Pour It On
There are dry spells: a week, maybe two, when no cases of energy drinks arrive at his door. But Dan Mayer doesn't sweat it. He knows that another energy-drink manufacturer will soon get in touch with him, ask for his address in Uptown, and then send a crate of its latest or newest or most extreme product in hopes that Mayer will review it. When you are the man behind the most popular energy-drink website in the world, the companies hawking the product make sure to stay in touch with you.
Today's drink is XYIENCE, "the official energy drink of the Ultimate Fighting Championship." In addition to samples of both the "xenergy clear" and "xenergy cran/razz" versions, XYIENCE has sent Mayer a T-shirt as well as an ultimate-fighting magazine. He throws these items in the kitchen closet where he keeps all of the shwag: hats, T-shirts, magazines, fliers. Decorative cans are displayed around the kitchen, and his fridge is already full of energy drinks he has yet to taste, with names like "Red Line" and "Blackhole."
Mayer cracks open a can of xenergy clear and sips, then sits on the couch as the taste settles over his palate. Generally, he likes to sample the energy drinks with a couple of friends so that he can gather several opinions, but there are times when he imbibes alone, occasionally chasing the test drink with a beer or two to bring him down from an energy high.
"This tastes like Sprite that uses a fake sugar substitute," he says immediately. "I guess more like Diet Sprite than anything. I'm sure that's the taste they're going for. If you like Sprite but want more of a kick, then you'll probably enjoy this. My review will go something like that."
Mayer then samples the xenergy cran/razz and cringes in disgust.
"I've never liked the taste of cranberry," he explains. "In my reviews, if there is any drink that has cranberry in it, I make sure to write the disclaimer that I can't stand the taste of cranberry and so I cannot give the best review of the drink. Then I'll write something like, 'But if you like cranberry and blah, blah, blah.' Me, personally, I hate it."
Now Mayer waits. To assess any energy drink accurately, you must allow time for the drink's effect to creep over you, to feel the tingly sensation of the caffeine reacting with your body.
"I've always been really sensitive to caffeine," Mayer says, "which I suppose is ideal for reviewing energy drinks."
He checks the inbox of www.bandddesigns.com/energy/, which has become so prominent that when you Google "energy drinks," this is the first web address that appears. He notes with satisfaction that four more companies will be sending him cases of product this week alone.
In the three short years since he created the site, the 24-year-old Mayer has become one of the world's foremost energy-drink experts -- so much so that when he writes a bad review of a drink, companies will send more cases urging him to reconsider, suggesting that he just received a bad batch. And there are always more companies sending cases of new energy drinks to his apartment, eager for his opinion. But with a Los Angeles entrepreneur poised to produce an energy drink completely of Mayer's creation, his hobby of sucking down drinks with buddies and blogging about it is poised to get a lot more serious.
"I remember a time growing up when a good night meant a sleepover, a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew and renting a video game," says Mayer, recalling those nostalgic days of late-'80s/early-'90s Americana, when technology and caffeine melded so seamlessly in basements across the country. But while Mayer would partake in the occasional soft-drink binge, it would leave him bouncing off the walls.
"I get it from my mom," he explains. "She can't drink caffeine any time after noon or she'll be up all night. I'm kind of the same way. Outside of sleepovers and stuff, I never drank soda. I wasn't one of those kids who drank two or three a day."
Besides, he didn't need the extra boost. A self-described "hyper kid," Mayer was always playing outside with his friends, kicking a soccer ball around or goofing off on Lake Springfield near his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Pretty much the only time he sat still was when he was looking at a computer screen.
"I started getting into computers young," he remembers. "Playing video games on the computer -- Carmen Sandiego and war games and stuff. Pretty soon I was fixing the family computer when it broke."
And then came the Internet.
"When I first heard about the Internet, I was probably around thirteen," Mayer says excitedly. "And I remember thinking, 'Anyone in the world can read my thoughts? That's the coolest thing I've ever heard!'"
He immediately set up his first website, a one-page drawing of Calvin and Hobbes with a caption bubble that read, "This is so cool, you know who I am!"
By the end of high school, everyone knew who Dan Mayer was. He and his friends kept a website that was a must-read for students, a running yearbook/newspaper/inside-joke page where they championed everything from gorgeous women to the excellence of waffles. Mayer got his first web-design job at fifteen, when the father of a girl perusing Mayer's site at home leaned over her shoulder and marveled that a fifteen-year-old kid could have created such a thing. He hired Mayer to design his firm's website.
