Rhonda Kallman, a Boston Beer Company co-founder who went on to start her own business, New Century Brewing, complains that her brain-child, a caffeinated light lager known as Moonshot, was included on the FDA's recently published list of "adulterated" alcoholic beverages, along with Four Loko and two of its close competitors, Joose and Core. According to The New York Times, Kallman "said her beer, which has an alcohol content of 5 percent, is being unfairly lumped in with high-alcohol, high-caffeine malt energy drinks that bear no resemblance to Moonshot or other beer."
Well, Moonshot bears a little resemblance to Four Loko, since it is a malt beverage containing caffeine. It has about as much caffeine per ounce as Four Loko (more than soda, less than Red Bull or coffee), although its alcohol content is substantially lower (5 percent vs. 12 percent). The Times reports that the FDA says it picked these four companies "because caffeine was put directly in the beverages as a food additive and was not naturally occurring, as it would be in a beer brewed with coffee" (or with yerba maté). That does not explain why the FDA sent no warning letters to producers of caffeinated distilled spirits such as PINK vodka, which was on the agency's list of possibly adulterated beverages a year ago. Perhaps the FDA reasons that such products are not aimed at the "young adults" it fears cannot handle the combination of alcohol and caffeine. In its warning letter to New Century Brewing, the FDA complains that "the marketing of the caffeinated versions of this class of alcoholic beverage appears to be specifically directed to young adults."
Is Moonshot? Explaining how she came up with the idea for the beer, Kallman says, "I was looking at what consumers were drinking, and clearly it was caffeinated—look at Red Bull and Starbucks and even Mountain Dew." The market for at least two of those brands skews pretty young. Then again, Moonshot is not sweet, fruity, artificially colored, or packed in tall, neon-hued cans. Its taste and retro look don't seem to be aimed at college-age binge drinkers, which presumably is the demographic the FDA has in mind when it refers to "vulnerable…young adults." Nor does Moonshot appeal to beer connoisseurs, judging from the reviews at Beer Advocate's website. As beer writer J.R. Brooks, a critic of the FDA's ban, explains to the Times, "Her Moonshot product has taken a lot of shots not just this time, but from some craft beer lovers who don't like Moonshot for the same reason, because the caffeine is added. They sort of see it as a stunt beer or novelty beer."
So who exactly is drinking Moonshot? Are they so young that the FDA deems them vulnerable? And what are we to make of the beer's name, not to mention the animation that used to appear on New Century Brewing's website, showing a rocket blasting off? Are they winks at the '60s or an allusion to the product's psychoactive effects? The former explanation seems more plausible, but who knows? Such are the puzzles posed by a policy of declaring a product "adulterated" based on its marketing—i.e., based on what its manufacturer says—as opposed to its contents.
I discussed the moral panic behind the Four Loko ban in a column last week.