It's Raining Energy Drinks
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.
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.
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.
The gum stuck to my hair. No matter. I pulled on the mass harder, harder, harder until I was holding what looked like an owl pellet of my own hair.
I tossed the furry nugget and staggered out of the club with a need to talk — to anyone, about anything — quickly, quickly. I rode my bike home, on the way calling every phone number I could think of and leaving frantic messages. But it was no use. Brain and body were hopelessly out of synch. I was a nuclear reactor trapped in Jell-O — a body held hostage by energy itself. I pulled over to throw up, but gagged instead; I continued gagging all the way home.
The calls came back from friends for two days. "What did you do to yourself?" they asked. "Is it over?"
The next morning, the flat, sweet taste of Mini Thin Rush still wafted through my throat and over my tongue like the last smoky remnants of a chemical fire. I wanted my coffee.
But I did not drink my coffee.
Instead I got in my car and headed for Miami Beach, to meet a rep for Springbac, a new locally based energy drink company sponsoring the Association of Volleyball Professions (AVP) tournament being held on South Beach.
Deprived of coffee, my heart was pounding. The first wave of a headache had arrived, and the tsunami wasn't far behind. In a throbbing haze, I popped another piece of Mini Thin Rush gum — the same kind I'd cheerfully ripped from my scalp the night before. It tasted worse than I remembered. My hands twitched slightly on the steering wheel.
The sun shone, blinding and merciless, over the tournament grounds, a chunk of beach consisting of a small encampment of half-deserted tents. Just about the only people around were the product sponsors. They circled the beach in tight, hungry packs — all predators and no prey.
Amy Deupi, head of public relations for Springbac, met me at the gate. A small, neat woman, Deupi had the bubbly, now-we're-friends personality you might find hawking any product du jour. But her eyes had a sharp, hawklike intensity.
"Let's get together for lunch this week," she said, grabbing my hand and turning those eyes on me like a pair of blowtorches. "We can talk about how we're going to do the story."
I explained she needn't worry about the story, because I'd be writing it.
The eyes shot down at my notepad.
"Oh, look," she said lightly. "You wrote down what I said about lunch."
I was saved by the Springbac Girls, who had corraled a tall, muscly, shirtless hunk wielding a volleyball. They got him to take a bottle, and watched in satisfaction as the liquid flowed down his gullet. Deupi swooped in.
"You're a player?" she asked. He nodded. Deupi, seizing the moment, aimed her camera and asked, "Can you hold up the drink?" Seeming a little bewildered, he complied.
"Look for the volleyball players," Deupi instructed after the guy moved down the beach. "They're tall."
Unlike many other energy drinks — which bill themselves as just like Red Bull, only stronger, tastier, energy-er — Springbac touts itself as a kind of anti-booze, an antidote to alcohol's toxic effects on the body. And — hence its name — a hangover-recovery drink. Packaged in calm, fruity colors, the drink contains no caffeine — and no taurine, guarana, or yerba maté. What separates it from, say, Sprite, is that its ingredients are supposed to naturally bestow the magical property of energy. Among them, as one of the Springbac girls affirmed to a man in swim trunks: "Artichoke extract. It cleanses your liver.
"I drink it before I go jogging, with my vodka, and when I'm hung-over in the morning," she added, thrusting a bottle (along with her bosom) toward him.
I took a sip. It tasted pretty good: a lot like Sprite.
But whatever wonders the drink was performing for my liver, it wasn't delivering the energy. It was midday by now, I still hadn't had my coffee, and I felt as if a giant hole were being bored into my head — a cavity that needed to be filled with caffeine. Artichoke extract was not going to do the trick. Another piece of energy gum was out of the question — I'd rather chew the caffeine back out of my liver than smack on another piece of that stuff. I fumbled through my bag, grabbed another bottle of Mini Thin Rush, and — ducking behind the canopy of the Springbac table — gulped it down. It took hold at once; within a minute, my upper lip was stuck to my teeth again.
