It's 4 a.m., and I'm gacked to the teats on energy drinks. Four cans of Red Bull, four cans of Full Throttle, two cans of Rockstar, and a 10-ounce plastic cup full of some nameless yellow drool they dispense straight from the beverage gun over at the pub across the way. I'm bug-eyed, red-eyed, itchy, twitchy, anxious and sweaty and grinding my teeth, talking to myself and talking to the walls and talking to my dog. Which isn't unusual—the talking to my dog part, that is. I do that all the time. Except ordinarily he just looks back at me, like he's bored, or he needs a biscuit, or something. This time, he just looks too scared to answer.
Is that a bug crawling on the wall?
Maybe I'd have been better off with Neuro Fuel. What's a Neuro Fuel, you ask? Well, really, you didn't ask. I asked for you. Because I'm the one sitting here in a paranoid frenzy, trying to make a late-night finish on a story about Knoxville's own contribution to the energy-drink market. And talking to myself, and to the dog, and to the walls. And now I'm talking to you, too. Wait, this isn't making any damn sense.
No, but anyway. Neuro Fuel is a new energy drink, created by a pair of Knoxville boys, Joe Elmore and Waylon Howell. But Neuro Fuel isn't just an energy drink; it's also a mood enhancer. It's got Piracetam, which sounds like it might have something to do with pirates, even though it doesn't. But wouldn't it be cool if it did? No, that would be stupid. Really, it's got Piracetam and all of these other ingredients that are supposed to act in coordination with the sugar and caffeine and Taurine and all the stuff that's in all the other better-known energy drinks, the stuff that makes you weird and jittery and feel like you want to chew the nails out of your fingers while you count the bugs on the wall. Are those really bugs?
(Editor's note: Be forewarned that energy-drink chemistry is a pretty inexact science. Manufacturers inevitably make fanciful claims about the effects of so-called "active ingredients"; naysayers inevitably maintain that such claims are spurious, usually based on the fact that none of them have been endorsed by the almighty FDA. The bottom line: Caveat emptor.)
Yeah, the Piracetam is supposed to actually smoooooth out the effects of the caffeine and Taurine, so you don't have all the wigs and jitters, and at the same time it interacts with various other synaptic disenhancers inside your parabellum—and I know I may be getting some of this wrong, because I really don't understand any of this chemistry business, even though Waylon explained it to me, because sometimes he talks way too fast. But so the Piracetam disjoins your aromatic synapses, or something like that, so that you actually feel better—smarter, braver, stronger, more self-confident. And without all the bugs.
So Waylon, he's about 25, a real All-American boy, good-looking and athletic and perfectly groomed and articulate and smart and ambitious, but nice enough that you don't fault him for any of it...much. He and Elmore are old fraternity brothers from the University of Tennessee's Sigma Phi Epsilon house, ex-high school jocks, and both of them have had a long-standing interest in vitamins and athletic supplements and stuff like that, and Joe's dad is even a chemical research scientist, which helped a whole lot, I'm thinking, when they pulled this whole performance-and-mood-enhancing-energy-drink-thing together. The two of them had even concocted, maybe three years ago, their own personal self-improvement formula, a mixture of Piracetam and other less-pronounceable chemicals that's supposed to aid memory and self-esteem and mental acuity and all sorts of other great stuff that I can't remember, probably because I don't drink enough Neuro Fuel.
Last spring, Waylon was on vacation in Florida when the Big Idea hit. "I was in Miami, and there are people down there taking lots of substances—illegal substances—to make themselves happier," he explains. "But Miami is also very health-conscious. So I'm thinking of a bridge between that, something that would make them happy, but also be good for them. Something that would keep the toxins out of their brain, and keep their mental cognitions sped up. Something that would help them use their caffeine without the dropoff."
And that's where this other thing you have to know about Waylon comes in. Because, you see, besides knowing all this difficult-sounding mumbo-jumbo about chemistry and vitamins and how your psychokinetic environs redact your quadricelli in response to anagenic stimuli, Waylon is also a marketing whiz, dating back to even before he earned his marketing and finance degree at UT, when he was an ambitious high-school kid writing his own proposals for do-it-yourself marketing programs. And he's always looking for an angle.
And his angle, in this case, is that the market for energy drinks is growing wicked fast. "Energy drinks as a whole went up 53 percent last year," he says. "And contrary to popular belief, the different brands are not really in conflict with each other. Right now, the more an energy drink promotes, the more they're creating awareness for the category as a whole. Red Bull has been around 10 years now, but it's nowhere near saturation."
That last part, the "nowhere near saturation" bit, means people aren't tired of it yet. As best I can tell.
