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Is Hard Coffee the New White Claw?

November 04, 2019

Story: Jordan Michelman

photo: Lizzie Munro

On the coattails of ready-to-drink everything, mass-produced spiked cold brew is gunning for a piece of the profits.

In what feels like a season of questionable decisions, Pabst Blue Ribbon, La Colombe (via MillerCoors) and Cafe Agave have rolled out a battery of caffeinated alcohol products marketed as “hard coffee” or “spiked cold brew”—a fusion of medium-roasted, pre-sweetened cold brew of multiple origins and malt liquor.

Big-brand cash grabs, piggybacking on the summer of White Claw, have resulted in what could be considered a new nadir of American beverage culture, on par with Zima in the ’90s or Billy Beer in the ’70s. These beverages might easily be conflated with artisanal coffee products like Mr. Black cold-brew liquor from Australia, New Deal cascara liqueur from Portland, Oregon, or your favorite indie brewery’s most recent coffee beer collaboration. But they shouldn’t be; the truth is, those in the first group are made with low-quality, mass-produced ingredients and are more akin to a canned Gin & Tonic than a handcrafted Espresso Martini.

The rise of hard coffee is directly linked to ready-to-drink, or RTD, coffee, a market predicted to grow to $25 billion by 2025. RTD coffee has been popular in Japan since the 1970s, thanks to brands like Boss Coffee (owned by Suntory), while in the United States, Starbucks (in collaboration with Pepsi) led the charge back in 1994 with a line of RTD drinks, including the glass-bottled Frappuccino. Between 2015 and 2017, RTD consumption in the United States rose more than 60 percent, coinciding with third-wave coffee brands’ acquisitions by corporations, including Stumptown, which entered into the RTD space with cold-brew “stubbies,” helping to position it for a massive sale. With the rise of White Claw and CBD-laden everything, it only makes sense that lit coffee would follow.

In some ways, hard coffee is the logical conclusion to a dark prediction some in the industry have been making for the last half-decade. “Cold brew is a Second Wave wolf in Third Wave sheep’s clothing,” the entrepreneur and influencer Nick Cho told coffee site Sprudge in 2015. Although cold brew was being pioneered by third-wave brands, the product itself was something of a scalable departure from the movement’s ethos of small-batch production and seed-to-cup connectivity. And while Cho’s comments are a touch dramatic—there is such a thing as delicious, culinary cold brew—the booze-ification of cold brew in 2019 feels like the inevitable death of a trend. Earlier this year, in TASTE’s coffee issue, I called out the RTD bubble as ready to burst. At present, the marketplace feels cluttered with same-y opportunism—products riding the coattails of White Claw and leaving in their wake, the sticky, foamy aura of RTD hangover.

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