Emerging from behind the table, I tried to talk to the Springbac team some more, but found myself inexplicably swearing uncontrollably. Suddenly I was all fucks and shits. The girls seemed horrified by the transformation. Trembling, I made my way out to Ocean Drive and sat slumped against a tree, heart pounding.
Deupi called a few days later. "We should talk about how we're going to pitch this story," she said.
V. The Zin Master
More than 300 new energy drinks are launched annually in the United States alone. The industry has grown by 500 percent in the past five years and sales are expected to reach more than $10 billion in the next two. But for every drink that catches on, a dozen vanish overnight.
Among the more audaciously named brands that have seen the light of day: Cocaine Energy Drink, H.I.V.: The Positive Power Drink, Crank, Crunk!!!, Blow, and Pimp Juice. There is a Christian version — 1 in 3 Trinity Energy Drink, "the liquid companion to an active Christian lifestyle" — and Kabbalah Energy Drink: Source of Power."
But there is only one energy drink on Earth with the words Made in Dade emblazoned on the can: Zin Master Energy Drink. It's the product of one man, the Zin Master himself, Julian Tizol.
When I called to ask Tizol if we could meet at his office, he suggested Starbucks instead. "I'm between offices right now," he explained. "Whenever I have to meet with someone, I just say, 'Hey, let's meet at Starbucks.' It's spacious, it's beautiful — and bro, there are lots of pretty girls."
Starbucks it was.
Tizol is tall and muscular, with jet black shoulder-length hair tied in a bushy ponytail — like a Samurai. One of his nostrils is bigger than the other, which is fitting: He is likable, personable, intelligent, and warm, with the slightest edge of total insanity.
He seemed to be perfectly at home in his "office" within the coffee franchise. He met me at the counter, ushered me graciously to one of two big green armchairs against the wall, and placed his briefcase on the table between us.
"How did you start?" I asked once we had settled down. Unexpectedly, this first question completely threw Tizol. He stood up, paced the floor, glanced out at the parking lot, looked back at me, sat down, stood up, sat again.
"How did it start? You really want to know that? You really want to know the juicy story?" he finally asked, looking at me with wide eyes.
I paused. "Yes," I said.
Before he turned to energy drinks, Tizol explained, he was a bootlegger. He operated a vodka still.
When I pointed out alcohol has been legal for some time, Tizol waved the comment aside with a swipe of his large hand. The fees, licenses, and legalities of distilling liquor, he said, made it impossible for a small businessman like him to produce and distribute his own. So he made it himself and sold it, illegally, through magazines and by word of mouth. But at some point — shortly after a close call at a UPS branch, he says — he got spooked and decided to go straight.
He shut down the bootlegging operation and devised a plan for selling Zin Master, a new energy drink. Not that he had the slightest idea how to make one.
"The only research I did was to find out if it would be profitable," he told me. "It was just to see whether I, Julian Tizol, could create an energy drink company. And I could. So I did."
The name, he said, came about for two reasons. One: Calling his beverage Zen infringed on someone else's copyright. Two: "Zen means to be peaceful and meditate — but I don't want people to be peaceful and meditate when they drink Zin Master. I want them to party their fucking brains out."
Since then, he has waged a one-man campaign to keep the drink afloat against competitors who dwarf his operations by several orders of magnitude.
"I was going through a situation where Monster was putting their drinks in front of Zin at the gas stations," he recounted. "So I was taking Monster and putting it in the milk section."
He focused the bulk of his own energy — and dollars — on aggressive advertising, using a homemade, two-pronged approach: DJs and pizza.
"The DJs have five, six thousand people in their clubs at a time. And if they're vibing, man, and they're wearing a Zin T-shirt, that's like, bam!"
Before Winter Music Conference, Tizol decided to run an ad in Miami New Times boasting friendship with a thousand DJs. He placed the ad even though his claim was untrue. "I didn't have a thousand DJs. Not even close. So I had a month to get them. I was doing 12-hour, 14-hour binges at the computer, bro. I supplied myself with Zin Master and Rice Krispies Treats and sat at that computer until I had a thousand DJs."
