Not the Thirsty, But Energy Fiends Who Imbibe Red Bull
by AMY SCOTT
IT WAS BARELY 8 O'CLOCK ON SATURDAY NIGHT and The Café was already rocking.
Arthur Lee stood at the bar with a glass of vodka on ice, a bottle of purified
water, and a small, thin, blue and silver can. He paid for his drinks, walked
to a seat on the balcony overlooking Market street, and opened the can. Soon
the vodka was turning an electric yellow color as he emptied the can into the
The yellow stuff was Red Bull, an Austrian energy drink. Popular in Europe for years, Red Bull has been making a slow and steady dent in the American energy drink market. In San Francisco, The Café sells at least a case of it a night-with and without vodka. But Lee, a chemist at Genentech, was relatively new to the drink.
"I don't know about the energy thing," Lee said, sipping his alarmingly yellow concoction. "But it tastes good."
Lee's enthusiasm for the flavor isn't universal. The taste has been described as anything from "crushed up baby aspirin" to "bad kool-aid with fresh lime juice." But Red Bull is a functional drink, not a palate pleaser. Its aim is to energize.
People talk of "using" Red Bull, rather than "drinking" it.
"You drink it more for the effect that you're gonna get," said Kennard Gray, a 27-year-old bartender at The Café. Gray said he doesn't mind the taste, which he described as chalky ginger ale. But that's not why he drinks it. "It's something I would use when I need a little boost," he said. "In place of coffee."
People talk of "using" Red Bull, rather than "drinking" it.
At The Top, a little club in the Lower Haight, a 25-year-old bartender uses Red Bull to get through busy nights behind the bar. He wanted only to be known as Simon, perhaps because he confessed to drinking 15 cans of the stuff every week. An admitted caffeine addict, Simon spoke of Red Bull almost as a delivery mechanism for the stimulant rather than a beverage.
"I get a high from it, you know?" he said. "It's highly addictive."
Aaron Collins, a front desk manager at the Market Street Gym, said he considers Red Bull a substitute for drugs.
"I actually have a problem with it," he said. "I usually drink five or six a day."
Collins, 25, said he's a recovering coke and crystal meth user. Now he gets his fix from a Red Bull can.
"It's the only thing that kind of gives me a jump start," he said. "It gets me a little jitter inside."
The jump start comes from caffeine, and an ingredient called taurine. Rumors have taurine coming from bull's testicles or intestines, but the truth isn't quite so glamorous. According to Emmy Cortes, Corporate Communications Manager for Red Bull North America, the amino acid was discovered in bulls about 40 years ago-hence the name. But taurine occurs naturally in humans as well.
"The taurine-there's nothing unusual about that," said Wayne, a chemist in the Food and Drug Administration's consumer education department in Washington, D.C., who said he couldn't give his last name. "It's found in all sources of protein," he said.
But Wayne wasn't sure about taurine's effects. "There must be some perceived benefit from it, but I don't know what that is," he said. "They're putting a little bit of everything in these so-called dietary supplements."
While the FDA has banned an unrelated Thai vitamin drink called Red Bull-for an illegal artificial flavor it contains-the Austrian drink has no record with the agency. The FDA is not required to scrutinize beverages, Wayne said-unless something harmful is discovered after the fact.
According to San Francisco dietitian Elyse Robin, taurine has a number of health benefits. It can lower the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases and reduce blood pressure, she said. And taurine has been used in the treatment of epilepsy. But Robin wasn't familiar with the energy connection.
"I've not really seen research on it that would make me understand why they'd be putting it in this energy drink," she said. "In terms of enhancing the health of an already healthy person, I haven't seen any scientific research to that effect."
According to Red Bull's Emmy Cortes, taurine is a "conditionally-essential" amino acid depleted in times of stress. Information on a Red Bull UK website indicates that adults weighing about 156 pounds will have about two and a half ounces of taurine in their bodies. Red Bull is said to replenish the supply-with a synthetic version-when exercise or long hours have depleted it.
The company has done studies to back its claims-mostly in Europe, Cortes said. The results have led the company to make recommendations about how and when to use the drink. For example, athletes exercising longer than an hour are advised to drink one to two cans about 30-45 minutes before the end of the workout. The boost is supposed to improve endurance and reduce stress hormone levels, according to the UK website. Cortes said more tests of Red Bull's performance are planned for the United States.
Kennard Gray said he often uses Red Bull before his workouts at the gym.
"If I'm really tired," he said, "I'll have a little shot glass and it'll get me right through my workout."
But Red Bull isn't just for athletes. Its other energizing ingredient is caffeine-about the same amount as a weak cup of coffee, according to Cortes. And some Red Bull devotees are using it instead of its well-established predecessor.
"I've used that to get me through the night," said Bill Smullin, who sells Red Bull in the Hayes Valley café he manages inside a health club. "Instead of coffee, which leaves you a little jittery."
