Combining coffee and alcohol isn’t new— Irish coffee, White Russians, espresso martinis, and other cocktails dripping in coffee liqueur have long laid the groundwork for the innovation we’re experiencing today. Craft brewers have also played a significant role, using coffee beans to create roasted, nutty, and chocolatey flavors in porters and stouts. Ready-to-drink (RTD) hard coffee is just the next evolutionary take on the pairing.

Thanks to the surging popularity of flavored malt beverages and chilled coffee, companies like MillerCoors and Pabst Brewing have leapt at the opportunity to put the two together— and it’s already paying off. Like hard seltzer, hard coffee has a “healthy halo,” perceived as a better-for-you alternative to traditional beer, wine, and spirits.

But even as hard coffee provides an exciting new frontier for beverage makers and consumers alike, there are still a few challenges to consider. Here’s the top 2:

1. Mixing Caffeine & Alcohol Can Be Problematic

You might be thinking— aren’t we supposed to avoid mixing copious amounts of caffeine and alcohol? Well, yes; but the keyword here is “copious.” Just like you can overindulge in alcohol, you can also overdo it on the caffeine. Together, the results can be disastrous.

If you recall Four Loko chaos of 2010, you might remember that the 12-percent ABV drink— aptly nicknamed “blackout-in-a-can”— became banned in five states when regulators linked several hospitalizations and deaths to indulgence in the highly caffeinated beverage.

The “Four” in the name stood for caffeine, malt liquor, Brazilian stimulant guarana, and the animal-derived stimulant taurine— both popular ingredients in energy drinks. The infamous drink, along with similar products from three other companies, was eventually required by the FDA to re-formulate in order to stay on the market.

The FDA ruled that caffeine added to alcoholic beverages was an “unsafe food additive”— so how does this affect hard coffee?

It starts with the TTB approval process. No pure caffeine can be added to an alcoholic product. Period. However, alcohol products that include coffee as an ingredient— which naturally contains caffeine— are acceptable, though they cannot promote the drink’s caffeine content in their marketing.

That’s not to say that the lessons learned from the Four Loko’s incident have been missed by hard coffee producers. As a preventative measure, many brands have chosen to formulate their drinks with caffeine levels well below 50mg or less than an espresso shot. Of course, there are always a few exceptions. Bad Larry’s for example offers a 6-percent ABV product that contains a whopping 180mg of caffeine or the same as about two servings of coffee.

Regardless of the amount of caffeine in a product, consumers may need to be educated to encourage responsible consumption of hard coffee; but formulating products with reasonable amounts of caffeine can also help to reduce potential risks.

2. Finding the Right Time for Consumption

Coffee is traditionally a morning beverage and alcohol is most often enjoyed in the evenings and on weekends— put them together and you might have a head-scratcher on your hands.

Part of the allure of hard coffee is the fascinating contradiction that it can be sipped at all times of day; but it can also confuse consumers on when it is really appropriate to indulge. In fact, many brands are still trying to figure out when exactly consumers are sipping on their products.

Some companies have opted to solve the problem by being more instructive in their marketing, promoting hard coffee as a perfect brunch or tailgating companion; or likening it to a vodka-Red Bull to be enjoyed before a night out. Food & Wine summarized it well, making the argument that hard coffee is a fine treat to enjoy “before any activity where you want to relax without falling asleep, like a movie or concert.”

Of course, it’s hard to forget that we’re still living in the midst of a global pandemic— so how are consumers drinking hard coffee right now? Thanks to coronavirus, more Americans are working from home while also juggling additional family responsibilities as children are taken out of crowded daycare centers and schools.

As if overnight, the structure of a typical day has been made unfamiliar: Is that wine in your coffee mug? It might be, but it’s almost impossible to tell over a Zoom call. The oft-quoted excuse, “It’s five-o’clock somewhere!” has now been replaced with a simpler explanation— “that’s life in a pandemic.”

For now, these blurred boundaries have proven beneficial to the category; but as our world settles back into normalcy, brands may need to be more suggestive with consumers on where— and when— they should indulge in this kind of product.

 

Hard Coffee is Here To Stay

Despite the challenges, the popularity of hard coffee is undeniable. According to Nielsen data, retail sales of canned cocktails are up 95.3% from November 2018 to 2019; meanwhile, sales of RTD coffee are also continuing to grow, with retail sales hitting over $3 billion. Put them together and you have a winning combination.

As the category continues to evolve, we’re sure to see more variety in the form of new flavors, cold brew formulations, and carbonated varieties. When you’re ready to capitalize on this growing trend, make sure to partner with the right team of experts.

If you’ve got a great idea for a hard coffee, the beverage architects at Flavorman can help you bring it to life. Just fill out this web form or give us a call at (502) 453-0152 to get started.

 

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Written on October 21, 2020.