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Adrian Walker

Last call for Moonshot

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / December 18, 2010

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Rhonda Kallman has been in the beer business for a long time, long enough to know that a letter from the federal government probably wouldn’t contain good news.

And it didn’t. The Food and Drug Administration is on the warpath against high-energy drinks that combine alcohol and caffeine — think Four Loko — and one of her beers, Moonshot ’69, vaguely fell into the same category.

“What I do with Moonshot has absolutely nothing to do with these high-caffeine, high-energy drinks,’’ Kallman said recently. “Clearly I just got caught in their net. To me, it’s a clear case of the government overreaching.’’ She was ordered last month to either reformulate the brew, which contains caffeine, or face penalties, a ruling that effectively took her beer off the shelves and has turned her tiny brewery upside down.

Kallman started in the business, in Boston, almost by accident, 25 years ago. She was working as a secretary in a consulting firm by day and tending bar at night when her boss, Jim Koch, decided to found the Boston Beer Co., and she went to work with him. Their big product was Sam Adams — you may have heard of it.

“Jim knew beer and business, and I knew bars,’’ said Kallman, 50, who left Boston Beer in 2000 to set out on her own. “That was in 1983. I’ve been at this a long time, and I have no interest in creating harmful products.’’

When she looked at what people were drinking, it was clear they were consuming an awful lot of caffeine. From Red Bull to Starbucks to Mountain Dew, caffeine was everywhere.

“So I thought, ‘Why not a beer with caffeine?’ ’’ Working with a brewmaster, Moonshot ’69 was invented, and went to market in 2004. (The “Moonshot’’ in the title describes the jolt it delivers; ’69 refers to both the number of grams of caffeine in a 12-ounce bottle, and the year of the first moon landing.)

While there may not be anything novel about mixing booze and caffeine, the new generation of energy drinks are a different beast. Often marketed to teenagers and young adults, products like Four Loco have raised regulatory alarms. While the FDA has not historically been involved in regulating alcoholic products — another federal agency does that — it has sprung into action against the boozy energy drinks and probably rightly so.

“I’’m marketing to adults who drink beer,’’ Kallman said. “It bears absolutely no relationship to what these other guys are doing.’’

In tortured bureaucratic prose, the FDA informed her last month that caffeine is an unacceptable additive to alcohol, and threatened to remove Moonshot from the market if Kallman does not voluntarily remove the ingredient.

“The reality is that there is nothing new about combining caffeine and alcohol,’’ Kallman maintains. “What about Irish coffee? What about rum and coke?’’

Kallman’s company, New Century Brewing, produces only two beers, making the loss of one of them disastrous. She has recently been making the rounds of elected officials, hoping they might intercede.

She herself has written long letters to the FDA, attempting to explain that her product contains far less caffeine than the ones causing all the trouble, but there is no evidence so far that the bureaucracy has been moved by her pleas. Four Loko reportedly contains about 225 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounces, more than three times the level in Moonshot ’69.

Four Loko, bowing to the FDA, has said it will eliminate caffeine from the drink. But it’s not so easy to reformulate a craft beer, says Kallman, especially without knowing exactly how little caffeine will pass muster with the regulators. But her small operation is in no position to demand clarity from the government.

“I’ve been building this business and trying to make the best products I can,’’ she said. “I thought Anheuser-Busch was my competitor, not the federal government.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this column misspelled the name of the drink Four Loko, and mistakenly measured in grams — rather than milligrams — the amount of caffeine it contains, as compared with the beer Moonshot ’69. Four Loko reportedly contains 225 mg of caffeine per 12 ounces, more than three times the level in Moonshot ’69.