassware must be used, how will it be cleaned and sanitized between uses? Will the respondent need a special palette cleanser between tastings? How much time should elapse between samples? Can respondents be allowed a second taste (or more) to clarify their response to the product? All of these variables should be clarified by the data collection partner before beginning the test.

Fortunately, the relative ease of recruiting respondents to an alcoholic beverage taste test somewhat overcomes the execution challenges of the test itself. In most cases, age, not using the product category, and not consuming a specific brand or brands are the only limits to the respondents’ ability to participate. 

Often, the difference between a successful alcoholic beverage consumer test and one that does not proceed smoothly, on time, and on budget is the experience of the data collection partner in conducting this specific kind of research. Ask your potential partners about their experience with alcoholic beverage testing and their knowledge of regulations. But more importantly, listen to the questions they ask – or don’t ask – about your project to decide whether they have the experience you need to bring your project to a successful close.

Reckner has years of experience in successfully conducting alcoholic beverage tests. If we can succeed in the complex world of alcoholic beverage testing, we’re confident we can do your project successfully as well. Contact us to talk about it!