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Bartender, Pour Me Another Cup

Perhaps Inevitably: Caffeinated Beer

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2005; Page C01

America's largest brewing company, Anheuser-Busch, released its latest product last week -- a beer that contains caffeine.

Obviously, this is a monumental cultural milestone and it raises important questions that we as a society must answer. For instance: Is adding America's favorite stimulant to America's favorite alcoholic beverage the greatest scientific breakthrough of the 21st century? Or the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it? Or what?

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The beer is called B{+E} -- with the E raised up, like an exponent in math, which is why the name is pronounced "B to the E." (The B stands for Budweiser. The E stands for extra.) Sold in 10-ounce cans, B{+E} contains 54 milligrams of caffeine -- about half the dose found in an average cup of coffee. B{+E} also contains ginseng, the fabled herb, and guarana, an Amazonian berry frequently found in Brazilian soft drinks.

"It's beer with something extra," says Dawn Roepke, Anheuser-Busch's brand manager for new products. "It's new, it's innovative, it's different."

Actually, it's not all that new, innovative or different. The popularity of a cocktail made by adding vodka to the energy drink Red Bull has inspired several brewers to create caffeinated beers. Most are small local brews such as Moonshot, a Boston-based beer that contains caffeine, and Third Rail, a caffeinated beer brewed in Frederick but available only in California. But one is nationally known: Sparks, a malt-based energy drink that contains many of the same ingredients as B{+E} -- alcohol, caffeine, ginseng and guarana.

Rolling Stone magazine raved about Sparks last year: "The wave of the future is getting invigorated and wasted in one go with Sparks, the energy drink that has thoughtfully already added booze for you."

But Rolling Stone did not rave about the flavor of Sparks: "It tastes like cough syrup."

B{+E} beer does not taste like cough syrup. It doesn't taste much like beer, either. It tastes like . . . something else.

"It has an aroma of blackberry and a little bit of cherry, which is unexpected," says Nathaniel Davis, the brew master who created B{+E}. "It has typical beer flavors, like hops and malt, and it finishes with what we're calling the wow factor."

What's the wow factor?

"That bright, slightly sweet tart finish," he says. "People who drink it, their eyes light up and they say 'Wow!,' among other things."

Justin Elwin, a bartender at the Brickskeller, a Washington groggery that serves more than 1,000 kinds of beer, has a less lyrical description: "It tastes a lot like soda," he says. "It doesn't have a beer taste to it. It's kinda like a very light . . . I don't want to say orange but like a tangerine type of thing."

"It tastes like a citrus-flavored Red Bull," says Rhonda Kallman, creator of the caffeinated Moonshot, which has no ginseng or fruit.

But taste is a trivial and subjective issue. The important sociological question is: What effect will caffeinated beer have on the fragile fabric of American society? Can we handle this?

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