In the 1995 tech-centric cult classic, Hackers, one soft drink dominates the film’s computer-and-conspiracy-heavy landscape: Jolt Cola. In addition to appearing scattered among half-empty pizza boxes in the bachelor pad rooms of the film’s heroes, a scene occurs in which Razor and Blade (a pair of bothers in thick black eyeliner) take to tongue-in-cheek product promotion as part of their hacker-themed community access show.
"For those late night hacks…" Razor teases.
"Jolt Cola!" Blade announces. "The soft drink of the elite hacker!"
For a country still just beginning to understand the wilds of the Internet, Jolt Cola (which prided itself on having twice the caffeine of Coke or Pepsi) quickly became synonymous with the kind of furtive, strange underbelly of online culture that seemed like another universe.
The buzzy drink’s energized entrance on the scene, though, didn’t last long. The popularity of Jolt faded in the early 2000s, and the company had completely shuttered by 2010. Hackers across the United States pined for a new way to jumpstart their late night hacking sessions—and German hackers had the answer.
... hackers have spent the better part of a decade fueling up and banging it out in late night Club-Mate-driven sessions across Europe.
Enter Club-Mate (pronounced: MAH-tay), a fizzy soft drink derived from the natural South American stimulant yerba mate that’s been produced by Loscher Brewery in a tiny Bavarian town since 1924. A yellow-tinged, glass-bottled soda with a mascot that looks like Pirates of the Caribbean-era Johnny Depp at a masquerade ball, hackers have spent the better part of a decade fueling up and banging it out in late night Club-Mate-driven sessions across Europe. In recent years, the drink has also become deeply entrenched in Germany’s club scene, where it is easily powers a fist-pumping party crowd until sunrise.
If Jolt had a seemingly childlike quality about it (Lots of sugar! Amped up caffeine!), everything about Club-Mate is surprisingly adult. Each bottle has a substantial 20 milligrams of caffeine per 150 milliliters, but low sugar and caloric content when compared to other non-diet sodas on the market. The flavor profile is in a category by itself as well, attacking the taste buds with a flavor roughly akin to a bubbly, slightly fermented, unsweetened tea. In recent years, a spread of (potentially more palatable) Club-Mate flavors have also developed, including a Club-Mate Cola, Club-Mate Winter Edition (made to taste cozy through the addition of baking spices) and Club-Mate Granat, which combines pomegranate flavoring with the peppy beverage.
There’s little middle ground for Club-Mate devotion—either you’re in, or you’re out.
When the drink first made its way onto U.S. soil in 2009, it was brought in specifically for hackers, by hackers. The lone importer for the United States is 2600 Enterprises, an offshoot of the decades-old hacker ‘zine 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, which has been a touchstone for the community since 1984. Announcing Club-Mate’s arrival, 2600 wrote:
What is Club-Mate, you may ask? It's an addictive substance out of Germany that we introduced to the American hacker scene ... Over the last year, we've been amazed by how many people have fallen under its spell. The German hacker scene has been addicted for many years now ... We know it's a bit odd for a hacker ‘zine to be in the energy drink business. But we like to think that it's just another example of the weird places we wind up going sometimes.
Soon, though, it wasn’t just the hacker community that rejoiced. The drink has gained a loyal—and ever increasing—following among EDM and techno musicians, artists and anyone who has spent a sweaty, pulsating night dancing until the wee small hours at a club in Berlin.
In the last few weeks, Club-Mate has begun expanding from limited American outposts (primarily in New York and Austin, Texas) to locations up and down the West Coast. The drink may be an acquired taste for some—after all, its slogan translate to "one gets used to it" in English—but longtime followers and those in the know are already bracing for the calm before the Club-Mate storm.
When the drink first made its way onto U.S. soil in 2009, it was brought in specifically for hackers, by hackers.
This spring, singer and model Sky Ferreira declared Club-Mate, "The best thing to come to the United States since The Beatles." Weeks earlier, Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan tweeted about the drink’s arrival. Over the summer, Club-Mate was the mixer of choice at Artsy headquarters for the Independent Curators International summer cocktail party.
As the drink begins bubbling up across California (an up-to-the-minute locator tracks the launch of new outposts), it’s not a stretch to imagine it will be lining both the shelves at Googleplex and stocked in fridges at bottle-service-happy clubs in no time.
One of the primary reasons for Club-Mate’s popularity (party-enhancing abilities aside) is that the beverage is interestingly versatile, serving as an easy late afternoon pick-me-up while being effervescent (and relatively healthy) enough to swig as a breakfast drink.
"I actually like to drink it first thing in the morning as a coffee replacement," said Clayton Blaha of Pop In Bottles, Club-Mate’s West Coast sub-distributor under 2600 Enterprises. "It’s bubbly and really gets your day going in a different sort of way. You don’t crash like with coffee."
Club-Mate has also found its way into boozier preparations, with the company’s official website outlining a number of fairly simple combinations of Club-Mate and liquor as a jumping off point. Suggestions range from fool-proof recipes with funny-sounding portmanteaus like the "Gin Matonic" (a riff on a Gin and Tonic), to the "Club Feigling" cocktail, which brings together German Feigling (fig vodka) with Club-Mate over ice.
At Bossa Nova Civic Club in Bushwick, New York, the DJ-driven dance hall quickly became known as one of the primary outposts for Club-Mate in New York. Since 2013, the club has taken the party-all-night concoction of Club-Mate and vodka (a favorite of Berliners) and kicked it up to a new level by offering the addition of freshly squeezed fruit juice blends like verdita (mint, cilantro, peppers and pineapple juice) to the mix.
Club-Mate is often presented as both a cult phenomenon and a more natural alternative to Red Bull ...
If you’re really committed, though, you have to start with the original. The official "hacker’s cocktail" (and best known alcoholic preparation involving Club-Mate) is called "Tschunk," a drink so popular with the computer illuminati across Europe that it has warranted its own step-by-step, how-to website complete with photo and video. The intoxicant has become ubiquitous at the annual Chaos Communication Congress (one of the world's biggest hacker conventions) in Hamburg, Germany, where themes like "Who can you trust?" (2006) and "Nothing to hide!" (2008) reflect the quasi-dark, underground ethos of the ever-tinkering Internet subculture.
The drink, however, is actually quite sunny. A traditionally prepared Tschunk tastes like a subtle play on a daiquiri or Caipirinha, featuring muddling diced limes with cane sugar, Club-Mate and rum (typically dark) in portions to suit one’s own personal palate. It tastes like a cocktail better suited for a beachside resort than the middle of the German winter. It’s not difficult to imagine that Tschunk will find an eager audience beyond the reaches of hacker culture on the West Coast, perhaps even cozying up next to Mai Tais on poolside cocktail menus.
Club-Mate is often presented as both a cult phenomenon and a more natural alternative to Red Bull—a way to "give yourself wings" without the mumble-jumble of additives and unpronounceable words. While the soda is definitely poised to give longtime energy drink overlords a run for their money, pigeonholing it to such a limited category would be wrong. The drink has an almost century-old history, hyper-loyal legions of fans and potentially massive reach as the demand for more health conscious "soft drink" options spread across the country.
Get ready to rumble, Coca-Cola and Pepsi—there’s a new kid in town.