PORTLAND, Maine — There's no smoke and mirrors about it — Americans are eating a lot more smoked seafood than they used to.
And that demand — part of a larger trend of infusing everything from salts and cocktails to fruit and teas with a kiss of smoky flavor — has smoked seafood producers like Maine's Ducktrap River moving fast to expand production.
"Our sales have increased to the point where we can't keep up," says Don Cynewski, the company's general manager. "We feel strongly that this is still a relatively new product in the United States and that it has good growth potential."
By late summer Ducktrap River hopes to finish a $4.5 million expansion that should double its annual production capacity to 5.5 million pounds of smoked salmon — the top-selling variety of smoked seafood in the U.S. — as well as trout, mussels, scallops, shrimp and other products.
The federal government doesn't track smoked seafood consumption, but sales at 18,000 supermarkets, mass merchandisers and club chains jumped 17 percent last year, 12 percent in 2011 and 4 percent in 2010, according to market research firm Nielsen Perishables Group.
And smoked seafood imports to the U.S. have been climbing, from $75 million in 2006 to $135 million in 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It makes sense that smoked seafood sales are growing. American diners have become more sophisticated about their seafood, and smoked seafood tends to be a higher-end product, says Gunnar Knapp, an economics professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage who has studied seafood trends for more than 20 years.
"The opportunity is bright for products that are high-quality, taste good and are healthy," he said. "I think smoked seafood fits in all that."
Smoked seafood also has become increasingly popular at upscale restaurants, where chefs apply the smoke themselves, says Howie Velie, a chef and associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Using hand-held smoking devices that apply small amounts of hickory, mesquite, applewood and other wood smoke flavors into covered dishes, chefs are layering subtle smoky flavors in seafood such as tuna, cod, halibut, sea bass, grouper and lobster. "It's not like you take a Texas-style brisket and put it in a smoker for 12 hours," Velie says.
And it's not just seafood that's being smoked.
Restaurants also are applying smoked flavors and aromas to a variety of meats, fruits and vegetables, and in beverages such as tea, he said. A trendy alcoholic beverage these days is a smoked Manhattan, a cocktail made with whisky, vermouth, bitters and a maraschino cherry.
"It's a popular flavor and aroma, it's been around forever, and I think it's definitely on an upsurge," he says.
Knapp says there's room for smoked seafood consumption to continue growing, and that a good analogy might be wine. Americans used to drink relatively little wine compared to Europeans, but as consumers developed a taste for it, wine sales grew. Per capita wine consumption in the U.S. has tripled since the 1960s.
For comparison, Americans eat relatively little smoked seafood compared to Europeans. But if U.S. consumers develop a taste for it — as they have for wine — sales could continue going up, Knapp said.
"That would be reason to be optimistic about the future," he said.
Ducktrap River, which is owned by Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company that is the world's largest farmed-salmon producer, has seen sales roughly double during the past four years, to about $30 million a year, Cynewski said. The company expects the upward trend to continue.
"We'll have to wait and see if our opinions are correct," he said.