I drink coffee every morning. I rarely put booze in it. One reason is that I use coffee to focus, something alcohol undermines. But another is that if I am going to drink in the morning, I want to own it. Whiskey in your coffee at 10 a.m. feels furtive; cracking a beer, pouring a glass of wine, or mixing a margarita at 10 a.m. feels defiant and empowering.
Meanwhile, I almost never drink coffee after 3 p.m. Coffee makes me wired, and a cup too late mucks up my sleep. As evening approaches, I stay focused with the promise of beer. From there, alcohol leads me to bed. It's an effective human cycle that has stood the test of time.
Forced to think of when I've put booze in my coffee, only two recurring occasions come to mind: Late nights playing pai gow poker in Las Vegas and Christmas morning. (I won't mention other reasons these occasions are similar.) And this is from someone who consumes coffee and alcohol almost every day.
So where does "hard coffee" fit in to our busy schedules? The prepackaged cans of coffee spiked with alcohol have seen a surge in popularity recently. The hipster beer brand Pabst Blue Ribbon released one in July. And the popular coffee roaster La Colombe teamed up with MillerCoors to debut a hard cold brew earlier last month. That's two huge names entering a space that was previously pretty quiet.
When asked about "the ideal situations" for a La Colombe Hard Cold Brew Coffee, Todd Carmichael—CEO and co-founder of La Colombe—responded with a literal list including things like: a Saturday morning brunch; an afternoon with friends; rallying between a workout class and going out for the night; enjoying all-day events like a weddings or vacations; working on creative activities like jewelry-making, painting, or crafting; and relaxing at home.
"Relaxing at home" implies that drinking hard coffee is, in itself, enjoyable—and granted, maybe you just like the taste. Alcohol can add character and complexity to a beverage, and maybe a mix of coffee and alcohol is precisely what you've been jonesing for.
But coffee's big selling point has always been caffeine, and in that regard, many of Carmichael's suggestions are functional: Essentially, he's saying opt for hard coffee any time you need a mild pick-me-up to ward off alcohol's sedative effects. Of course, this is well-tread territory—whether we're talking about rum and Coke or Red Bull Vodka. You could even argue that hard coffee has echoes of a classy Four Loko.
And yet, hard coffee is different than other mixtures of alcohol and caffeine because coffee—both the flavor and the function—is so ingrained in our daily lives. So what's hard coffee's angle?
"We're still learning the answer to that," John Newhouse, brand manager at Pabst Blue Ribbon, told me via email. "Ultimately, we are going to let our customers decide when they want to enjoy it, but we always want to encourage our consumers to be responsible."
Frankly, as vague as Newhouse's answer is, it's the most compelling. As he also points out, hard coffee is "a brand new category." It's uncharted territory. Unlike indiscriminately pouring whiskey or Baileys into a hot cup of joe, canned hard coffee offers a prepackaged drink with a consistent taste, size, and ABV. It's cold; it's inherently portable. Hard coffee offers a lot of things that boozy coffee hasn't been before.
So sure, we can speculate that hard coffee is great for tailgates or getting ready before a wedding. Or for activities where you want to relax but not fall asleep like a movie or concert. Maybe hard coffee is perfect for table gaming and opening presents, too? But for now, it seems very well possible there is no "right" time to drink a hard coffee—which could be hard coffee's chance to make its mark. Hard coffee is a niche drink looking for its niche occasion. Whether or not it can find one may help determine its staying power.