- Pabst Blue Ribbon is market-testing a 5% ABV hard coffee made from fermented malted barley and coffee, according to its website. PBR is testing the new beverage in five states: Florida, Georgia, Maine, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
- The new item doesn't taste like beer. PBR told NPR its hard coffee is made with "malt beverage," but the malt flavor and color are taken out, and the neutral alcohol left behind is combined with coffee, sugar, milk and vanilla.
- PBR Hard Coffee has been successful in Maine so far. The Portland Press Herald reported that stores in the state are having trouble keeping the beverage in stock.
Like other big brewers, Pabst Blue Ribbon has been trying to differentiate its offerings to bolster lagging sales. The company, which recently launched higher-strength, lower-calorie and non-alcoholic versions of its PBR, is planning to launch a whiskey later this year and has now introduced hard coffee.
Since the hard coffee product just debuted earlier this month, it's hard to tell whether PBR will extend distribution nationwide. However, Pabst Brand Manager John Newhouse told the Portland newspaper the company was encouraged by the initial response.
"We're way too early to make projections, since new product sales tend to spike early and settle to a lower level," he said. "But so far sales have far exceeded expectations in our test markets."
Coffee with beer is not a new concept. Several smaller breweries have been manufacturing similar combinations. Bad Larry's hard coffee initiated the trend in 2017 with its 6% ABV product, Troegs Independent Brewing's Java Head Stout is brewed with coffee beans and 8th Wonder Brewery makes a Porter infused with cold-brew coffee and milk sugar. But PBR may be the only large brewer making a hard coffee product, and if the current test marketing goes well, it likely won't be the last.
Beer companies have struggled in the U.S. in recent years, while the market for coffee products has continued to grow. Big food firms are actively adding coffee products to their portfolios. In 2017, Nestlé bought Chameleon Cold-Brew and took an ownership share in the Blue Bottle coffee shop chain, and last year, Coca-Cola purchased Costa Coffee for $5.1 billion.
Per-capita coffee consumption continues to increase. An industry survey from 2018 found 64% of American adults drink a cup of coffee each day — up 2% from 2017 and the highest level since 2012. Meanwhile, U.S. beer consumption has been steadily falling. Total volume dropped 1.1% in 2017 to 2.8 billion 2.25-gallon cases, according to the Beverage Information Group's 2018 Beer Handbook. That amounted to the fifth consecutive decline in beer volume in the U.S.
Although Pabst is a private company and doesn't report earnings, a MarketWatch columnist reported in 2017 the company had only 5.5 million gallons of production and a 2.2% market share in 2015. PBR has recently seen a boost from its signature beer product, though, so this hard coffee could help prop sales up even more.
If the hard coffee expands nationwide and helps to boost PBR's bottom line, it could entice other brewers to make a similar drink. If that's the case, the company will still have an early mover advantage. But if the hard coffee doesn't do as well as expected in the test markets, a new PBR whiskey — a collaborative production with Michigan's New Holland Brewing Co. — is waiting in the wings.