Donna Berry

Dairy-based beverages both here and abroad are becoming increasingly popular thanks to innovative formulations and packages by dairy processors. This creativity is likely to continue based on the impressive turnout at this past week's Beverage Symposium in Madison, Wis. The meeting was hosted by G.C. Hahn & Co. USA Inc. (Hahn), Pleasant Prairie, Wis., and held at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.

"The dairy drink market is still a niche market, but very innovative and it is the fastest growing segment of dairy products," said Kerstin Werner, marketing support for Hahn, Luebeck, Germany, the company's headquarters. "The market for innovative dairy drinks is constantly growing. The main factors driving the growth of dairy drinks are innovations and health."

Werner discussed how dairy drinks present the opportunity to customize formulations based on specific dietary needs of each gender and by age. For example, a dairy-based drink for women over 40 years of age could include ingredients associated with prolonging youth such as aloe vera, or those that help relax the overworked mind and body. This is exemplified by the new product from Milko in Sweden. Called Mindcooler, the shelf-stable beverage is about 30% yogurt and 6% fruit.

If functional protein is what's on the consumer's mind, at the beginning of this year, the Danone business in Germany rolled out Fresh Drink, which is 47% whey, 28% yogurt and 12% fruit juice. The remaining 13% is sweetener and stabilizer.

Multi-functionality is exemplified in Yosa Plus from Bioferme Ltd., in Finland. Yosa Plus is an oat-based drink designed as an on-the-go breakfast beverage. Yosa Plus is fermented with probiotic cultures and contains suspended oat cereal, i.e., granola clusters. The drinks are also fortified with calcium, an array of vitamins and healthful fatty acids. The latter is accomplished through the addition of currant seed oil, which contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

As you can see, the opportunity to innovate in the area of dairy-based beverage is incredible. Some truly different products include Koldskal from Denmark's Arla Foods. Koldskal is a milk drink based on sour milk and buttermilk, which also contains about 4% egg. The beverage has a citrus flavor and be consumed as a drink or as a soup.

New Winter Fit from Germany's Nordmilch is fruited buttermilk that can be served either hot or cold. Flavors include sour cherry/grape/elderberry and plum/acerola/cherry/cinnamon.

Indeed, buttermilk is a popular base for dairy beverages in Europe, and David McCoy, principal scientist with Milwaukee, Wis.-based Chr. Hansen Inc., and a speaker at the Beverage Symposium says he expects that buttermilk with come back to life in the United States soon. This is because diacetyl, the characterizing flavor of butter and one of the highly pronounced flavors in buttermilk, is present in many of today's popular flavors including caramel and various chocolate combinations. "Buttermilk cultures should be used as a flavor adjunct in dairy beverages, not as an acidifier," McCoy said.

Unique concept beverages showcased at the symposium included an aerated chocolate milk that is basically a "shaken" shake; a yogurt drink with cereal pieces; a yogurt drink with fiber; a green tea-flavored milk; and a savory quark drink, which is basically a liquid cheese beverage.

Speaking of savory, in time, we can expect to see some unique flavor combinations in dairy beverages, as these products are already available in select European markets. For example, Dutch conglomerate Muller offers limited edition fortified milks in flavors such as Lava, which combines the sweet taste of strawberry with the bitter notes of chocolate and the heat of chili. There's also Green Moon, which is pistachio and coconut.

The opportunities in dairy beverages are unlimited. Don't let the soft drink manufacturers be first to market with such innovations. Milk marketers know the business and should aggressively pursue this opportunity to ensure future category growth and increased dollar sales.