Mayer's obsession with computers -- coupled with a love of skiing cultivated through numerous childhood vacations to Steamboat Springs -- brought him to the University of Colorado in 2000 to major in computer science. And in Boulder, he again started chasing that energy dragon.
"In college, if you want to study enough to do well, complete all your projects and maintain a good social life, you have to live with a lack of sleep," he points out. "Energy drinks would wake me up and let me focus when I really needed to study or get some work done. Also, if I was tired from projects but it was a night I should really go out and party with some friends or try to meet some girls, an energy drink would pick me up and get me in the mood for going out instead of in the mood for laying around watching a movie and going to bed."
So he overcame his aversion to caffeine.
Mayer doesn't recall the exact moment he tasted his first energy drink, but he does remember that it was love at first tweak. The elixir was Red Bull. After one sip, like so many college students before him, Mayer began using the pioneering energy drink regularly: as a quick pick-me-up in the morning, an extra boost during long nights in the library, a sweetish taste-masker to mix with vodka. But unlike many of his peers, Mayer was absolutely fascinated by the energy-drink concept itself.
"I became intrigued by the whole notion of energy drinks," he remembers. "The different effects they could have on you, how you could use them. So pretty much anytime I saw a new one in a convenience store or something, I would buy it."
Mayer began compiling an inventory of the drinks in his head -- which drinks were good for focusing, which ones good for partying, which were low in sugar, etc. Word of his cerebral catalogue spread, and Mayer quickly became CU's unofficial energy-drink consultant. He handed out cases of Piranha energy drinks -- the convenient by-product of having a roommate who was a skier sponsored by EAS, the nutritional supplement company then based in Golden, which produced the beverage -- to anyone who wanted some. Other students would call Mayer and ask for recommendations on what to drink for certain situations.
Eventually, Mayer was getting hit up for energy-drink information so often that it got annoying, and in 2003 the college junior put his findings online under a domain name he still owned from his high-school web design experiments. The no-frills site offered a convenient drink-by-drink compilation of every product he'd ever tested, and pronounced that it was "all about the best drinks based on taste, energy and mixability." A few pictures showed Mayer and a buddy essentially wigging out on energy drinks, and more recent reviews were highlighted, but basically the site was a simple, opinionated encyclopedia of energy drinks. It was Mayer's tone and personality that made it something special.
His assessment of Red Bull, for example, started out with the standards -- the price of the drink, its active ingredients and a score on a one-to-ten scale -- followed by this review: The drink that started it all, Redbull. It might not have been the first energy drink but it was the first to really bring it to the masses. Redbull always had a great taste and had a kick that many others just can't compare to. Perhaps i am biased since i have liked it for so long but i think it also pumps me up more than most other energy drinks do. Redbull also can mix about 50% vodka before the taste really starts to go down hill. This is what makes it so good. Start a redbull and vodka with about 30% vodka and then after you have drank about half of it add more vodka so it is about 50% or more and it will still taste really good. Redbull and vodka is my drink of choice if i am trying to stay up and party all night, dance, or just to get pumped up for the evening. I wouldn't have a redbull as your last drink because then you can't taste it and won't feel its effects as much but it does make a great first round. So to the original king of kings i hail thee RedBull.
Red Bull scored a nine.
"I was really starting to get known around campus because of the website," Mayer says. "But when I first did the site, it was not that big in terms of hits; www.milkandcookies is what made me."
A popular website full of random, funny links and videos that the owners call "an archive of memes for disturbing geeks," www.milkandcookies.com linked to the energy-review site in 2004. Other sites, eager to play off the red-hot national trend of young people swilling energy drinks, quickly followed. A week after the www.milkandcookies.com shout-out, on July 17, 2004, Yahoo! made Mayer's hobby the site of the day.
"This kid is pumped up," the Yahoo! plug read. "A self-proclaimed energy-drink connoisseur, he's taken it upon himself to drink, rate, and opine on the huge assortment of energy drinks saturating the market.... Dan, the man behind the drinks, rates the pick-me-ups on taste, alcohol-hiding ability, cost, and 'pump upedness'.... If you're a fan of feeling fired up, this site will help you find the finest."
