Among the annals of bad decision enablers, like reality TV and front-facing cameras, Four Loko is the stuff of millennial legend. Since its 2005 inception, caffeine- and energy-laced Four Loko ruined countless people’s nights. Then, shortly before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned caffeine in alcoholic beverages in 2010, OG Four Loko disappeared.
Gone was the syrupy sweet artificial taste of flavored malt beverage. Gone, the bright colors of carbonated liquid regret. Gone, the 24-ounce cans of heart-pounding, blackout-inducing Four Loko. After numerous reports of Four Loko- induced hospital trips and a tie to an alcohol-and-caffeine-related death, Four Loko was gone. If people wanted to make bad decisions with a stimulated mind and stumbling body they would have to consume other questionable beverages, like vodka Red Bulls and Y Bombs.
Four Loko eventually came back sans caffeine. Walk into any 7-Eleven or convenience store and you’ll see a can or two in the fridge nestled between spiked iced tea and flavored Steel Reserve. But it’s not the same. If you want to taste true, original-formula, mind-melting Four Loko, you have to make it yourself. So we did.
On September 30, armed with a Four Loko homebrew recipe called Quattro Crazy, a knowledgeable homebrewing friend named Richard Clough, caffeine pills, and some Kool-Aid powder, I undertook a questionable life choice. I attempted to make a homemade Four Loko replicant.
The idea initially came a few months earlier, while Richard and I were making an IPA clone (which also happened to be my first experience with homebrewing). While brewing we were drinking, naturally, and after we ran out of rare sours and one-off saisons, we went to the store and picked up some Narragansett and Watermelon Four Lokos from the bodega downstairs.
“We should make this ourselves,” we joked, and then forgot about it as the night progressed. A while later, I did some research to see if anyone else had entertained the same possibility. What I found was that 2010 to 2012 was a dark period for thirsty Four Loko fans.
On Gizmodo, Brent Rose wrote a story about how to make a “Faux Loko,” or “the DIY drink I shouldn’t be telling you about.” Despite describing Four Lokos as “an unwitting-suicide attempt in a can,” Rose was giving the people what they wanted. His version used malt liquor, vodka, Kool-Aid, sugar, and a stimulant tablet from the U.K. called Berocca. Nice try Rose, but doesn’t count.
Buzzfeed writer Tanner Greenring had an even more disappointing endeavor in 2010 with caffeine pills, Jolly Ranchers, Sprite, a Monster energy drink, and a 40 of St. Ides. A post on MacRumors detailed another poor attempt called 55 Loko; when user williamg posted about making a true Four Loko clone in 2012 on the website HomeBrewTalk, he was quickly shut down.
These attempts mostly relied on mixing uppers with liquor, rather than brewing the beverage from scratch. Reaching the 12 percent alcohol by volume of Four Loko was a guessing game that most people likely got wrong, thanks to the addition of vodka and other liquor. That high percentage is a no-go, and probably why Buzzfeed and Gizmodo put disclaimers on their stories. Because while having one caffeinated Four Loko can leave you feeling like something just punched the lights out in your flavor hole, multiple caffeinated Four Lokos or substitute alcoholic beverages can be deadly. That’s why cans of Four-Stages-of-Crazy were taken off shelves in the first place.
Yet Four Loko is like vodka or macro lager. It’s something that Americans will always have a taste for, no matter how much people hate on it or how many people say they don’t drink it.
So on the last day of September, I helped homebrew a Four Loko clone. By Halloween, I drank the closest thing to an original Four Loko I’ve had in years.
There are only three things you need to know about the original Four Loko: It was high in alcohol, it contained caffeine, and it was the sickliest sweet beverage on the market. We used these criteria to guide our process: We knew we had to reach around 12 percent alcohol by volume, that it needed enough caffeine to be present without giving us a heart attack, and there had to be a flavor profile akin to Fun Dip powder.
A strong beer means using yeast that can stand up to a lot of alcohol. For this, we used WLP099, which can ferment up to 25 percent alcohol by volume. For reasons I don’t fully understand, we started the yeast three days before brewing. We also used a wine yeast called Côte des Blanc, which can brew up to 12 to 14 percent alcohol by volume, in a secondary bottle fermentation to dry the mixture out and make all that sugar a little less apparent.
Adding caffeine was a different story. In perhaps the sketchiest way possible, we crushed 2.2 grams of pure caffeine pills into a white powder shortly before bottling and dissolved it into two cups of water. The final yield was 26 bottles, meaning there was around 85 milligrams of caffeine per bottle, or about the same as a shot of espresso. For safety and ease, we skipped using other supplements like taurine that are commonly found in energy drinks.
Finally came the flavor. This was perhaps the easiest part of the Four Loko clone. The goal was to essentially erase any semblance of beer taste at all, so we grabbed a tub of Kool-Aid. Oh yeah. To judge Kool-Aid powder’s effect on beer, we stirred some into a Coors light at increasing amounts until we found the beer-erasing flavor we were looking for. In his brewer’s notes, Clough wrote, “Tasted 1 scoop strawberry Kool-Aid in Coors Light, seemed like good fit.” In the end, we used one rounded tablespoon for every 8 ounces of brew.
Dipping my Toes into Flavor Town
The beer was bottled on October 17. I tried it the weekend before Halloween at a party while wearing a “Game of Thrones” dire wolf costume. Clough, dressed as a pineapple, brought a couple bottles and popped them open. The carbonation was wild, and deep pink bubbles rose up as he tilted the bottle and poured it into a glass.
The Four Loko clone was the same unhealthy pink color as I remembered Four Loko being. A thick head of off-pink foam graced the top and took ages to dissipate. The taste was surprisingly desert-like, kind of like a mouth-drying, carbonated Kool Aid. The main taste detractor was a slightly grainy quality that stuck in my throat that I blamed on the caffeine pills.
I finished my Four Loko and continued on with my night. There were no negative health effects, but I did stay up until 4 a.m. and somehow avoided falling asleep in the 40-minute Lyft on the way home. Whether that was due to the Four Loko or due to it being the Saturday before Halloween is up for debate. I stand by my decision.
10 pounds pilsner malt
2.5 pounds flaked maize
0.4 ounce of Magnum Pellets
1/2 teaspoon yeast nutrients
1/2 teaspoon Irish moss
2.2 grams caffeine
1 gram Côte des Blanc
1 package WLP Super High Gravity yeast
Mashed grains with 4.25 gallons of water that was adjusted with metabisulfite and lactic acid.
Mash for 60 minutes at 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
Collect 3.5 gallons after sparging with 1.5 gallons of water at 170 degrees.
Give a 15 minutes hot break, then add hops.
Add yeast nutrient and Irish moss at 20 minutes.
Add the yeast (pitching) and set the temperature to 65 degrees.
Adjust temperature for proper gravity.
Add 2 grams of gelatin.
Leave at room temperature for two hours before bottling.
Bottle with 1 gram of Côte des Blanc, 24 servings of strawberry Kool-Aid, and 2.2 grams of caffeine dissolved into 2 cups of water.
Yield: 26, 12-ounce bottles of night-changing, homemade Four Loko
*A note on the brewing instructions: I’m not an experienced homebrewer. My role largely consisted of picking things up and putting them down, stirring, and drinking beer on the sidelines. While these directions were taken straight from the brewer’s notes, neither I nor VinePair can suggest making your own.