Two UC Berkeley undergrads believe they’ve cracked the code to brewing coffee without the jitters. Their product, Quokka Brew is a fully caffeinated cold brew which, they claim, comes without the jumpiness of a traditional cup of drip.
Cal senior George Passantino came up with the idea in November 2018, while simultaneously pounding research and caffeine for impending finals. Which got him wondering, why isn’t there a healthy, jitterless alternative to coffee? If there was a way to take the caffeine out of coffee, could there also be a way to counteract the anxiety some people experience from drip?
Passantino brought the idea to Ofek Arush, a longtime friend and erstwhile business partner. The two went to Quartz Hill High School together in Southern California, and as teenagers had partnered running a pop-up muffin company that took in around a $1000 a month. At present, Passantino is set to graduate in December with a degree in environmental economics, while Arush will graduate in May with a degree in business administration from Haas School of Business.
So business was the easy part. Coffee was hard.
“Neither of us had a very strong coffee background, so we had to figure out how coffee works,” said Arush.
The two partnered with Drink Labs, a custom beverage development company, and sourced 75 pounds of beans and 200 variations of roasts from Oakland’s Peerless Coffee, varying time, temperature and additives, until they came up with something that delivered the jolt without the jitters. They also developed a product with less sugar than most packaged cold brew drinks.
“I’m kind of a health freak,” said Passantino. “And I was looking at all these coffee drinks and seeing 30-40 grams of sugar and 200 calories a drink. I was feeling sick from the amount of foreign things that I was putting in my body.”
They commissioned a double-blind taste test with 150 people, 92% of whom responded favorably to the final result: a four-fluid-ounce bottle of cold brew coffee that contains one gram of sugar, only 15 calories and 135 mg of caffeine. That’s about 1 1/2 times the amount of caffeine in an eight-ounce cup of drip, or the equivalent of three cans of Diet Coke.
Stimulants like caffeine are vasoconstrictors. They constrict blood vessels. Which means jitterless coffee can be made one of two ways. The first is to take out the caffeine. The second is to balance the caffeine with vasodilators — in this case, green tea leaf extract, L-theanine (an amino acid also found in tea leaves) and blueberry leaf extract — that relax the circulatory system so the two effects cancel each other out.
The pair went for the second option. Passantino and Arush didn’t take anything out of their coffee. They just balanced the caffeine by putting something else in that would counteract the effect, jamming the jitters.
As for the name, most energy drinks sport a flashy or aggressive mascot — a la Red Bull, Monster, Rock Star — but Passantino and Arush named their brew for a diminutive leaf-eating marsupial. The quokka (setonix brachyurus) is a cat-sized Australian mammal that’s known for its smiling appearance.
Quokka Brew, which comes in pill-bottle shaped containers, retails for $3.50 a bottle at two Berkeley locations, Cheese n’ Stuff and Berkeley Student Food Collective. Though a run on the drink has temporarily exceeded supply. Both locations were sold out when I visited. Instead I had to secure a supply directly from Passantino for a trial run.
I drink coffee, but I wanted a professional take. So I brought a bottle to Zac Cline, barista and lead roaster at Way Station Brew in Berkeley. Cline has 12 years of experience in coffee and had recently returned from a trip visiting several partner farms in Guatemala. Given his job and that he’d already had a few cups of coffee, he couldn’t speak to the jitter factor, but he was happy to consider Quokka Brew’s other aspects.
On the back of the bottle of French Vanilla Quokka Brew, the label promised drinkers will have “the energy to take on the day while also ushering in a wave of serenity.” The listed ingredients were as follows: almond milk, cold brew coffee, sugar-free sweetener, green tea leaf extract, L-theanine and blueberry leaf extract. A list more leaf than bean, and curiously, no vanilla.
“I don’t get the vanilla but the coffee flavor mixed with the artificial sweetener flavor reminds me of Diet Coke,” said Cline. “I mean, I love Diet Coke, but I don’t like it with my coffee.”
“It also doesn’t say if it uses stevia or Splenda or what the artificial sweetener in it is,” he noted. (Quokka Brew’s website specifies that the company uses stevia. The company recently updated its formula; new bottles will include L-carnatine and and L-lysine, which Passantino says improves the effects of the product).
To me, the flavor and texture were like melted ice cream, with an aftertaste of aspartame. Sweeter than my preference, but palatable. Probably good for a late afternoon pick-me-up. It was 10 a.m. during this particular trial, I had foregone my usual cup of 9 a.m. drip, but after drinking a bottle of Quokka Brew I soon felt the crankiness of a not-yet-caffeinated morning relax and dissolve into the cantankerousness of a caffeinated one. I switched to water and waited for the jitters.
Something about both the product and the labeling reminded Cline of his childhood as the son of an employee at a Berkeley health food store.
“It reminds me of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and carob,” he said. “It’s not a normal coffee and almond milk color.”
For comparison, he poured a glass of house cold brew then added almond milk and simple syrup so the two could be set side by side. He took a sip of both.
“I feel like they’re going for the caramel sweetness of a Coca-Cola,” he said. “But I would say leave it lightly sweetened with cane sugar or not sweetened at all.”
“To me, this is a niche thing,” he added.
For myself, I can attest that 1 1/2 hours later, I didn’t feel the usual nervy twitch that I do from a cup of drip. I would even assent that, excepting impending deadlines, I even felt fairly serene. Actually, I was yawning. Like I could’ve used a cup of coffee.