It seemed like it would never end, but White Claw summer 2019 is slowly coming to a close. Many of us, of course, will still be found knocking back cans of hard seltzer later this year alongside cranberry sauce or Christmas ham, but in a drastic pivot in terms of taste and marketing, alcohol companies have quietly laid the groundwork for the next break-the-internet trendlet: hard coffee.
Mixing coffee and booze is admittedly a centuries-old pairing. The saccharine White Russians and espresso martinis often made with coffee-flavored liqueur came and went; more recently, the craft beer revolution has unleashed a slew of stouts and porters that cribbed their roasted, almost chocolate-like tasting notes from coffee beans.
But following the second coming of flavored malt beverages, and fueled by the double-digit growth of chilled coffee consumption, companies like MillerCoors and Pabst Brewing have begun to look to those refrigerated Illy cans for inspiration. Now, they’re answering a question few other than the second-wave coffee cognoscenti have thought to ask: What if bottled Starbucks Frappuccinos, but with an alcoholic bent?
For those of you still sipping on your iced lattes without the other buzz, here’s a breakdown of the hard coffee wave.
What is hard coffee?
Like hard seltzers and hard sodas, many drinks that fall under this fledgling “hard coffee” category are flavored malt beverages. Typically, an alcohol base made with malt is mixed with cold brew or coffee extract and sugar; depending on the brand, milk and/or other flavorings like vanilla or chocolate will be added, too.
Among the current contenders in the ever-expanding hard coffee sphere are Bad Larry’s Cold Hard Coffee, the alleged first prepackaged version, which debuted in May 2017. Then, this past July, PBR released its take on hard coffee, with a sweet, milky recipe that seems like a sauced version of Rhode Island’s coffee milk. And most recently, brewing giant MillerCoors teamed up with third-wave coffee trailblazer La Colombe for a collaboration on two premium varieties — Vanilla and Black hard cold brew, both brewed with medium-roasted Colombian and Brazilian coffee beans — that wouldn’t seem out of place at your local Whole Foods.
A number of recent entrants into the modern-era boozy coffee sphere, however, haven’t restricted themselves to the flavor market beverage market. Cafe Agave uses a fermented agave base for its line of spiked cold brew coffees, which all round out at 12.5 percent ABV, putting them in canned cocktail territory. And Jägermeister, no stranger to caffeinated alcohol, recently announced its own 33 percent ABV cold brew coffee liqueur, made with Arabica beans and, per brand tradition, a bouquet of herbs and other flora.
Why is hard coffee a thing now?
When it comes to alcoholic innovation, there’s a long history of brewing and distilling companies piggybacking on trends in the non-alcoholic sector. Sofia Colucci, vice president of innovation at MillerCoors, said that its collaboration with La Colombe was born out of America’s unquenchable thirst for cold coffee: According to Nielsen, over 1,000 new coffee products have debuted since August 2018; 119 of them fell under ready-to-drink, cold brew, or iced coffee varieties.
According to Euromonitor senior beverage analyst Matthew Barry, coffee is specifically following White Claw’s lead “in order to offer innovative and healthier alcoholic beverage options.” But instead of merely replicating the success of hard seltzer, which was partly driven by the drink’s health-conscious “halo effect,” some breweries are looking for new ways to break out from the sinking beer game. “With beer [sales] sort of flat to declining — when talking about actual beer itself — we sort of realized we can’t forever just make beer and survive long term,” says John Newhouse, brand manager at Pabst.
Wait, isn’t mixing caffeine and alcohol dangerous?
Who can forget the great Four Loko pandemonium of 2010? Beyond the dozens of college students who were hospitalized after drinking caffeine-laden cans of Four Loko, which also contained upwards 12 percent ABV, a handful of deaths were connected to people ingesting the caffeinated tallboys. Several states banned the product; the F.D.A. mandated in 2010 that Four Loko and three other companies had to remove caffeine from their drinks in order to stay on the market. More recently, a review in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that compared to drinking caffeine-free booze, consuming vodka-Red Bulls and Jägerbombs (dropping a shot of Jägermeister into a beer) increases the risk of injury.
All of this is to say that, to avoid repeating history and potential lawsuits, several brands ensured that their drinks’ caffeine levels would be below 50 mg — less than an espresso shot. (Bad Larry’s is an outlier, boasting a hefty 180 mg of caffeine, which is still less than the 235 mg of caffeine found in a tall Starbucks Pike Place Roast coffee.) Whether crushing a few hard coffees can result in an increased likelihood of bar brawls or hospitalization is to determined.
So how does hard cold brew taste?
Most of these drinks, like PBR’s Hard Coffee and La Colombe’s Hard Cold Brew, have only rolled out so far in select markets, minimizing the sample size of current reviews. For those who have managed to get their hands on a can or two, reviews have skewed positive. PBR’s Hard Coffee is basking in surprisingly lavish praise on Untappd as well as in write-ups, with reviewers describing it as a sweet “boozy Yoo-hoo.” Meanwhile, Kate Bernot at the Takeout found La Colombe’s Vanilla Hard Cold Brew to be a middle ground between the PBR’s sweetness and the brand’s Black flavor.
But not all are guaranteed to supplant your weekend iced coffee routine: Bad Larry’s currently holds a 1.6 rating on Untappd. One review describes the drink as “what I think coffee beer back wash [sic] would be like.”
When should I be drinking this thing?
Good question, especially since most of us have been trained by society to drink coffee in the morning and alcohol in the evening. These drinks understandably will be a boon for those looking to up their day-drinking game. But for everyone else, it seems that hard coffee will likely be reserved for weekend or evening occasions. (The companies themselves, however, are still trying to figure out when customers are actually drinking their products.) Echoing La Colombe’s youthspeak marketing campaign “Rally Like a GrownUp,” founder Todd Carmichael envisioned hard coffee as fitting in easily along the brunch or tailgating crowds: “This isn’t a get loaded on spring break drink.” Others, however, have owned their drinks’ role as an “opportunity to replace a vodka-Red Bull at 9 p.m.”