Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The buzz about caffeine in booze

US Senator Chuck Schumer, an opponent of caffeine in beverages containing ethyl alcohol, says on his Web site that federal regulators (the Food and Drug Administration) plan to declare caffeine an unsafe food additive to those beverages.

What's stuck in the New York Democrat's craw? Alcohol and caffeinated energy drinks like Four Loko and Joose. His Web post of today cites students getting into trouble (specifically, passing out and having to be hospitalized) after consuming Four Loko, and other concerns about alcohol abuse.

Schumer contends such beverages are jacked up with about half a pot of coffee and almost half a six-pack's worth of beer per serving (which is a big, fat can – 23 ounces), and are therefore unsafe. Meanwhile, Four Loko's maker says it will yank caffeine from the drink.

But that leads to this: The Brewers Association announced today that it will ask the federal Tax and Trade Bureau, the folks who have a say in approving beers that end up on the US market, to "conduct rulemaking on alcoholic energy drinks." (The BA's news release can be found here.)

Seeking to safeguard the use of coffee and chocolate in beer (think coffee porters and chocolate stouts etc.), the Brewers Association is petitioning the TTB to put the hammer down on synthetic and pure caffeine as an additive to alcoholic beverages (wonder if this could ground Moonshot, although that brew adds natural caffeine) while keeping coffee, chocolate, herbs, tea, spices and other caffeinated ingredients as options on the shelf for creative brewers.

The Brewers Association points out that many states are already walking point on this topic, and can easily do so because after Prohibition, they were granted wide latitude to regulate alcoholic beverages on their own. The result across the country is the familiar quilt of differing rules, and in this case, a developing patchwork of different rule-phrasing that pretty much adds up to saying the same thing.

The Colorado-based BA would rather see everyone on the same page and a consistent standard crafted that "would remove the products of concern from shelves without creating unintended damage to the hundreds of craft brewers."

Says Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian: "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."

How does it affect New Jersey brewers? Well, Jersey brewers have and still do brew with coffee and chocolate.

Consider this: Basil T's in Red Bank took home gold and bronze medals from the Great American Beer Festival for using coffee in a stout; Iron Hill in Maple Shade just this month released a coffee stout; and Flying Fish, which brought porter back to its flight of brews as a seasonal using espresso coffee, plans to release a Belgian chocolate stout in December as the next installment in its Exit Series.

And that's just an off-the-top accounting of such brews in the Garden State. There are certainly others.

Ultimately, it would be folly and unfair if the FDA painted in too broad of strokes and took bona fide ingredients, like coffee, out of brewers' hands because it was aiming at something else.

Man-up, Miller Lite, lose this ad campaign

On the heels of their preposterous triple-hopped campaign (can't even taste the hops, so why boast?), the vortex bottle that reminds you the beer, too, sucks just like a vortex, Miller Lite (tastes plain, less thrilling) imbues you to man-up and drink light beer.

It doesn't add up to man-up and pick up something that has no flavor. More like dumbing down.

And for the record, good beer isn't at all about machismo, and life's too short to short yourself on flavor.