02 December 2009

FDA Going After "Buzz Beer"? Or, Goodbye to Coffee Stout?

Greg Kitsock's beer column in today's Washington Post calls to our attention that news that the federal Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on caffeinated alcoholic beverages:

On Nov. 13, the FDA sent a letter to 30 manufacturers warning that "there are no food additive regulations that permit the addition of caffeine at any level in alcoholic beverages." The agency has given the companies a month to present scientific evidence that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. The FDA was prompted in part by complaints from the attorneys general of 18 states that such high-octane energy drinks can be addictive and can create wide-awake drunks who are unable to judge their level of impairment and are therefore prone to engage in risky behaviors such as driving under the influence.

The apparent intended target of this "campaign" are "are caffeinated spirits such as the vodka and tequila made by Pink and flavored malt beverages such as Four Loko, a deep-purple concoction spiked with guarana (which contains caffeine) that measures 12 percent alcohol and tastes like grape Kool-Aid mixed with cough medicine."  (I pity Kitsock if he actually tasted this swill, though a fellow writer grabbed a similar "beverage" while we were on a fact/photo-finding mission to Fordham in Delaware.......  and, yes, it was about as pathetic.)

But the unintentional victim of such an assault could also be coffee-laced beers--now its own medal category in the Great American Beer Festival.  Locally, who remembers Fuel at Capitol City in the Inner Harbor--still being made at other Cap City outlets?  Who's had other terrific coffee stouts such as Southern Tier's Java?  And now maybe we know why Dogfish Head does a Chicory Stout rather than a coffee stout?  Of course, the whole image of the concept is not helped any by the fact that beer enthusiast Drew Carey mocked the concept by having the characters on his eponymous show start up a garage brewery making "Buzz Beer".....

Further, the libertarian in me is aghast at the FDA's statement: "there are no food additive regulations that permit the addition of caffeine".  Well, ex-cuuuse the heck out of me, but just where the hell do they get off making a statement like that?  Basically, we're not allowed to do something related to foodstuffs unless it is specifically allowed and blessed by the FDA?  Did we have to seek out the FDA's approval to add fruit to a beer?  Chili peppers?  Cinnamon and nutmeg?  Do I have to ask their blessing if I want to age it in an oak barrel--or, for that matter, a hickory or maple barrel?

Oh, wait, you say?  The issue arises because caffeine is considered a drug?  I'll tell y'all what:  Let's start making the coffee stouts out of decaffeinated coffee.  Then tell the FDA to stick it where the sun don't shine.  Or, more accurately, to just "buzz off."  And while they're at it, look at those "Irish Coffees" down at the "Irish" pub and elsewhere.......

UPDATE:  Much more discussion at the professional level, including a list of targeted products, HERE. 

In addition, a professional brewer e-mailed me the following:

The FDA letter specifically states:
"A10. This FDA action is not directed at products that are flavored with coffee. The beverages that are the subject of FDA’s request for information are characterized by the intentional addition of caffeine to alcoholic beverages by the manufacturer."

Thus, it is not the addition of coffee, a legitimate food product, that they have issue with, but the addition of pure/straight caffeine, a chemical compound. IMHO, and non-legal opinion, they most certainly DO have a right to limit such additions, in the public interest. I realize the caffeine almost certainly COMES FROM a food product, but so does MSG and a myriad of other CHEMICALS which are dangerous in straight concentrated form and therefore regulated.
To which I will point out:  OK, it's not permissible for someone to blend this stuff and commercially package it, but it's perfectly OK if I do it myself, at my own risk.  Okay.  Fine.  Then what of the bartender making Jack and Cokes, or Irish Coffees, or Red Bull and vodkas?

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