Airlines go local with their inflight drinks

Catering to increasingly sophisticated passengers who want to try something new besides the generic soda and alcohol brands on their trip, a number of airlines are serving local niche beverages on board their flights. By adding an exclusive homegrown product to their in-flight beverage selection, these airlines also put an authentic element and a bit of storytelling to their brands, while at the same time supporting the local economy. Local drinks are often served on smaller airlines such as Virgin America, Porter and Brussels Airlines, as it is easier for local breweries to guarantee supply. 

Virgin America since December 2009 offers locally-made micro-brew beers ‘21st Amendment’ and ‘Gordon Biersch’, as well as premium alcoholic drinks from California, such as ‘VeeV Açai Spirit‘ and ‘Karma California Brut‘. Earlier in 2009, Shaun O’Sullivan co-founder of San Francisco-based micro-brewery ‘21st Amendment’ was onboard a Virgin America flight tweeting about the carrier’s in-flight experience and offered his ale as a potential menu item. As a result of his post and passenger requests for a larger onboard beer selection with more micro-brew options, the carrier added the California-made beverages to its inflight drink menu. 

Canadian boutique airline Porter Airlines is serving complimentary beer from Toronto-based ‘Steam Whistle Brewing Company’. Steam Whistle’s Bavarian-style Pilsner is brewed at Toronto’s historic John St. Roundhouse, a former Canadian Pacific Railway repair facility, which is located less than two kilometres from Porter’s Toronto City Centre Airport base. 

Alaska Airlines, meanwhile, is serving ‘Alaskan Amber’ beer from the Alaskan Brewing Company, a regional craft brewery located in Juneau, the capital of Alaska. The alt-style beer is brewed with water from glaciers outside of Juneau. Passengers can also sample some of Alaskan Brewing Company’s seasonal ales throughout the year. On flights to Hawaii the airline serves ‘Longboard Island Lager’ from ‘Kona Brewing Company’, a micro-brewery located in Kailua-Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island. Furthermore, passengers onboard Horizon Air, Alaska Airlines’ regional subsidiary, can chose from a selection of complimentary regional wines and microbrews, which changes every month.

At the other side of the Pacific, Japan Airlines’ ‘inflight sake and sochu service’ carries a large range of local Japanese sake and sochu specialties. JAL has also set up a dedicated website which includes sake recommendations and profiles of micro-breweries and information on how to visit. Air New Zealand is adding a local touch to its service with cocktails from ‘42 Below’, a distillery based in downtown Auckland, New Zealand. The 42nd parallel runs through the middle of New Zealand, which happens to be where 42 Below was conceived. The water used to make the vodka comes from under an extinct volcano and gets the highest purity rating available.

In Europe, Brussels Airlines has served ‘Chez Leon’ beer onboard for several years. Belgium has a rich microbrew tradition and the high fermentation beer is brewed by restaurant Chez Leon in Brussels. The airline also offers Belgian beer brands such as Maes Pils and Grimbergen. On a similar note, Lufthansa has just (March 2010) opened a beer garden in cooperation with Munich’s Franziskaner brewery in its lounge at Munich airport.

Although The Netherlands are not exactly known as a wine-producing country, KLM Airlines every year serves local Dutch wines in its Business class for a number of months (mainly because of limited supply). In 2009 wines were selected from ‘De Kleine Schorre’, a vineyard on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland in the Dutch coastal province of Zeeland. KLM also gives every business class passenger a Delft Blue miniature traditional Dutch house, filled with Dutch gin, also known as genever.

However, teaming up with local beverage brands seems to work best for artisan beverages such as beer and spirits. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines has been serving cult beverage brand ‘Jones Soda’ (also based in Seattle) since April 2008 on board its flights. However, the airline last March (2010) brought back Coca-Cola on board by popular demand. Says Alaska: “As we continue to spread our wings beyond the West Coast, it’s increasingly important to respond to our customers’ requests for Coca-Cola products on board.” Despite the loss of business, Jones Soda added that “While we’re disappointed, we respect and definitely understand their decision to move on. They [Alaska Airlines] went with the local guy when nobody else would, and I think that shows a lot about who they are and what their business is all about.”

Special thanks to Jaunted whose ‘The Five Best Airlines For In-Flight Beers’ provided the inspiration for this article.

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