That's a common description of the kind of "up" Red Bull provides. The Red Bull website attributes that jitter-free energy to its use of "pure" caffeine, rather than "roasted." Yet a disclaimer on the can warns the drink is "not recommended for children or persons sensitive to caffeine."
Gray said he can only drink about half a can before the caffeine gets to him. "I don't like getting too hyper," he said.
Kevin Hee, a bartender back at The Café, said he used to drink three or four cans a day at work. But he stopped a few months ago when he started feeling shaky.
"I shake a lot in general," said the thin young man as he stocked the bar. "But I shake a lot more with it in my system."
Gray and Hee represent only a small segment of Red Bull's target audience. Text on the can claims "world class athletes, busy professionals, active students and long-distance drivers" among those who enjoy its benefits.
"The market that we're targeting are people who want to perform at their best," said Cortes.
Kirsten Olsen, 22, got paid to find those people, when she worked as a Red Bull promoter in Colorado last summer. Along with 10 or so other "consumer educators"-mostly young women fresh out of college-she drove around the Denver area in a blue and silver Red Bull car (complete with a big can on top), promoting the drink. Olsen said she and her partner spent their days driving to parks, climbing areas-anywhere active people might be, to spread the word. The two would load up their backpacks with Red Bull and walk around handing them out.
Olsen estimated she and her partner gave out about 60 cans a day, between the two of them. But the free sample always came with instructions.
"They really want people to understand how to use it correctly," she said. "You should only drink it if you need energy."
In fact, Olsen said she was instructed to seek out people in need of energy as she made her rounds. Using it correctly also meant drinking the whole can (to get the full effect), and not drinking more than one every four to six hours. Drinking water was also important.
"It's supposed to give you energy but not hydrate you," Olsen said.
And if it didn't work? Olsen said the company logic is that if you don't feel the benefit, you probably didn't need the energy.
Another promotional program employs college students to serve as Red Bull reps on their campuses. One of Red Bull's claims is to improve concentration-a benefit Olsen said is marketed to college kids. The program is well underway in the United Kingdom, where university students are hired to plan Red Bull activities that promote the drink.
According to Cortes, UCLA, USC, and San Diego State were the first American universities to have student programs last year. And student reps are starting to appear on other campuses in the West.
But Cortes was quick to emphasize some differences. In the UK, the students are expected to develop relationships with local bar owners and show bartenders how to use Red Bull as a mixer. But in the U.S. such an overt promotion of student alcohol consumption wouldn't really fly.
"We have to be very, very, very careful," she said.
Still, Red Bull North America has by no means shied away from the nightlife.
"It's not to say that we don't have Red Bull in bars," she said. "We want to get the product in every place that it would be useful."
So far that doesn't include all of the United States. Red Bull is unavailable in New York and hard to find in the Northeast, Cortes said. The company plans to have Red Bull in every state by then end of 2001, she said. And Cortes said the campus program will be integral to developing Eastern markets.
Meanwhile, the little 8.3-ounce can is acquiring both fans and foes.
Café Corbas manager Bill Smullins said Red Bull sales have declined in the year and a half he's run the little shop tucked away in the Muscle System health club.
"We don't sell a whole lot," he said. "People tend to go for the more fresh fruit Odwalla and the blended smoothies that we make here."
"And coffee," he added. "If they really need that 'up,' coffee definitely works better."
Smullins described the Red Bull customer as someone working long hours-not just the fitness junkies working out in the gym next door, but "the plumbers that are working all day long across the street," he said.
Down the street at the Civic Center Market, owner Johnny Wong said he sells about a case of Red Bull a month. The slender cans perch on custom display shelves inside the cooler door. Red Bull's biggest competitor, Hansen's Energy (also with taurine), isn't moving much faster.
Still, Wong said, Red Bull works when the hours are long. "When you want to continue working, you drink this," he said. "And then okay-you get the job done."
Back at The Café, bartender Sam Castillo said he drinks at least one Red Bull a night when he's working. But Castillo, a cyclist, warned against using it during strenuous exercise.
"It's not the kind of energy I would recommend for a bike ride," he said. "'Cause it's such a short spurt."
Customer Mike Sauer, a 29-year-old visual supervisor at the San Francisco Center, was less delicate.
"It's a big lie," he said "It does nothing but void your bowels."
D.J. Matthew Baker was equally disdainful.
"You see this?" he asked holding up a cup of coffee. "This is equivalent to me drinking two Red Bulls."
Arthur Lee, on the other hand, had moved on to his second Red Bull and vodka just before nine o'clock. Now surrounded by friends and playing a game of pool, he looked slightly more lively.
"I feel like Maggie [from The Simpsons] on coffee ice cream," he said over the thumping techno music, with a gleam in his eye. "I'm going to see how far I can take this, without becoming psychotic."