At first glance you could probably mistake Funranium Labs’ Black Blood of the Earth for ordinary coffee. It’s dark and largely opaque liquid, with just a hint of translucence. If you poured yourself a mug of it and drank it quickly, however, you’d likely find yourself in a state of copious stimulation. That’s because the caffeine in three-and-a-half ounces of the Black Blood of the Earth, a hyper-caffeinated drink made from coffee steeped in cold water and then run through a vacuum extraction process, is equivalent to that in over a gallon of traditionally brewed coffee. And its taste is distinct as well—as the name suggests, there’s a touch of earthiness, but it's also lightly sweet, without any bitterness.
“Not consuming caffeine wasn't an option,” Phil Broughton, the Black Blood of the Earth's creator, told me about the origins of the drink. Broughton, who is a health physicist by trade, was diagnosed with type II diabetes in the summer of 2009—and given that he prefers his coffee sweet, the impetus to come up with something to meet that need without affecting his health was paramount. “[M]y day job is in the field of radiation safety,” he explained. “Technically, lives do depend on my alertness so, yeah, figuring out an answer to ‘drinkable coffee for Phil’ was mandatory and needed to happen immediately.”
The process of making the Black Blood of the Earth formally began a year earlier, when an acquaintance of his visited Japan and sent back a photograph of an elaborate coffee drip system. “I didn't know what this was, but I looked at the assembled beautiful laboratory glassware and thought to myself, ‘I could build that. In fact, I could probably build several of those.’” In addition to his day job and his coffee experimentation (and a year spent working in Antarctica), Broughton collects laboratory glass, giving him a substantial amount of equipment with which to begin experimenting.
“I started with the Toddy Method but very quickly ran into things that didn't make physical sense in the recommendations,” he recalled. “My physics degree means I can't just let things go, I have to know why. Especially when I'm getting recommendations that seem contrary to my physical intuition.”
Perfecting the process “took about a year of trial error and a hell of a lot of coffee,” Broughton said. In many ways, he was working in a field where little documentation existed for the kind of “low temperature, low pressure work” in which he was engaged. Further complicating matters was the fact that the process is different for each type of bean that he’s worked with. At present, buyers can choose between ten different varieties, most of them on the medium or dark roast side. (I opted to try the Kona medium roast, at Broughton’s suggestion.)
“Finding dark roasts that still have a distinctive flavor beyond charcoal and dirt is no small feat,” Broughton explained. “It's not that dark roasts don't work so much as they aren't particularly interesting and one pretty much tastes the same as another.” Funranium currently offers three dark roasts; to get there, Broughton told me that he went through “dozens and dozens.” A different issues arises when working with beans from what Broughton calls “small third wave roasters.” Here, the problem has nothing to do with flavor; instead, he told me, “their production runs tend to be too small to actually dial in my process for their beans before they run out.”
“When people tell me they have a favorite small roaster and ask if I would make a Black Blood of the Earth of their favorite beans from them, I'll say yes because I like helping people,” Broughton said. “But for all the previously stated reasons, I make no guarantee as to what it'll taste like or that I'll ever be able to make it the same way again."
Among the Black Blood of the Earth's early champions was writer Warren Ellis. “Warren Ellis was actually the first international shipment of BBotE I ever did, just to see if [it] would survive the shipment,” Broughton recalled. “He also, as far as I could tell, was a caffeine-based lifeform and I just wanted to see if BBotE even registered on his system as an extreme test subject. While concentration of caffeine was never the goal of BBotE, I just wanted something delicious, it certainly was something that happened.”
Among the other early tasters of the Black Blood of the Earth were “friends in my gaming group and also the tasting room staff at the St. George Spirits distillery,” Broughton said. The former were chosen because they were “already ridiculous coffee fiends,” while the latter were chosen due to them having what Broughton calls “some of the most amazingly tuned palates I've ever met.” And the connection to spirits runs deeper: on Funranium's website, Broughton notes that the Black Blood of the Earth can be blended with a couple of different spirits, including vodka and absinthe.
For all of the ominous qualities imparted by its name, Black Blood of the Earth is actually a supremely drinkable drink, refreshing and rejuvenating even in the smallest of qualities, and a testament to what ingenuity and obsession can create. Given the amount of caffeine contained within it, it may be best (and most safely) consumed in small quantities—but going back for a second cup is hard to resist.