Then there's the pizza angle. "Maybe you can't get into the club, so you say, 'Man, I'm gonna go get some pizza. And bam, there it is — the Zin Master energy drink in the pizza shop. Wherever you go, bro, Zin Master goes with you."
Tizol's biggest complaint isn't large companies such as Red Bull: it's small companies, designer drinks like his, that don't seem to care about their product.
"The more of these energy drink companies that come out, the harder it is for me to get on the shelf," he said. "It's killing me. It's like a badge, bro; people start an energy drink just out of pride. Even Playboy just came out with a drink.
"I do love Hef, though," he added thoughtfully.
The Playboy Energy Drink Tour bus sat outside the Titanic Brewery like a beached whale. A couple of young guys named Scott and Ryan stood next to the coach in the parking lot. They were in charge of the tour and were being interviewed by a reporter for the University of Miami's student newspaper, the Hurricane. The college kid held a full-size notebook, scribbling furiously as his interview subjects described the joys and hazards of life on the road with the Energy Drink Girls.
"It's a great social networking event," Scott explained. Ryan nodded.
The Hurricane reporter, however, was interested in a different kind of social networking. "So," he asked, laying his pen flat on the book, "are you going to let me talk to the girls?"
Scott smiled. "They're changing," he said.
I tried a can of Playboy Energy Drink. It tasted like the rest of them: sweet, tinny, vaguely noxious.
Among the standard ingredients of caffeine and sugar, Playboy includes on its label an ingredient called "horny goat weed extract." I asked Scott about it. "Actually they haven't really decided how they're going to market that yet," he said with a straight face. "People don't really know what the goat weed is."
Ten minutes later, as if answering the call of an unseen Ali Baba, the intrepid young college reporter turned toward the bus as its great black door folded open, and in he went. It was 20 minutes before he emerged, his face plastered cheek to cheek with the largest shit-eating grin I'd ever seen.
Soon I ventured inside. The bus was roomy. A Playboy Bunny clock kept the time, and bottles of hard liquor littered the kitchenette. Two girls sat on opposite black pleather couches. I said hello. Light, innocent conversation ensued, interrupted suddenly when a door in back burst open and out stumbled a third girl, staying upright, it seemed, only with Ryan's assistance.
He helped her into the bathroom. It was time, I figured, to leave the bus. I got up and asked to take a parting picture. Ryan stood between the other two girls, and everyone smiled as I focused the camera.
Just then I heard the bathroom door open behind me as the third girl came out. I watched the eyes in my viewfinder shift to look at their colleague, standing out of my sight. Then I felt hands on my stomach — low on my stomach — and breath as soft as liquid energy across my cheek.
"Ashley," Ryan said, laughing. "Let the man take his picture."
The photo came out fuzzy. Ryan stepped toward Ashley as I moved away to say goodbye to the other two girls.
"Did you like the drink?" one of them asked.
I stared at her, uncomprehending. I babbled but did not answer. They persisted.
"But wasn't it better than other drinks?" asked the other. The words coming out of her mouth seemed to be wrapped in impenetrable pink satin.
"Come on, did you like it better? Just say yes."
I stared blankly.
She took my head in her hands, planting one soft palm in my hair and another under my chin.
"Yes," she said, nodding my head for me.
"Yes," I said. "Yes."
The Playboy campaign marks the next innovation in the world of energy drinks: Why spend time and money developing a product when you can rely on brand name alone? Thus rapper Lil John's Crunk!!! — as much an advertisement for him as an actual refreshment. Some nightclubs have also opted to sell their own, custom-made energy drinks; Club Space, for example, sold Spacefuel, until Red Bull successfully sued the club for dispensing its own product when customers ordered Red Bull.
Turns out it's not hard to DIY. Jason Vigil, co-owner of the Las Vegas-based Xbrandfluids.com, was, like Tizol, lured by the energy drink boom into starting his own company. But he quickly realized how difficult it would be to turn a profit.
