It's Raining Energy Drinks

Miami is awash in power beverages. Might as well drink up!

I. It Came from Outer Space

Right off the bat, something was wrong. She was bleach-blond, for one thing, in a tight, skimpy tank top, with more tinsel hanging off of her than a Christmas tree. A tattoo of a butterfly poked up from the back of her pants. And she was walking right toward us.

Hoby Buppert and Christina Staalstrom founded Bawls two years before Red Bull arrived.
Jacqueline Carini
Hoby Buppert and Christina Staalstrom founded Bawls two years before Red Bull arrived.

It was a Friday night at Kingdom bar on Biscayne Boulevard. We were three men, wearing jeans, drinking beer, and looking about as swanky as tallboys in paper bags. She asked our names; hers, she offered, was "Shana!" And Shana wanted to know something. "You boys wanna try a new energy drink?" she asked. "It's called Hype!"

We said no. Her smile fell; her eyes bulged a little.

Shana, it turned out, worked for Prestige Promotions, a North Miami Beach modeling agency-slash-promotions company. She had been hired in the first capacity to perform the second.

"Are you going to the Winter Music Conference?" she asked. We said no. "Hype is sponsoring the conference!" she said anyway.

She paused and collected herself for a third try. "You're spring breakers, right? You must be spring breakers!"

Finally she surrendered, saying she had to get home. But there she was, moments later, courting another team of single men at an outside table. They were more receptive. Shana came in, ordered a handful of Hype-and-vodkas, and marched back out. Soon she was showing them her butterfly.

It wasn't until later that the question set in: Hype? Who the hell ever heard of Hype?

That weekend, amid the thumping chaos of WMC, energy drinks were everywhere. Trash bins overflowed with cans of Monster. Red Bulls lay like spent bullet shells in the gutters. Drinks with mysterious names — Springbac, Motley Bird, Mini Thin Rush, Playboy — sprouted around Miami Beach like mushrooms after a fine rain. Here an SUV wrapped in an ad for Hype blocked the sidewalk at 17th Street; there a bar on Collins unraveled a banner for PitBull Energy. All, apparently, in celebration of electronic music: At least four drinks purported to be "official" sponsors of the conference, claims that were often in direct contradiction of one another.

It was as if I'd boarded the express train to Energyville. The more I looked for energy drinks, the more I found them. Friends began to alert me of sightings via text message: Monster Energy Girls invading Lincoln Road, Havoc giveaways at Beerfest in Fort Lauderdale. A mysterious pile of Rize — a caffeinated drink boasting seven percent alcohol — had materialized at a screening of a documentary about Palestine and was eventually traced back to a shipment that arrived, by mistake, at Sweat Records, where unopened cans lined the walls by the hundreds. (I tried one. It tasted like raw sewage and tonic — but sweeter.)

It was as if Shana had been the first wave of an intergalactic energy invasion, dropped off, perhaps, at the wrong bar. I regarded Hype — and the anonymous horde of beverages it represented — like objects fallen from space, too. What in God's name was this stuff? And what would happen if you drank it?

II. Gamers Gone Wild

On the final Sunday of WMC, as the last clubbers dissolved into the morning light, under-agers across town were just starting to tank up. Bawls Guarana, an energy drink company headquartered in Miami, was sponsoring a Halo tournament at Scorpico Gaming Center at Sunset Place in South Miami. The occasion was the unveiling of Bawls's new G33k Beer ("Geek Beer"), which tastes like root beer but with more caffeine.

The room was crowded with teenage gamers. They're one of a handful of niches Bawls has targeted, along with BMX racers and paintballers. A giant inflated Bawls bottle stood, like a pillar to caffeination, in the middle of the room.

"Bawls is pretty much what we run on here," affirmed Julian Hernandez, a friendly 18-year-old with greasy black hair, a spotty mustache, and a skull pendant on a chain hanging from his neck.

"The most Bawls I ever drank," he told me while absently tapping away at World of Warcraft, "was when I drank 17 bottles in an hour." It was for a bet, he explained. He won $20.

Bawls differs from the pack in one key way: It beat Red Bull to the market. Founded in 1996 by Hoby Buppert and his wife Christina Staalstrom, the company grew out of a business model Buppert developed while in hotel management school.

When Buppert got the idea for Bawls, "energy drinks" didn't even exist. But their ancestors — highly caffeinated sodas such as Mountain Dew and Mello Yello — had developed a following among students and videogamers as sources of late-night fuel. And then there was Jolt Cola, founded in 1985 and marketed with a straightforward slogan: "All the sugar and twice the caffeine."

"I drank Jolt to stay awake sometimes, but I found it heavy and too sweet," Buppert recalled during my visit to Bawls's single-floor warehouse in Wynwood. "So I said, 'I wish there was something light with lots of caffeine.'" The idea seems almost quaint now.

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