There has been recent uproar over the dramatically intoxicating effects of Four Loko and other potent products containing high levels of alcohol and caffeine. It has created quite a scare in the world of craft brewing and specialty spirits.
On Nov. 17, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York stated that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "will rule that caffeine is an unsafe food additive to alcoholic beverages, effectively making products such as Four Loko, Joose, and others like them, prohibited for sale in the United States."
It seemed like a few bad apples might spoil things for hundreds of microbreweries who use chocolate, coffee, and tea as ingredients in specialty ales and lagers.
This week, the FDA notified manufacturers that they are engaged in the potential illegal marketing of unsafe alcoholic drinks. These announcements came after months of intense pressure by Schumer.
"Let these rulings serve as a warning to anyone who tried to peddle dangerous and toxic brews to our children. Do it and we will shut you down," Schumer stated this week. "This ruling should be the nail in the coffin of these dangerous and toxic drinks. Parents should be able to rest a little easier knowing that soon their children won't have access to this deadly brew."
While the FDA's news release mentioned scientific studies about the potentially harmful effects of drinking alcohol and caffeine, there was no information about whether the ban would also effect the beers, traditional spirits, malt beverages, and liquors that would fall under a sweeping ban. On Wednesday afternoon, additional information and clarification was posted at the FDA's website.
Charleston Beer Exchange co-manager Brandon Plyler feels certain that the bans will stay on target. "Basically, the FDA is going after malt beverage producers who intentionally add caffeine as a separate ingredient," he says. "This implicitly excludes coffee and chocolate from scrutiny. Fortunately someone, somewhere, knows enough about beer to understand the difference between Four Loko and Founders Breakfast Stout."
The Brewers Association — a Colorado-based organization aimed at promoting and protecting small and independent brewers — announced on Nov. 17 that it will formally petition the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to define its terms regarding alcoholic energy drinks and beer. The petition seeks to clarify that coffee, chocolate, herbs, spices, seeds, and fruit are ingredients that should remain available to brewers to make beers.
Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian stated, "Responsible brewers have successfully used coffee, chocolate, and tea to add interesting flavor and complexity to their beers for decades. In fact, the Aztecs brewed a corn, honey, and chili-based beer that contained cocoa. Many craft brewers build on these traditions today using coffee, tea, and chocolate. On the other hand, the addition of artificial caffeine not from a natural ingredient source has no heritage or tradition in brewing. We support a ban on the direct addition of caffeine."
Local microbrewer Jaime Tenny, of COAST Brewing Co., agrees with the petition's sentiment. "We essentially stand with the Brewers Association's stance on this," she says. "It's essentially asking for a allowance for indirect caffeine allowed in beer and not for direct, straight-up caffeine. Obviously, a ban of anything that contains caffeine would be quite detrimental to all breweries."
Fortunately, the actions and warnings from the senator and FDA officials are aimed specifically at the dangerously potent, artificially caffeinated alcoholic beverages rather than specialty beers and coffee and chocolate liqueurs. The companies receiving warning letters and their products are Phusion Projects/Drink Four Brewing Co. (makers of Four Loko), Charge Beverages Corp. (makers of Core High Gravity HG), New Century Brewing Co. (makers of Moonshot), and United Brands Company Inc. (makers of Joose and Max). The FDA told the manufacturers that their drinks are a "public health concern" and can't stay on the market in their current form.
In recent months, numerous government and health officials strongly criticized the manufacturers for creating a veritable "blackout in a can." Some have rushed to ban the production of such products altogether. The inexpensive drinks have been linked to binge-drinking incidents across the country.
The name "Four Loko" refers to four main ingredients: alcohol, caffeine, taurine (naturally occurring sulfonic acid), and guarana (a plant found in the Amazon that's rich in caffeine). It also contains carbonated water, sugar, and natural and artificial flavoring. These 23.5-ounce Four Loko cans contain around 12 percent alcohol by volume, which is approximately the alcohol equivalent of five cans of beer. Each contains as much as two-to-three coffee cups worth of caffeine a well. This mix can be hazardous. Last month, nine college-age students passed out and were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko, leading states and universities across the country to issue bans and warnings about the drink.
For now, it looks like the likes of Palmetto Brewing Co.'s Espresso Porter and Firefly Distillery's sweet tea-infused vodkas and bourbon are off the hook.