"It was just an uphill battle, trying to compete against Monster and Red Bull," Vigil recalls. "It really is a gold rush, and so people think they can get in, have their little niche in the market. But really, for every drink that starts up there are three or four more that go out of business."
He noticed a few bars around Vegas were selling their own branded bottled water. He and his partner had an idea: Why not stop trying to compete with a slew of drinks just like theirs and provide custom drink labels to others instead? In other words, as energy drinks became increasingly generic, why not capitalize on their very interchangability?
Xbrandfluids is one of at least a dozen companies that will slap a customized label onto a can of stock liquid power. The innovation is to keep the sales low-end: It's the only company online that will sell you your own drink — the customer designs the label — in amounts as small as a single case.
"We do marketing companies, conventions where clients are advertising in a booth — their potential customers are meanwhile walking around through the whole show holding that client's custom energy drink.... It's just a liquid advertisement."
It was time for me to follow this step up the evolutionary ladder of energy drinks. It was time to do it myself.
In other words, anyone can have an energy drink — not just Pitbull, not just Hef. And screw the ingredients — forget the horny goat weed, the artichoke extract, the hocus-pocus vitamins and amino acids. I could have my own energy drink, and it would be better than the others because it would look cooler and have a better name: Speed Slut.
I recruited Alex Izaguirre, assistant art director at Miami New Times, to design the label. A PDF file, about $60, and two weeks later, the shipment arrived. Speed Slut had come to the Magic City.
The cans were slim, like Red Bull's, and all black except for the logo, featuring a Bettie Paige-esque tart sporting a little red teddy and matching devil horns, her eyes wide with a look of evil, energized glee. "Speed Slut energy drink," the can read in slanted red and white letters. "You'll do anything for it."
It was time to introduce the people of Miami to Speed Slut. I shanghaied a folding table, a giant red bucket, and a few cans of Red Bull, and headed downtown. Suddenly I understood how the Zin Master himself, Tizol, must feel: like an insurgent. With all its millions of dollars in marketing, could Red Bull actually beat Speed Slut if the two were pitted in a fair fight, on the street, no holds barred? I doubted it. I doubted it very much.
Hoping I wouldn't be arrested, I quietly set up the table next to a hot dog stand outside the family courthouse just off Flagler Street. On one end, I placed a can of Red Bull. On the other, Speed Slut. It was to be a taste test. Almost instantaneously, it began to pour rain.
My first "customer" was Caroline, the young woman who owned the hot dog stand. She felt bad watching me get wet, she explained. Caroline didn't think much of either drink but asked a man who worked with her to try the two.
"This is Red Bull," he said after tasting an unmarked cup of Speed Slut.
"Ay, no!" Caroline shouted happily. "That one is Red Bull."
Hallelujah! It worked!
Caroline's little sister was there too. "I like the name," she said, grinning from ear to ear. "Speed Slut. I like that."
Another man came along but didn't want to try the drinks. "She look bad," he said in halting English, waggling a finger at the figure on the can.
"Do you know what slut means?" Caroline asked him in Spanish. He shook his head.
"Puta," she whispered. She then translated the drink's name as "Puta Rápida." The man laughed. He picked up a can, laughed some more, and took it with him, still chuckling.
"You should sell that stuff," Caroline said, scooping a hot dog out of the boiling water and dressing it for a customer. "You would make a lot of money."
Maybe she was right. Maybe with enough money, enough girls, enough gimmicks, sponsorships, and giveaways, Speed Slut could make it. I cracked one open and began sucking the stuff down. It was as good an energy drink as I had ever tasted. In other words, it was awful.
A homeless man named Virgil appeared, lugging a suitcase with a broken wheel. I offered him the taste test, but he took a single sip of Speed Slut and scrunched up his face in disapproval. "Too thick," he said, wiping his mouth. "It's too thick, too sweet. But I sure do like the can!"
I bent my mouth to smile, but it was no use — my lip had stuck to my teeth again.
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