Most Americans first heard about Death Wish Coffee during the third quarter of the Super Bowl, when a splashy 30-second ad featuring Vikings thirsting for their caffeine fix touted the brew as the "world's strongest coffee." But Death Wish’s extra-strength grounds already had a cult following.
"At least four people have Death Wish tattoos," said Mike Brown, the creator of Death Wish. "And those are just the ones I know about." Devotees of the hyper-caffeinated brew — one ounce of the stuff delivers about 54 milligrams of caffeine, making it three times as potent per serving as a standard Starbucks brew — include Ice Road Truckers star Rodd Dewey and heavy metal musician Zakk Wylde. On the company’s Facebook page, which has some 200,000 followers, diehard fans exchange coffee memes and compare Death Wish merch. "Some people have collections that blow me away,” Brown said. “Its stuff even I don’t have any more."
The genesis of Death Wish was, appropriately, in a coffee shop. Brown had quit his job as an accountant for New York state, and was trying to figure out a different career path. "I was spending a lot of time in coffee shops," Brown said. "I finally opened one in Saratoga Springs and put my life savings into it. I was really green, business-wise. At 30, I was borrowing money from my mom to make payroll. It was like, 'Oh man, I made a mistake.' "
To offset some of the expenses of the coffee shop, Brown decided to try selling things online. One of the products he put up was a coffee blend that he had customized in the shop, an extra-strong blend that his customers kept clamoring for. "I had a vision; I wanted it to look dangerous," Brown said. "That’s what I built the brand around." It started selling at a steady clip and, per Brown, "a light bulb went off."
In 2013, Good Morning America featured the brew on their show and sales went through the roof. "It almost buried us," Brown said. "We were operating out of the basement of the coffee shop, and I had to pull my customers to come help me pack up coffee and send it up."
So the company was somewhat prepared for the wave of interest that arrived after they won the Super Bowl ad as part of a small-business contest hosted by Intuit, the software maker behind Quickbooks and TurboTax. Brown and his team had been lobbying for the spot since June of 2015, marshaling their fan base to push them through the many levels of the competition. But it was still intense: within the first ten minutes after the spot aired, 100,000 people visited the Death Wish site, and the product shot to the top of Amazon's bestselling groceries. "It was out best sales day ever by 10 or 20 times," Brown said. "Now, sales look like they’re leveling out at between four and five times what they were before."
For a coffee that has a skull and crossbones on the bag, Death Wish makes for a surprisingly smooth, pleasant cup of coffee, with hints of chocolate and cherry. But like a so-delicious-you-forget-its-alcoholic, the agreeable taste can be a problem — have more than one cup, and, depending on your caffeine content, you'll start to get anything between a strong buzz and a full-on case of the jitters. The caffeine content comes from using Rubusto beans, which have double the strength of the more widely used Arabica beans but "tend to have a burned rubber kind of taste," Brown said. "The challenge is making it taste good." The formula of the actual blend changes depending on the coffee crop, but Brown’s focus is making Death Wish more than a cup of coffee only a trucker could love.
"Initially everyone tries it for the caffeine content," Brown said. "We get a lot of energy junkies and caffeine fiends. But I would hope that the flavor is what gets people to have a second cup." Brown drinks it black, through a Chemex, but doesn't have a strong preference for how to brew it.
He has, however, had to cut himself off at three cups a day. "I used to drink more," Brown said, "But it made me feel a little crazy."