After spending two centuries using its knowledge of grains to brew beer, Molson Coors is bringing that insight into a whole new beverage: plant-based milk.
Hitting store shelves this month, the company's Golden Wing Barley Milk is made with five all-natural ingredients, including non-GMO barley, sunflower oil, pink Himalayan salt, and shiitake mushroom extract. It's the latest bet by the beer giant known for Coors, Blue Moon and Miller Genuine Draft to expand its reach amid a shift by consumers toward other beverage offerings while also grabbing a stake in the trendy, fast-growing plant-based category.
"We wanted to explore the building of our own brands in our nonalc portfolio, and in looking to unlock that opportunity, we really wanted to understand what are we experts in, what do we know better than anybody else?" said Brian Schmidt, brand manager with Molson Coors' non-alcoholic division. "We think that this is the next big play in the plant-based milk category."
Golden Wing will pit Molson Coors against other fierce competitors in a crowded and rapidly evolving plant-based milk category.
Danone, which has been a giant in the plant-based dairy segment since its 2016 acquisition of WhiteWave Foods, also launched its “plant-based 2.0” platform last year with reformulated, more dairy-like alternatives: Silk Nextmilk and So Delicious Wondermilk.
Sweden’s Oatly, which went public in 2021, has seen huge sales growth. Last year, Chilean plant-based company NotCo expanded into the U.S. with its NotMilk products.
Even EverGrain, a subsidiary of AB InBev that turns spent barley into nutritious and functional ingredients, is available in a plant-based barley milk called Take Two.
Plant-based milk sales grew 4% last year to reach $2.6 billion — while animal-based milk sales declined 2% in 2021, according to data from the Plant Based Foods Association, The Good Food Institute and SPINS. Plant-based milk, which now accounts for 16% of all retail milk dollar sales, has been a boon for the category, contributing $105 million in growth. Meanwhile, animal-based milk's decline equated to a loss of $264 million.
While Schmidt acknowledged there are other barley-based milks on the market, Golden Wing has one major attribute that sets it apart.
Unlike other products that typically use upcycled barley left over after making beer, Molson Coors instead takes the unused grain grown by the farmers who supply its ingredients. This gives its milk more nutritional benefits such as minerals that aid in the utilization of carbohydrates for energy, proteins for building muscles and soluble fibers to enhance digestion, while maintaining a better flavor, according to the company. Golden Wing is described as having a malty sweetness similar to when milk is left over in a bowl of cereal.
Schmidt said Golden Wing has drawn early praise from retailers attracted by its uniqueness and ability to attract new shoppers to plant-based milk, as well as consumers who like the taste. "That helped us understand what the potential for this brand is, and why it's probably our biggest bet within the pilot stage of our portfolio right now," he noted.
While Molson Coors is best known for its beers, the company has expanded into other alcoholic and nonalcoholic categories to respond to rapidly shifting trends and robust competition. Molson Coors is targeting $1 billion in revenue by 2023 from its emerging growth division, which launched just three years ago.
The groundwork for its shift began in November 2019 when it took a 49% stake in L.A. Libations, a nonalcoholic beverage incubator famous for serving as an accelerator for BodyArmor sports drinks and Core Nutrition, a nutrient-enhanced bottled water.
The investment led to the debut of decidedly unbeer-like products, including Golden Wing; Huzzah, a seltzer with added probiotics; and MadVine, a plant-based soda without artificial ingredients.
Since then, the Chicago-based company has rolled out or partnered on a slew of nonalcoholic drinks, such as Zoa, an above-premium energy drink with natural ingredients, vitamins, electrolytes and amino acids, and La Colombe ready-to-drink coffee products.
The plant-based milk segment has evolved over time to include different ingredients, beginning with soy and then moving into nuts followed by oats — the latter of which Schmidt said opened the door to other grain-based versions. As consumer tastes evolve and barley becomes a more popular ingredient in plant-based foods, Molson Coors is aiming to "be that new entrant that takes share and tells that new story," he said.
"The barley milk category is still vaguely ambiguous to consumers or unknown to consumers," Schmidt said. "So we want to make sure that when they first take this product that they just get it on first sip and ... that we're able to convert them from either dairy milk or any other plant-based milk that they're drinking."
Golden Wing was first introduced in late 2020, but Molson Coors spent the last 18 months making small tweaks to the drink, setting up production and developing plans to launch the brand.
The beverage is launching this month at select Sprouts and Whole Foods grocery stores and the milk brand's website. Schmidt said a limited release early on will allow Molson Coors to gain consumers' feedback and better understand how they use Golden Wing. Molson Coors is talking with other retailers about carrying the product as the company works its way toward eventually having the offering sold nationwide, he said.