There were many fans of the feeling. Mayer was soon featured in the online version of USA Today, and his energy-drink reviews began appearing in college newspapers across the country. An interview with Mayer bumped the president of Snapple from the pages of Investor's Business Daily. The information superhighway rest stop www.fark.com featured Mayer's site, and he received 90,000 hits in two days.
"After that USA Today mention, I started getting hits from all kinds of random sites," Mayer remembers. "There were people in China, Japan, a lot of Germans for some reason. Within a couple of months, I got that search-engine boost that made me number one on a lot of search engines. At the time, there weren't all that many sites about energy drinks, anyway. Now I would say the search engines account for about 70 percent of my site's traffic, with Google accounting for about 80 percent of that traffic. They get me so many hits, it would be pretty hard now for any other energy-review companies to take me down."
By late 2004, just as Mayer was graduating from CU, his site became the first listed when you Googled "energy drinks." And it remains so today.
"I think it has really been in the last three years or so that we've seen the quantum leap in growth in the industry," says Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing Corporation, a New York research and consulting firm. "They really tapped into a significant consumer need state: energy. And these were products that delivered on their promise."
The products got their start in this country in 1997, when Dietrich Mateschitz introduced Red Bull to the United States. A former toothpaste salesman from Austria, Mateschitz had discovered energy drinks while on business in Thailand, where one brand was sold at gas stations as fuel for tired drivers. There was no trademark on the recipe, which was written on the side of the can, so Mateschitz took the concept and ran with it. Though the product struggled initially in Europe, eventually Mateschitz honed his marketing formula into a well-oiled machine. The first year Red Bull set up shop in California, it sold 5 million cans in this country. VW Beetles with giant Red Bull cans strapped to the hoods were sent to distribute free drinks to the hippest, most energetic spots: beaches, colleges, gyms, wherever there might be the need for a pick-me-up.
Red Bull worked hard to distance itself from the giant soft-drink makers. "They really marketed themselves differently," says Andrea Foote, editor-in-chief of Beverage World Magazine. "They opened up energy drinks as a category, rather than a sub-segment of the carbonated drink market. They redefined it. Sometimes it takes a rainmaker in a category to do that. Like Gatorade. They also happened to come on the scene at a time when extreme sports were becoming a really important market, a market that needed energy."
Though Coke and Pepsi initially had nothing to fear from the 8.3-ounce upstart, as Red Bull's numbers continued to rise, the big boys couldn't ignore energy drinks any longer. Coke launched KMX in 2000, though the product was eventually abandoned in favor of Coke's Full Throttle energy-drink line. Pepsi, which already had the guarana-based Josta on the market, pulled the drink in 1999 -- it was more of a competitor for the cult-caffeine tsunami that was Jolt Cola, anyway -- and responded to Red Bull by purchasing SoBe, which was producing Adrenaline Rush as well as AMP. Today, even though there are more than 500 energy drinks on the market, Red Bull still lays claim to half the field.
"Red Bull was fortunate, because they came onto the scene at a time when consumers were starting to attach themselves to products that allowed them to feel a sense of discovery," Foote explains. "It was a move away from the bigger, corporate brands that you saw everywhere you looked."
Then energy drinks moved into bars. "In the U.S., energy drinks have mostly been promoted in take-home channels, at 7-Eleven, the supermarket," Foote continues. "But things really got crazy when they got into the on-premise market, the bars. In the past five years or so, that's when you saw this crazy increase in consumption."
From 2000 to 2005, the energy-drink industry grew more than 700 percent. New brands of energy drinks popped up every day. And Dan Mayer was ready to taste them all, from Full Throttle Fury to Atomic Lime Wrecker Fuel.
Even after he moved to Denver and got a job with a hardware, software and systems engineering firm here, Mayer wasn't about to abandon his college hobby.
"I never considered quitting," he says. "I was making money at that point, as well as doing a bunch of other sites. When I graduated, I kind of decided that I would only work somewhere if they were comfortable with me doing outside projects."
And there was still plenty of drinking to be done. Mayer added reviewers on both coasts, so that his site could immediately rate the new energy drinks that debut in New York or Los Angeles and take their time trickling down to Colorado. One of his reviewers eventually quit and started his own energy-drink site, but Mayer didn't mind. His traffic was still heavy.
