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A Week Drinking The Black Blood of the Earth, the Gnarliest Coffee on the Market

Max Cherney

Max Cherney

It hit exactly as promised: KAPOW! And it tasted like no coffee I've had.

Image: Sharon Marrow/Flickr

As I sat down at Triple Rock, a microbrewery in Berkeley, California, radiation safety specialist Phil Broughton produced a futuristic looking beer mug. Sliding it across the table, he announced we were going to drink beer at lunch—part of the initiation to his super coffee called Black Blood of the Earth.

Broughton, who sports red hair and motorcycle club-esque red beard, explained that this mug—a Stein of Science, by name—was capable of keeping any liquid poured inside frigid for hours on end. Curiosity got the best of me and I agreed to get buzzed at lunch. (For journalism, of course.)

If you've never heard of it, the Stein of Science is the same sort of Dewar that scientists use to store liquid nitrogen, albeit with a handle strapped on. "Normally it's intended for bench-top chemistry," Broughton said. The reason the Stein of Science keeps liquid so cool is because it uses a near space-like vacuum for insulation.

But super coffee, not beer, was the reason I was sharing lunchtime libations with a dude who used to work at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and was once a bartender in Antarctica. Dropping Star Trek references and nerding out about the sciences of beer and coffee, I felt like I'd run into of some kind of geek archetype, which was cool with me.

Accomplishing two missions at once—demonstrating the Stein of Science's coolant properties by way of a side-by-side test with a control sample (beer) in a normal glass—I listened to Broughton pontificate on the science of Black Blood of the Earth. Hauling out a plastic bag that contained a dozen or so test-tube looking containers full of black liquid, Broughton said he developed Black Blood out of necessity.

Broughton blowing liquid nitrogen in Antarctica's best bar. Image: Funranium Labs

"I have a sweet tooth, and I love caffeine. I was drinking a six pack of Coke every morning, and for my interest in my health, I wanted to stop drinking so much soda," he said.

And only a guy like Broughton would invent a delicious new liquid to feed his caffeine habit, rather than drink some other alternative already out there. Maybe that's because he's seen things most of us haven't, as in classified materials research—they've built nuclear bombs at Livermore, after all. Or maybe it's because he was stationed at the South Pole. His current full time gig is at UC Berkeley, where he ensures that the school's scientists and students are being safe with radiation. 

One evening at home after work, Broughton figured that instead of playing Fallout 3, he'd go tinker around with coffee in the lab. After weeks of fiddling around with his new coffee recipe, he received some unfortunate news about his health.

"I'd developed type two diabetes," he told me, which made finishing Black Blood's recipe vital to continuing his caffeine intake.

Broughton creates Black Blood using a technique he calls cold vacuum extraction. It takes about two days to make a batch, and basically involves sucking all the flavor and caffeine out of the coffee beans. At his home setup, Broughton uses his collection of lab gear that he's collected over the years, most of which was never used and going to be tossed in the garbage.

A 750 mL bottle of BBoTE. Image: Funranium Labs

Originally Broughton started with the same process as cold brew coffee: steeping the beans in cold or room temperature water for 12 hours or more. But he says he's since innovated, but wouldn't go into full detail. "I will tell you one thing geometry matters [of the flasks and beakers]," he said. "If you use the wrong shape vessel, or material, the flavor is different."

He had a prototype within three weeks. Now he's got a profitable business, telling Forbes he generated $150,000 gross revenue at 20 percent profit margin in 2012—$100,000 coming from the coffee. He's even got an endorsement from Warren Ellis.

Broughton said he still doesn't consider it a business. "Funranium Labs is a hobby," he said.

Sales are flat at those levels, he said. It's difficult if not impossible to scale, because the process is time-consuming and requires special expertise. "Sadly, costs always go up and I haven't raised prices in three years," he said. But to Broughton, it doesn't matter. "I like it, it's meditative."

Broughton doesn't roast the beans himself, and relies on a number of trusted suppliers across the country. The resulting process concentrates the caffeine, and Black Blood contains about 40 times the amount of the substance than what's found in coffee.

It's not just pure caffeine, though. "I'm not eliminating any of the delicious coffee oils from the roasted beans," he said of his liquid.

A set of vials like Broughton gave me. Image: Funranium Labs

My first Black Blood experience occurred out of sheer necessity. A couple days after Broughton gave me the bag filled with Black Blood vials—for some reason, I was actually worried about how to explain it if the cops stopped me—my espresso machine broke down minutes before I needed to cover a Goodfellas-sized political corruption trial in federal court. Without my normal supply of journo fuel, I turned to Black Blood's still-sealed vials in my fridge.

Nervously I poured about 10 mL of the Kona blend, which Broughton explained was his "base flavor." It hit exactly as promised: KAPOW! And it tasted like no coffee I've had.

Now, I'd already forced a single espresso out of that machine. Because I'd already had normal coffee, Broughton explained the extremely jittery six hours that followed were the result of how our bodies break down regular coffee into caffeine and theophylline, a substance that's partly responsible for the jitters associated with coffee.

The distinct lack of acidity and bitterness make it almost taste sweet, but not quite

While Black Blood only contains trace amounts of theophylline—and as a result you get caffeinated without the jitters, which is awesome—Broughton says his magical substance produces more theophylline when combined with regular coffee, thus causing the jitters plus. Anyway, it was tolerable, but for the remainder of my test, I stuck to a steady Black Blood caffeine diet.

"My working theory is that I'm selectively extracting caffeine over theophylline, leaving a high caffeine-only drink," Broughton explained. "Your body then metabolizes the caffeine into theophylline at its own rate. Hot brewing will get all of the theophylline and caffeine and god knows what else from the 500-plus identified chemicals in coffee. So you get a hit of theophylline off the bat and then your body makes more of it as you metabolize the caffeine." 

The sampler lasted about a week. Each Black Blood tastes different, depending on the flavor. And Broughton has a bunch—though not being a wine critic, I'm not going to write out a bunch of made-up tasting notes.

I will say this: The distinct lack of acidity and bitterness make it almost taste sweet, but not quite. Broughton suggests a maximum of 100 mL for most flavors; one, called Death Wish for those in serious need of a caffeine injection, comes with a recommended max of 50 mL. 

My favorite combination was a half cup of cold milk and 25-50 mL of the Sumatra flavor in the morning. It was like drinking coffee-flavored ice cream without the bitterness or sugar. More basic blends run $40 for a 750 mL bottle, which might sound steep, but at between 15 and 30 servings per bottle, it's not a bad deal.

Broughton tipped me off that mixing the science coffee with vodka produced a startling mixture that actually sweetened when the booze was in there. Remember Black Blood isn't bitter, but it's not sweet either. Broughton recommended blending that vodka-Black Blood mixture with milk, which produced delicious results. Although the jury's out on whether or not mixing concentrated coffee with vodka is that great of an idea.

After my week of drinking Black Blood, I was still alive—better, actually, since I'd calibrated my Black Blood consumption, and enjoyed some of the mixable beverages too. When I'd drained the last drop from the vials, and I was forced to go back to regular espresso, it felt a bit ho-hum. Having my first espresso in a week, it struck me that I'd forgotten how bitter coffee is and I missed that cold milk-infused Black Blood start to my morning.