Summer barbecues may seem like a distant memory now, but BBQ sauces, marinades and rubs as well as BBQ-flavored salty snacks are enjoyed year-round due to the flavor's national appeal.
According SymphonyIRI Group data for the calendar year ending Dec. 30, 2012, the most popular times of year for BBQ sauce are the Super Bowl, Easter and Christmas, we well as Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day – those last three falling during the "grilling" months. This seasonality aside, the category has year-long appeal, says Patrick Laughlin, director of marketing and project management for Fuchs North America, Owens Mills, Md.
"BBQ has become a year-round craft — it is no longer hot dogs and hamburgers cooked on a grill in the summer," says Jeffrey Troiola, corporate chef, research & development, for Woodland Foods, Waukegan, Ill.
Joe D'Auria, senior food technologist for Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings, Cranbury, N.J., agrees. "At one time, BBQ may have been a summer entity in most parts of the country, but not anymore."
Under the influence
Like most food trends, the growth in popularity of BBQ flavors started at the restaurant level and worked its way down to supermarket shelves, D'Auria explains, but one difference with BBQ is its diversity and regional appeal. "Take a walk down the BBQ sauce aisle at any supermarket," he suggests, "and see how many different BBQ sauces there are now as opposed to a few years ago. Now take a walk down the snack isle, and you will see the same."
Consumer outlets such as the Food Network and celebrity chefs such as Bobby Flay are helping to further the BBQ trend.
Troiola has also noticed this influence. "I think the restaurant industry picks it up after it has gained some traction through food TV channels and programming that is exclusive to BBQ," he says. "The trends are coming from the chefs and ‘pitmasters' — everyone else follows."
Regardless of the catalyst, when it comes to taste, BBQ is attractive to manufacturers and consumers alike.
"It's a combination of simplistic and layered flavors," D'Auria explains. "Tomato, smoke, vinegar and mustard are only a few of the ingredients used in most BBQ profiles." As Carolina BBQs became more popular, the market began seeing different bases, such as mustard and even mayonnaise.
Chefs have started experimenting with sweeteners such as coconut/palm sugar, molasses sugar, honey powder, granulated brown sugar and turbinado sugar instead of traditional cane sugar, Troiola notes. They can also change a flavor profile with pure chili powders such as guajillo, ancho, chipotle, chipotle morita, pasilla negro, habanero and smoked Serrano, he says, adding that "the heat can be truly elevated using ghost or scorpion chile powders."
Foodservice has been examining a more global view of BBQ, including Korean, Cambodian, Jamaican Jerk, Japanese robata, Indian tandoor and Indonesian, Troiola continues. "Woodland Foods features a large selection of internationally sourced ingredients to prepare authentic BBQ from every region of the world, such as lemon grass powder, galangal, coconut milk powder, long pepper, extensive list of chili peppers, dry chimichurri seasoning, Korean black garlic seasoning, tandoori seasoning, fruit and vinegar powders, Jerk seasonings, and an extensive array of exotic spices and herbs."
A matter of taste
The term "BBQ" encompasses a number of flavors. Nationally, "sweet BBQ flavors have the broadest appeal and tend to rank at the top of the list," reports Laughlin, citing IRI data that has "honey" as the top-selling BBQ sauce flavor at more than $100 million in sales for the 52 weeks ending Sept. 8.
"Growing in popularity are smoky, woody (hickory), sweet heat, tangy (Carolina) and alcohol-based flavors (bourbon, whiskey, etc.). In addition, regional American BBQ sauces (Carolina, Memphis, Texas) are gaining traction." IRI data lists Hickory & Brown Sugar, Sweet & Spicy, Honey Chipotle and Sweet Brown Sugar as up-and-coming in sales growth.
"Region is definitely playing a big part. Instead of generic BBQ-flavored products, we are seeing those named for Carolina, Texas, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, California, Hawaii and even Korea," D'Auria says.
There is always demand for multiple types of BBQ, Troiola notes, but as authentic regional BBQ becomes more readily available nationwide, less familiar styles like Memphis and Carolina are increasingly popular. "BBQ has become more nuanced, and consumers are looking for the less familiar styles and tastes," he states.
Flavor preferences vary by state, and even different sections of a state have different versions of BBQ, D'Auria says -- for example, Texas (spicy, savory mesquite smoke), North Carolina (ketchup, vinegar, pepper), South Carolina (mustard, vinegar), Kansas City (tomato, molasses), St. Louis (sweet tomato-based) and Memphis (cider vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar).
Suppliers are capitalizing on this trend. For example, Fuchs has a new line of seasonings and flavor bases inspired by regional American BBQ that can be used to develop custom products for foodservice or processed food products for grocery. They are Louisiana Bayou Bite Rub (a spicy rub with hints of Louisiana hot sauce, brown sugar, ketchup, smoked red bell peppers and molasses); Texas Mop (featuring spicy chili pepper and smoked paprika blended with cumin and coriander, bell pepper, Worcestershire sauce and beer); Alabama-Style White BBQ Sauce (using mayonnaise and featuring a slightly smoky base that begins with sweet-tart flavors from apple juice and tangy apple cider, plus spicy horseradish and white pepper); Kentucky Black (a rich, sweet and tangy sauce with heavy, sweet, brown aromatics from a complex blend of vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and other ingredients); New Mexican Chocolate-Chili BBQ Rub (a blend of dark unsweetened cocoa, tomato and heavy chili for a sweet, smoky and slightly spicy flavor); and Cali-Que (sweet citrus and smoky chili married to apple cider vinegar).
Meanwhile, Woodland Foods Spice Blends features more than 50 seasonings, rubs and flavor enhancers, most of which are handcrafted and produced in small batches. They include chipotle BBQ seasoning, five spice powder, Cajun blackening blend, hickory BBQ seasoning, gumbo file and mesquite seasoning.
As mentioned, the BBQ flavor movement extends to the snack aisle, too. "It would be challenging to find a snack manufacturer that doesn't have a BBQ in their line," starting with BBQ, Honey BBQ, Sweet BBQ, Tangy BBQ and Spicy BBQ, D'Auria says.
Even this segment is evolving. "Over the past year, there have been numerous ‘meaty' and ‘BBQ' introductions in the salty snack category that have no doubt been influenced by the BBQ phenomenon," Laughlin adds. "Regional BBQ flavors will become more and more popular as manufacturers try and capture the nuances of the different types of BBQs across the country. We also see more ethnic offerings, particularly from South America."
And the BBQ flavor category will continue to grow as more BBQ restaurants spring up, opening BBQ up to a whole new audience, D'Auria predicts. "You are already seeing more global fusion in BBQ (Caribbean, Asian, Korean, Cajun and Mexican)," he says.
Whether inspired by regional or international trends, the latest BBQ-flavored innovations prove that the category has something for every taste bud as well as every season.