By now, the energy-drink naysayers were coming out in force. Some merely disagreed with Mayer's opinions, as they told him in numerous comments posted under the reviews. But for many, the main point of contention was Mayer's recognition that people mix energy drinks with alcohol. And not only did Mayer recognize this, but he offered suggested mixes.
"The vodka Red Bull combination can be lethal," commented a Dr. Seth Jackson after Mayer's review of Red Bull. "Alcohol is a depressant, and the stimulants included in Red Bull (caffeine, etc., not to mention the addition of unstudied amino acids) can cause abnormal brain function. This is a very bad combination, and its use can only be attributed to those who seek this type of abnormal 'high.' Not a good deal. Don't do it. Red Bull by itself is bad enough, but the vodka addition should not be recommended for use."
"Red Bull killed my son Michael," a poster named Louise wrote. "He was 26 years old, very healthy, but he drank Red Bull and vodka and died a few hours later. Don't drink the stuff, it will kill you too."
"Those comments on the site made me realize that I needed to be aware of the effects this stuff can have on your body," Mayer says. "So I researched it and made sure it's okay. And the only incident I found that seemed to have any sort of legitimacy was this one kid who regularly had seizures, and he had a seizure that was triggered by drinking energy drinks. But that could have come from him staying up because of the energy drinks, from sleep deprivation. People need to treat these things like caffeine. It's like drinking a bunch of coffee: It's not necessarily the best thing for you."
One gray area involves taurine, a popular energy-drink ingredient. The subject of much urban myth -- for a while, the rumor was floating around that taurine was found only in bull's testicles -- taurine is an acidic chemical substance found in the tissues of many animals, including humans. It is considered an "amine," but not an amino acid in the biological sense. No extensive testing has been done on taurine, and because of that some drinks containing it have been banned in France, Sweden and Iceland.
"There really haven't been enough tests on it," Mayer says. "It clearly gives an energy boost, it increases your metabolism as well as your heart rate, but there is no research that talks about what this stuff does to your body in mass quantities. I'd be the ideal test candidate for that in twenty years. I just hope in a decade they're not like, 'Taurine is the new NutraSweet and causes cancer,' because I'd be screwed."
On his website, Mayer discusses various energy-drink ingredients -- not just taurine, but guarana, caffeine, ginkgo, milk thistle and antioxidants -- and offers links to articles that better explain the effects of mixing alcohol and energy drinks, while also noting the common-sense fact that energy drinks give you more energy, thus masking or prolonging the point at which your body has had enough alcohol.
"You stay up longer, you drink more," Mayer says. "Caffeine is like any other drug. It's safe if you're not an idiot. You get in as much punch with coffee as energy drinks, but people don't seem to drink vodka-and-coffees."
Lately, Mayer has been getting requests for energy drinks from soldiers in Iraq, soldiers who've Googled "energy drinks" in search of beloved pick-me-ups and gotten to his site instead. Mayer simply forwards the requests -- which always come with return addresses -- to the appropriate energy-drink companies, which promptly ship off crates to the front.
And then there was the time Mayer came to the rescue of a bunch of British goths.
"There's this energy drink in the U.K. that's called Vamp; it's like the goth energy drink," he explains. "But they also do goth marketing, I guess you could call it, where you call them up and they will throw a goth-themed event for you, with goth models with vampire teeth and stuff. They also make vodka."
A rival U.K. goth photography clique saw that Vamp was featured on Mayer's website and began bashing Vamp in the comments section, posting lies about the drink having been responsible for deaths. Vamp employees began responding with rival postings, and pretty soon goth death threats were flying like so many dark, winged creatures of the night.
"They were writing things like, 'I'm going to cut your fucking head off and pour Vamp down your throat, which would probably kill you anyway!'" Mayer remembers. "Eventually the president of Vamp got ahold of me and asked if I could take down a lot of the comments to sort of put out the fire, which I did. He sent me a bunch of free stuff for that."
Mayer's site also recently enjoyed the dubious honor of being featured on its first porn site -- at least, the first Mayer knows of.
"They sent me 4,500 hits in three days," he says with a grin. "I have no idea what the correlation is between porn and energy drinks. Maybe if you're drinking a bunch of energy drinks, you can stay up longer and look at more porn."
