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But as far as energy drinks go, Bawls Guarana is fruit juice, with less caffeine (64 milligrams) than a cup of coffee (100). Red Bull contains 80; Monster boasts 140, about the same as Full Throttle and Rockstar.
In the beginning, Buppert and Staalstrom were like caffeine pilgrims in a new and hostile land. "There was this one meeting I had with these investment bankers," Buppert recalls. "And one guy said, 'Boy, are you some kind of drug dealer?'"
But two years after Buppert and Staalstrom started the business, the Austrian beverage Red Bull stormed the continent. The drink was a manmade wonder of marketing, appealing to young adults as well as people who maybe didn't like coffee or soda. And much of its success derived from a strategy Bawls had attempted but failed: Red Bull persuaded its customers to mix the product with booze.
Meanwhile, Bawls focused on its young gamers. Back at the Scorpico tournament, the company's head of marketing, Sabrina Gonzalez, appeared holding a case of the drinks. Gonzalez was chatty and, in a way both nerdy and calculating, intense. "Chugging contest!" she shouted. A group of gamers gathered around her. She passed out Geek Beer, counted down from three, and the boys went at it.
Hernandez won. His prize: a case of Bawls. He walked, a little bouncily, to pick it up.
"You want them right now?" asked a Bawls employee.
"I'll take them right now," Hernandez answered.
Of all the drinks claiming sponsorship of Winter Music Conference, only one had bought the rights to be the official sponsor: Mini Thin Rush, a company specializing in "liquid energy shots" and "energy supplements." Leading its campaign to win over South Florida — spring breakers, girls gone wild, and club hoppers — was Stephen Style, head of New York-based BDI Marketing.
A few days after WMC had ended, Style invited me to the popular South Beach club Mansion. Mini Thin Rush was sponsoring a charity event called the Broker Boxing Federation, in which real estate magnates, developers, and other rich guys would beat each other onstage to raise money for Alonzo Mourning Charities. Mini Thin Rush had a table there.
Style showed up in tight black jeans and a blue T-shirt cut off at the sleeves, his hair spiked up and spilling into a messy mullet à la Davie Bowie circa 1970. On his shoulder was a tiny fake Superman tattoo.
I watched as he set up his table inside the club, unloading a few hundred of the tiny two-ounce plastic bottles of Mini Thin Rush and arranging them in a neat pyramid. On either side of the "energy shots" were other Mini Thin Rush products: caffeinated chewing gum and, for the minimalist, boxes containing little yellow pills — energy "capsules," to be taken orally.
"The gum works, I find, right away," Style said. "Like — boom! — a burst of energy."
"It's probably got something to do with the saliva," he added thoughtfully.
Style explained that supplements such as shots, capsules, and gum were the latest trend in the booming energy drink market. "They're becoming really popular with models, these superskinny models, because it's less liquid," he said. "Plus if they've been starving themselves, suddenly they have no energy, right?"
I conceded this point.
"Well, they drink a regular drink, it bloats them. This one — boom!"
As if on cue, a tall, attractive, indisputably skinny woman approached the table, picked up a two-ounze shot, and put it in her purse. Then she perused a packet of the pills.
"Those are energy capsules," Style explained. "Don't take them with the drink. It'll...." he trailed off.
"Be the end of me?" the woman chimed in helpfully.
"It won't be the end of you," Style reassured her, "but you'll be...." He laughed and raised his eyebrows high. She smiled and took a pack.
Celebrities such as Brooke Hogan, Harry Morton, and the great Zo himself were pouring through the doors and across a remarkably shoddy red carpet. The first batch of rich dudes was preparing to slug it out for charity. A gong sounded in the background. The time had come.
I plucked a bottle from the pyramid, twisted off the cap, and downed it in one glug. Nothing happened. I drank another one.
The sensation began as two simultaneous tremors: one in my stomach, the other in my throat. The sweet, citrusy taste of the drink rose from every part of my digestive apparatus like a fine mist, until all I could taste or smell was Mini Thin Rush. The vibrations extended up from my gut and down from my esophagus, convening directly at my heart. My mouth went dry. The inside of my lips stuck to my teeth.
I floated over to the bar, ordered a whiskey on the rocks, and knocked it back. It tasted good; it tasted very good.
What followed was blurry. Style, who as far as I know abstained from drinking his own product that night, went through the ins and outs of guerrilla marketing, product placement, and so forth, but I couldn't concentrate. I was a human engine, a rocket man. I plucked a piece of energy gum and began to chew. My legs were hydraulic pumps; my feet were roller skates. I ordered another whiskey, sticking the caffeinated gum behind my ear to down the booze.