Was Prohibition Repealed?

This Sunday, December 5, many people will raise their glasses and celebrate Repeal Day — the anniversary of the end of Prohibition, a day when Americans regained a measure of individual freedom. However, some recent actions by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggest that aspects of Prohibition linger on nearly 80 years after the passage of the 21st Amendment. As a result, consumers are witnessing a dwindling variety of products and entrepreneurs are seeing their dreams and businesses washed down the drain.

On November 17, after a handful of irresponsible college students poisoned themselves with alcohol, the FDA issued warning letters to four brewers of beverages that contained caffeine and alcohol, giving them 15 days to either reformulate their product or take it off shelves. In the letters, the FDA concluded that the combination of caffeine and alcohol could result in “central nervous system effects,” which “may result in adverse behavioral outcomes.”

The FDA stated that it was unaware of publicly available data that would demonstrate the safety of caffeine added directly to alcoholic beverages — but it provided no evidence indicating that caffeine mixed with alcohol was unsafe. Yet for all of the agency’s scare mongering, people have been combining the two ingredients for decades in various forms, including liqueurs like Kahlua and mixed drinks like Irish coffee and rum and Coke — and more recently in hard teas, Red Bull and vodka, and coffee- or chocolate-flavored beers.

Of the four companies to which the FDA sent warning letters, three caved and said they would reformulate their products without caffeine. Only one brewery has refused to comply with the FDA’s arbitrary demands. New Century Brewing Company was founded in 2004 by Rhonda Kallman, co-founder of the Boston Brewing Company, which makes Samuel Adams beer. After 15 years with Boston Brewing, Kallman set out on her own to make a brew with caffeine called Moonshot.

Unlike Four Loko, the drink that kicked off the FDA’s witch hunt, Moonshot has a modest amount of alcohol — 5 percent ABV — and less caffeine than a half of a cup of coffee — 69 milligrams. Yet, for some reason, Kallman’s beer was lumped in with the candy-flavored alcohol energy drinks that have 12 percent ABV and over 200 milligrams of caffeine. Things did not go smoothly for New Century.

As a one-woman operation run out of her Massachusetts home, Rhonda Kallman has had to fight plenty of battles, concerning regulations, competition, and funding. In 2009 she also battled with breast cancer, a fight that forced her to take her beer off of the market in order to focus on recovering. After beating cancer, reformulating her beer, and receiving regulatory approval from government agencies, Kallman was able to get Moonshot back on shelves by late 2009. And then came the Four Loko scare.

Four Loko, like many other alcoholic energy drinks, has a purpose — to be exceedingly drinkable, get you wired, and get you drunk. These drinks are cheaper and more readily accessible than their immediate predecessor — vodka and Red Bull. While thousands of adults drink these products responsibly without negative effects, earlier this year several youths drank enough Four Loko to end up in the hospital. As a result of Four Loko’s popularity among the young and the uncertainty about its effects, there has been a widespread call around the nation for policy makers to “do something.”

After several state attorneys general sent letters to the FDA requesting a ban on the product, the agency cracked down on all caffeine-alcohol combinations and sent out the warning letter mentioned above. It was enough to convince three of them to reformulate their products to exclude caffeine. It wasn’t enough for Rhonda Kallman.

“Moonshot is water, barley, hops and caffeine — less caffeine than a half of a cup of coffee. Without that though what makes it different from the other pilsners on the market? How am I supposed to compete with the 1,600 other breweries in the U.S.?” asks Kallman. “As a citizen I’m confused…as an entrepreneur I’m flabbergasted.”

New Century Brewing company has one full-time employee — Rhonda Kallman — and is lucky if it makes $25,000 a year. Kallman says that even if she does manage to keep Moonshot on the shelves, her product’s reputation will be difficult to repair following the FDA’s unwarranted questioning of its safety.

Nearly 80 years after the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition, we are supposed to be free to make our own decisions about what we choose to drink. It’s about time the FDA got the message.