Although that's an aberrant number of hits, Mayer estimates that over the past year, his site has averaged around 3,500 hits a day. And while he doesn't like to discuss actual figures, the ad revenue generated by his website funded a new server, which Mayer uses to design and support websites for bands.
"It pays for my tech and toys," says Mayer, who has also dedicated an entire site to his personal beard experiments.
People around the world have been studying Dan Mayer's site. Especially Damon Lawner.
Lawner, a Los Angeles entrepreneur who made his fortune by investing in the popular celebrity hangout Koi -- Entourage has shot in the restaurant on numerous occasions -- and recently opened a second restaurant, Bridge, in L.A., had been thinking about energy drinks for a while. He'd watch Paris Hilton types come into Koi and suck them down, bottle after bottle.
"I started researching all the drinks, what the ingredients are, what makes them work, what differentiates a product," Lawner explains. "And in doing my research, I got inspired. I became totally obsessed with creating the ultimate energy drink. That's how I found Dan."
By Googling "energy drinks."
"I looked at the whole site, and I thought it was just really interesting that this guy was so obsessed with energy drinks," Lawner continues. "It was also interesting that so many people were paying attention to him."
So Lawner contacted Mayer, discovered the kid had a good head on his shoulders, and decided to have him design his own energy drink. "When I invested in Koi, I was investing in a friend of mine who was opening the restaurant," Lawner says. "And everyone thought it was a crazy idea, but I thought, whatever. I had faith in my friend. I had a hunch. And I was investing in a person, not in a restaurant. I have the same feeling that I had then about Dan.
"When I started talking to Dan, I felt like, someone needs to give this guy a chance to create his own thing. Here is a guy who is truly obsessed: He drinks all of the energy drinks, he tastes all of them, he probably knows more about energy drinks than anyone. I thought it would be really neat to give this person a chance."
While he and Mayer try to find a time when Mayer can go to Los Angeles to start creating his baby, Lawner has already begun copyrighting and trademarking names, and lining up chemists to help with flavors and ingredients. He's also come up with his own idea for a new type of drink, for which he plans to solicit Mayer's opinions. But Lawner intends to give Mayer complete control over his own separate energy drink, from taste to name to market niche.
"In creating my own drink, I'm learning a tremendous amount and going through the motions of learning the business," Lawner says. "Dan's probably about a half-step behind me right now, so when he's ready, I've got the people in place. In Dan's world, I'm just someone who invests in him, but he has full creative control. I really believe that he's going to come up with something that is going to be a killer product, and we will both profit from it. It's a $100,000 investment and risk for me, but I've been fortunate and done well enough that I can afford to take that risk."
Lawner's wife is less convinced. She recently asked her husband why, exactly, he was sinking money into some kid from Colorado. When he explained that Mayer's site appears first when you Google "energy drinks," she wasn't impressed.
"Who types in 'energy drinks'?" she asked.
"And I told her, 'Well, imagine typing in "automobile," and the first thing that comes up is this guy's rant about cars,'" Lawner remembers. "It's kind of a big thing. I don't know how it ended up where this guy is in this position, but that he is says a lot about him."
But making a splash with a new energy drink won't be easy. The $1.1 billion industry is saturated with over 500 choices -- Steven Seagal has a drink out called Lightning Bolt -- and last year, 790 million cans were sold in the U.S. alone.
"It becomes increasingly difficult to enter a category as it becomes more dominated by larger brands," says Hemphill, who notes that even Anheuser-Busch is distributing "energy beer." "Entering the category now with a me-too type of product that offers no uniqueness or point of difference really doesn't make a lot of sense."
"The future of the energy-drink business is that you're going to get rid of all the trash," says Troy Widgery, president of Go Fast Sports and Beverage, a Denver-based company whose energy drink Mayer ranks in his personal top three. "It's like the microbrew industry ten, fifteen years ago. There was this boom with brands everywhere, but soon it consolidated and all the sort of strange brands disappeared and the strong ones remained."
Although his lips are sealed on the specifics of the drink he plans to create, Mayer is confident that it will work. He's already got a pretty clear picture of the flavor of the drink, as well as its price, packaging, marketing and even the best places to distribute it. And if his creation flops, he's got plenty to keep him busy.
"Besides," Mayer says, dutifully cringing through another sip of the cranberry-flavored drink that will keep him awake for far longer than he would like to be, "I'm really just along for the ride."
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