A great friend of mine once beautifully summarized the appeal of smoking. He said that he could wake up early on a dark winter morning, with the prospect of hours of back-breaking work ahead of him, but if he had a cigarette he had a moment of pure peace and pleasure and the day somehow brightened. I feel much the same, except that my addiction, while perhaps less damaging, is less romantic — when I get up I can’t wait to crack open a can of Monster Energy. I can be tired, sick, stressed or sad, but somehow when those liquid diamonds fall out the can I feel much improved.
Like cigarette smokers, energy drink enthusiasts have clear and particular tastes. Some love Red Bull. Some love Rockstar. For me, the best out there is Monster Zero Ultra, a delectable mix of caffeine, taurine and sucralose. Sweet yet sharp, and smooth yet fizzy, it feels as refreshing as a cold morning dip into a mountain stream.
A breakfast Monster is a treat but there is also the invigorating pre-work Monster, the restorative post-workout Monster, the comforting hangover Monster and the essential morning deadline Monster. All have been treasured companions for me over the years. I know it is unhealthy. I bought a blender so I could replace the damn things with smoothies, but then I realized that I could easily have both.
Does this habit sound peculiar? Perhaps. But I am not alone. Global energy drink sales have soared to a value of more than $50 billion and are expected to pass $85 billion by 2026. Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian co-founder of Red Bull, is worth almost $27 billion, making him the world’s 40th wealthiest person. Rodney Sacks, chairman and CEO of Monster Beverage, is worth a mere $2 billion. (I dread to think how many of his assets I have personally financed.) Coca-Cola, the godfather of the soft drink industry, rolled out its first energy drink in 2019.
From humble beginnings, Red Bull and Monster, among others, have developed a vast and dazzling array of products. Take Monster. There are more types than even I have tasted. It comes in classic black and green, sugar-free white, lemony yellow, fruity red, gingery black and orange and a shade of blue that resembles liquidized Smurfs. You could fill a whole shop with varieties of Monster — and, indeed, I plan to when the bottom falls out of my freelancing career. Some of them taste like fresh nuclear waste. Others are delicious.
What are the symbolic connotations of energy drinks? It sounds like the sort of question you might pose in a satire of cultural studies but I think the answer could be interesting. It comes back to our relationship with caffeine.
English-speaking countries have a different attitude, in general, towards caffeinated drinks than those of both sides of the Mediterranean. In Italy or Turkey, as far as I can tell, drinking coffee has relaxed social connotations. In Britain and America, on the other hand, drinking coffee is associated with the bleak and madcap rush to get to work on time. Of course, that is not always true — think of Agent Cooper drinking his ‘damn good’ coffee in Twin Peaks — but a million before coffee/after coffee memes attest to how we view coffee as a drug more than a drink. It is a stimulant to bear us through our schedule — a palliative amid the stress and drudgery of work.
Energy drink manufacturers have tried to advertise their products as being part of a healthy, active and exciting lifestyle. Red Bull, with its famous claim that ‘Red Bull gives you wings’, has sponsored extreme sports, soccer teams and flying events. Monster has sponsored the Ultimate Fighting Championship and motorsports. Monster has been advertised, rather cringe-worthily, as a ‘lifestyle in a can’, perfect for enthusiasts of ‘action sports, punk rock music, partying, hangin’ with the girls, and living life on the edge’.
Of course, there is something to it. An energy drink does give me a nice kick before I go out running or head to the gym. Even more so, the thought of getting home and opening an ice cold Monster inspires me to finish the workout successfully.
But I think Monster’s sponsorship of eSports organizations is telling here. A Nasdaq report into their mounting profits expresses mild surprise that their success has come ‘despite adverse impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’. Well, of course. How many energy drinks would a health-conscious athlete really drink? I believe they down more kale smoothies than caffeine.
The average energ-o-holic, I suspect, is not a rock climber, a rally driver or a martial artist but a fanatical gamer, an oil-burning student, a twitching investigoogler, a manic poster or a red-eyed streamer. The undercurrent of caffeination suits the low-level anxiety, compulsive clicking and hyperactive pattern matching of the online age. Coffee carries people through our professional life and its low status bastard offspring fuels our downtime – energizing our absurd cerebral activities when the alternative is dozing in front of the TV.
What about the health consequences? Perhaps I am complacent but I think they can be overstated. There is a lot of caffeine in energy drinks, of course, but not that much more than there is in coffee. Artificial sugars and e numbers might not be good for you but they are hardly going to pickle your insides if you have a Red Bull or a Monster on occasion. Those of us who drink them almost every day, on the other hand, should probably cut back. I know I should get into freshly squeezed orange juice or something. I will. But it does not have quite the same taste — or the satisfying snap as metal yields to metal.