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Why canned hard coffee hasn’t capitalized on the buzz

(Washington Post illustration)

The Vegas odds on hard coffee should be good. Americans drink lots of coffee, and Americans drink lots of alcohol. But as anyone who has gambled on sports knows, betting on a favorite doesn’t guarantee a victory.

Hard coffee — a catchall term for canned drinks that mix coffee with malt- or sugar-derived alcohol — appears poised to be a mainstream hit. Behind water, coffee is the most-consumed liquid in the United States, and nonalcoholic canned or bottled coffee is one of the country’s fastest-growing beverages.

At bars and restaurants over the last two years, coffee spiked with booze is enjoying a retro resurgence in the form of the espresso martini. And in early December, hospitality insights company CGA reported that the espresso martini had cracked the Top 10 list of most-ordered cocktails in the United States.

Yet packaged hard coffee has struggled to achieve its breakthrough moment, even as other soft drinks including soda, juice, seltzer and lemonade have successfully made the leap to the boozy side.

In October, Pabst Brewing discontinued its hard-coffee product, which at the time was the top-selling hard-coffee brand nationally. That followed La Colombe’s decision in March 2020 to pull the Hard Cold Brew Coffee it had launched with Molson Coors Beverage Company just six months prior. This year, all hard-coffee brands combined sold about 1 percent of the volume that the leading hard-tea brand, Twisted Tea, sold in stores nationally.

Skeptics offer a simple explanation: Most hard coffee just doesn’t taste good.

“The coffee beans do not start out as a specialty-grade coffee, which is what the cold-brew market was built on,” says Randy Anderson, an independent consultant to the cold-brew industry. “I think people are going, ‘You know, I tried it, it was okay, but I’m not really hooked on it.’”

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There’s no single explanation for hard coffee’s stalled momentum, and some brands are still bullish on the category’s growth potential. Small, upstart hard-coffee companies in particular say they don’t expect to be as big as, say, major hard-seltzer brands and are content to be a premium product within a relatively niche market. But right now, many beverage industry watchers are betting the “under” on hard coffee’s success.

“Looking at the litany of unsuccessful performance, there’s nothing to date that would give any company confidence to invest $100 million in hard-coffee innovation,” says Matt Bruhn, an alcohol industry adviser and former general manager of Pabst.

For starters, the supply chain that gets hard coffee onto a shelf is complicated. Manufacturing plants that can package shelf-stable coffee beverages are already in high demand nationally. Add alcohol, milk or nitrogen carbonation to the order, and the list of available facilities narrows even further.

Then there’s pricing. Good-quality coffee beans with discernible provenance make even nonalcoholic coffee drinks quite expensive. According to Jim Watson, executive director of beverages research at Rabobank, ready-to-drink coffee on average costs 4.5 times what bottled or canned tea does. Alcohol-infused cold brew brands such as Cafe Agave Spiked Cold Brew and Bomani Cold Buzz sell their hard coffees online for $4 per 6 to 11 ounce can. At roughly $2.50 per can, Twelve5’s Rebel Hard Coffee is one of the more affordable hard-coffee brands, but it still costs about 40 percent more than Twisted Tea or Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

This is hard coffee’s perception predicament. Even at the lower end of the scale, it’s priced like a premium or luxury beverage, but it’s made with the same base malt- or sugar-derived alcohol found in far cheaper cans of White Claw, Not Your Father’s Root Beer and Hard Mountain Dew. Canned cocktails like margaritas and Moscow mules made with distilled spirits are growing their share of the alcohol market even at relatively high prices, largely because drinkers associate those spirits with a premium experience.

Some critics have pointed to the combination of caffeine and alcohol as hard coffee’s Achilles’ heel. But the popularity of espresso martinis, Irish coffees and Red Bull-with-vodka cocktails makes it clear that Americans don’t mind catching two buzzes simultaneously. (The Food and Drug Administration allows for the sale of alcohol with naturally occurring caffeine, like that in coffee, while prohibiting the sale of products with added caffeine — the “Four Loko rule.”)

But there’s a hitch for hard coffee: Espresso martinis and Red Bull cocktails are typically mixed by a bartender and served at restaurants, bars and clubs, not consumed at home by cracking open a can. It’s a matter of occasion. At bars and clubs, drinkers are looking for a slight caffeine boost — and a beautiful-looking cocktail — to keep their energy up for more partying with friends.

“That post-brunch crowd, that’s when espresso martinis are really popular. Most coffee shops close at 3 or 4 o’clock, and that’s when people just need that little extra bit to get through to the night,” says Abigail Gullo, creative director for the beverage program at Loa, the bar within New Orleans’ International House Hotel. “People who came up drinking Red Bull and vodka have grown up a little bit, and the espresso martini is a little more sophisticated.”

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Amin Anjedani and Sam Madani, co-founders of Bomani Cold Buzz, have targeted bars and restaurants with their canned product, which they tout as a higher-quality hard coffee made from Arabica coffee beans from southern Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. Anjedani calls it “the perfect first drink” to kick off a night out or to fuel a boozy brunch.

But Gullo is skeptical that a canned hard coffee can replace the indulgent experience of a foamy, coffee-bean-topped espresso martini at a cocktail bar.

“People want that glass. They want the cream. They want the coffee beans on top,” Gullo says. “People come for that magical alchemy of us creating something unique in front of them.”

She’ll concede, though, that if she walked into a busy nightclub or one of her city’s infamous 24-hour bars at 3 a.m. and saw a canned hard coffee behind the bar, “I’d say, ‘Gimme that!’”

Whether at nightclubs or the grocery store, there’s no doubt that some demand exists for hard coffee. But the scale just may not be as large as it appears it should be on paper. Anderson says no one has yet figured out how to make a great-tasting hard coffee at the right price, targeting the right consumer, at the right time.

“You’d think putting two rock stars together, cold brew and alcohol, would make a great combo,” Anderson says. “But it reminds me of the 2004 Olympic ‘Dream Team.’ You’ve got LeBron, you’ve got Dwyane Wade — and they absolutely sucked.”