By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
"I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer. The future's uncertain and the end is always near," crooned Jim Morrison and the Doors in the song "Roadhouse Blues." Nowadays, an increasing number of brewers are adding coffee to their porters and stouts to produce beer that you might actually want to down as an eye-opener.
But a Food and Drug Administration crackdown on caffeinated alcoholic beverages might prove to be a buzz kill for this emerging style.
On Nov. 13, the FDA sent a letter to 30 manufacturers warning that "there are no food additive regulations that permit the addition of caffeine at any level in alcoholic beverages." The agency has given the companies a month to present scientific evidence that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. The FDA was prompted in part by complaints from the attorneys general of 18 states that such high-octane energy drinks can be addictive and can create wide-awake drunks who are unable to judge their level of impairment and are therefore prone to engage in risky behaviors such as driving under the influence.
"I didn't know we were starting a new category," says Dave Engbers, co-owner of Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was referring to his Breakfast Stout, a cold-weather seasonal brewed with Kona and Sumatra coffee and two kinds of chocolate and oatmeal. The hefty winter warmer (8.3 percent alcohol by volume) is full of roasty and bittersweet chocolate flavor with some spicy hops peeping through. Engbers says it has inspired several other similarly named "breakfast" beers.
Most of the beverages on the FDA's hit list are caffeinated spirits such as the vodka and tequila made by Pink and flavored malt beverages such as Four Loko, a deep-purple concoction spiked with guarana (which contains caffeine) that measures 12 percent alcohol and tastes like grape Kool-Aid mixed with cough medicine.
However, among the recipients of the FDA's letter is the Ithaca Beer Co. in Ithaca, N.Y., which briefly marketed a beer called Eleven, a coffee stout specially brewed for the company's 11th anniversary.
Charlie Papazian, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, speculated that the FDA's complaint against Ithaca Beer was "inadvertent." "They seem to be going after products that have pure caffeine added," he said, but "brewers should be concerned. This could lead the FDA to question beverages that get their caffeine from natural products like coffee, chocolate or tea. Who's to say where this will end?"
Mike McCarthy, director of brewing operations for Capitol City Brewing Co. in Arlington, expressed some sympathy for the FDA's concerns. He cited two friends who drank five to six cups of Irish coffee over the course of an evening and wound up in a hospital emergency room, apparently suffering from the effects of combining depressants and stimulants. "Their hearts were racing. They thought they were having a heart attack."
Nevertheless, McCarthy says his beer Fuel, a 9-percent-alcohol imperial stout flavored with beans from Misha's Coffee in Old Town Alexandria, presents no danger. The recipe, he says, calls for blending two kegs of a concentrated coffee solution with 26 kegs of stout. To encourage moderation, Capitol City serves the beer in 10-ounce goblet glasses instead of pints. "I would say there's less caffeine in a glass than in a cup of Starbucks," he estimates.
Most of the brewers interviewed for this column were unable to say how much caffeine was in their coffee beers. "We're in it for the flavor, not the buzz," says Russ Klisch, president of the Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, which markets a coffee stout called Fuel Cafe. He says coffee-flavored microbrews and high-test energy drinks such as Joose and Four Loko are "two separate animals."
Caffeinated brews vary widely. Tree huggers might want to reach for Wolaver's Alta Gracia Coffee Porter from Otter Creek Brewing Co. in Middlebury, Vt., made with coffee from a nonprofit farm in the Dominican Republic that's both fair-trade and USDA-certified organic. An addition of vanilla beans helps smooth out the piercing black-coffee aroma and flavor.
The annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver awards medals in a coffee-flavored beer category. The recipient of this year's top prize was Dude, Where's My Vespa?, a coffee-infused oatmeal stout from the Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington. Brewer Chris Rafferty says he got the name from a red motorbike on a bag of Starbucks Italian roast coffee. (He has since switched to a milder blend from Beanetics, a micro-roaster in Annandale.) The brewpub is set to tap a new batch next week.
Worthy of special mention is Beer Geek Brunch, an experiment from the Mikkeller microbrewery in Denmark. This imperial stout was brewed with coffee that is processed through animals.
You read that right.
The Asian palm civet eats the beans, and enzymes in its digestive tract are reported to break down bittering compounds in the coffee before the beans are excreted and collected. Beer Geek Brunch is not available in this area, but Mikkeller continues to make Beer Geek Breakfast, brewed with more-conventionally gathered coffee beans for a rich, oily mouth feel and a roasty flavor with notes of licorice and burnt molasses.
Using excreted coffee beans to make beer: Now that's an eye-opener.
Kitsock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.