Pabst Blue Ribbon is testing a new product, Hard Coffee, in Maine. Several liquor store managers say the concoction has had brisk sales since hitting store shelves earlier this month. Some speculate Mainers’ affinity for Allen’s Coffee Brandy may have a hand in the beer’s popularity. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Just weeks after hitting the shelves, Pabst Blue Ribbon Hard Coffee is creating a buzz in Maine.

The coffee, malt liquor and milk concoction, with 5 percent alcohol by volume, came out in early July and some stores have struggled to keep it in stock. Maine is one of just five states where Pabst is testing the beverage.

“It has been the hottest item of the summer,” said Tony Olmstead, a general manager for Roopers Beverage and Redemption chain with six locations in Lewiston, Auburn and Oxford.

Customers can’t get enough of the sugary, creamy beverage, Olmstead said. Some people tell him they like to add a shot of whipped cream-flavored vodka to boost a marshmallow taste and add a kick.

“It is kind of like a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, with alcohol,” Olmstead said. “It has done extremely well for us.”

Pabst is testing Hard Coffee in Maine, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia before expanding to other markets.

Maine was selected as a test market because the Northeast drinks a lot of coffee and because distributors here were excited to sell Hard Coffee, said Pabst Brand Manager John Newhouse.

“Distributors are key partners, so we take their input seriously,” he said.

Some other factors may help explain the immediate popularity of Hard Coffee. Mainers, in general, drink more alcohol than other Americans, ranking No. 12 out of U.S. states and the District of Columbia in per-capita alcohol consumption, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Pabst already has strong sales in Maine, said Olmstead, from Roopers. “The state does really well with PBR, I think that’s why they chose us,” he said.

But it also could be Maine’s unique affinity for another sweet, caffeinated booze – Allen’s Coffee Brandy. Allen’s has been the state’s best-selling liquor, by volume, for decades.

“It might have a little to do with that as well,” Olmstead chuckled.

Boozed-up coffee is hardly a groundbreaking concept. The Buena Vista Café in San Francisco is credited with popularizing Irish Coffee – coffee, whiskey, sugar and cream – in the early 1950s. Kahlua, a coffee-flavored liqueur from Mexico, started production in the 1930s.

Trendy craft breweries, including many in Maine, often experiment with high-end coffees in dark beers such as stouts and porters.

Pabst isn’t even the first company to try out alcoholic iced coffee.

Café Agave Spiked Cold Brew offers small cans of 12.5 percent alcohol by volume with flavors such as mocha and salted caramel. Bad Larry’s Cold Hard Coffee made its debut in Midwest markets in 2017.

Even with that track record, the immediate interest from Maine drinkers caught Mike Obar, a sales manager at Central Distributors in Lewiston, off guard.

“It was something we weren’t sure how it was going to sell originally,” Obar said. Central went through its first small order in a week and a half.

“Now we are playing catch-up,” Obar said.

“I wished we would have brought in more than that,” he added. “In this business you don’t know and all of a sudden it is gone.”

It isn’t selling out everywhere. Product has moved slowly in some stores, including Martini Lane in Westbrook.

“What we’re hearing is that you can only drink one,” owner Cindy Lane said, adding that some people aren’t willing to shell out $10 for a four-pack of cans they’re not sure they will like.

Newhouse, of Pabst, said the company is encouraged by early sales in their test markets.

“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.”

There’s no telling if Hard Coffee has staying power or is a passing fad. A few years ago, there was a surge of interest in hard root beer and other sodas, but that cooled off pretty quickly. Hard Coffee may be in for the same rapid rise and fall.

“I’ve tried it, it’s good,” said Pat Thorne, owner of Patmans Redemption in Windham. Thorne ordered 75 cases of Hard Coffee right away and it’s sold well – he has about 20 cases left.

But it’s impossible to know if those sales mean Hard Coffee will become a permanent fixture in Maine’s adult beverage offerings.

“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you,” Thorne said. “There’s a lot of things that seem like a flash in the pan and end up sticking.”

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