So Joe and Waylon went and sank a hefty wad of their own cash into hiring a pricey energy drink consulting firm, and another wad into tapping a private laboratory in Kentucky. And they spent a lot of time there, in Kentucky, at the lab, slurping little Dixie cups full of energy drink samples and trying to find the right mixture of, um, stuff.
The fact is that energy drink manufacturers throw all kinds of weird ingredients into their product, gunk like Carnitine and Ginseng and Guarana, the latter of which comes from the seeds of a South American shrub, just in case you ever wanted to know that or in case maybe the question comes up in Trivial Pursuit or on Final Jeopardy, or something.
But the most common ingredients in most energy drinks—and the key active ingredients, according to Waylon—are sugar, caffeine, and Taurine, which is an amino acid that can be condensed from ox bile, which is apparently the source of an urban legend that Taurine actually comes from bull semen, which isn't true and don't let anyone tell you different. Though I'm not sure exactly why there would be any effective gross-out/perceptual difference between ox bile and bull semen...
Anyway, Taurine, according to the Red Bull PR team, "acts as a metabolic transmitter...and strengthens cardiac contractility." And you probably think I made that last word up, but I didn't; it means more blood is pumped from the heart muscle when Taurine works in conjunction with caffeine, an effect that is borne out by some study, I think.
"What most energy drinks do is they give people that caffeine and sugar spike, so they feel more ‘up' for a little while," Waylon says. "But they're cheating themselves. They're not completing the chain. That's why you're seeing jitters. That's why you have the energy drink ‘crash.'"
So Joe and Waylon, clever young men that they are, they've added Piracetam as a major additional active ingredient—they even have a patent pending for use of Piracetam in commercial beverages—with Piracetam being an amino acid derivative discovered in the 1960s and used in a wide range of medical research, including treatments for ADD and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, among a whole range of other conditions that are increasingly difficult to spell.
Also, some researchers claim that Piracetam has all sorts of corollary benefits even for non-sufferers of all the aforementioned ailments, benefits like increasing cognition and memory and mental stamina and creativity, and amping up the effects of serotonin and dopamine, and preventing cooties. I made up that last benefit, but I'm thinking maybe you already guessed that.
And maybe most importantly, "when you combine the Piracetam and other ingredients with caffeine, there's an anti-jitter effect," Waylon says. "You get an energy drink with no more crash, no more jitters."
So Waylon and Joe, after spending days and then weeks at a Kentucky laboratory tasting sample after sample of energy drink formula—after which they had absolutely no problem whatsoever keeping their eyes open on the long drive home, thank you—finally they came up with the perfect formula, the Neuro Fuel formula, and then made deals with bottlers and distributors and started rolling it out this fall. Right now, it's only available around Knoxville in Ken Jo Markets—which is why I'm sitting here with bad jitters and heart palpitations and a terrible urge to gnaw the skin off my thumbs. Because there aren't any Ken Jo Markets anywhere near my apartment, so I just decided to make do with other, lesser, mere-mortal-type energy drinks, those drinks having the advantage of residing in a more proximal spatial relationship to my abode, an important consideration when you start a project like this at, oh, say, half past midnight, and it's something like minus 30 freaking degrees below zero outside, and...
Well, you get the point, I think. So Waylon says he and Joe have already accumulated all sorts of testimonials as to the happiness-inducing and wellness-increasing properties of Neuro Fuel. There's the girl with two different blood diseases, Waylon says, who tried a Neuro Fuel sample and claimed, two hours later, that she felt better than she had in three years; or the UT student with mononucleosis who managed to crawl out of bed and attend class after guzzling a can of Neuro Fuel, "not only feeling better, but she says she was able to focus better in class"; or the roughneck bouncers at a local nightclub who, one hour after accepting Waylon's free samples of Neuro Fuel, were spotted giggling amongst themselves like silly school girls outside the bar.
"They said they would never drink it before going to work again," Waylon laughs. "I keep getting all kinds of good reports coming back to me."
I wish I could add my own gleaming testimonial to the batch, but unfortunately, the day Waylon stopped by the Metro Pulse offices with a muscle-y armload of Neuro Fuel samples, I was already in the throes of a cosmic-level caffeine delirium, brought on by five cans of Sugar Free Red Bull, a Full Throttle, plus several supplementary trips to the office coffee machine in between rounds of energy drink consumption. I can only offer that my two cans of Neuro Fuel were very pleasant-tasting—an office mate described its flavor as "a little like Hawaiian Punch." Couldn't tell much otherwise, seeing as how I was already caught up in a stone-freaky Mothership of a high....
Not unlike the energy-drink high I'm experiencing right now, actually, which kind of makes it seem like maybe I could step outside my window and fly to Mars, if only I could feel my arms and legs. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to make another trip to the refrigerator; I think there's another can of Red Bull waiting for me on the top shelf. Provided I can sift through all those bugs...