This story is part of Junk Food, Redefined, our new collection of snack recommendations, recipes, and perspectives that celebrate an undervalued food group. Read all the stories here.

“The Tower of Bawls lives!” a Reddit post reads. It features a photo: Three tiers of Pizza Hut boxes, each one held up by tall columns of soda cans, and at the very top of the structure, four ribbed glass bottles in colors like cobalt blue and green. Look closely at a bottle and you’ll see the word “Bawls” written across the surface. If your knowledge of gaming is limited to Overcooked or Stardew Valley (raises hand shamefully), then Bawls probably means nothing to you. But for a generation of hardcore gamers and techies, it was the fuel that powered many an all-nighter.

Unleashed upon the world in 1996, Bawls Guarana is a highly caffeinated soft drink that comes in six flavors—Original, Orange, Ginger, Cherry Cola, Cherry, and Cola—as well as a sugar-free version of Original. It tastes a bit like cream soda. At the height of its popularity in the early 2000s, Bawls was the go-to energy source for computer gamers, its 64 milligrams of caffeine per bottle fueling those participating in all-night LAN, or Local Area Network, parties (read: friends playing together on their gaming PCs—actual desktop computers with CRT monitors, not laptops!). Today, though, the drink has all but nearly vanished, and its rise and fall tells not only its story but that of an entire community.

“We needed them, and they wanted us.”

Gamers weren’t Bawls’s originally intended audience. Hoby Buppert, the man behind the drink with a kick, simply wanted to provide people with a better-tasting caffeine alternative. “I cannot stand coffee,” he says. “I’ve had two cups in my life. But I love the effects of caffeine.” Buppert came up with the idea for Bawls during winter break of his senior year in college. During a trip to Austria, Red Bull’s country of origin, he took note of nightclubs selling the energy drink at an elevated price. “They were charging 10 or 12 dollars for it. I think that just sort of stuck in my head,” he says. After graduation Buppert based his company in Miami Beach and sold the first bottle of Bawls in November of 1996. Two years later, thanks in part to a favorable review on a computer gaming website, Bawls began to find its audience.

Keep in mind, this happened before the explosive popularity of energy drinks like Rockstar, Monster, Bang, and G Fuel—to name a few. Nothing like Buppert’s drink had really existed in the U.S. until that point. The term “energy drink” had yet to hit the common lexicon. Jolt Cola, which launched in 1985 as America’s first carbonated energy drink, was competing against Coke. What set Bawls apart was its refreshing and totally unique flavor. “It tasted great,” recalls Jake Young, cohost of Wizard and the Bruiser, a pop culture podcast that tackles comic books, video games, and even energy drinks. “It wasn’t sharp or sour. It was like a scoop of vanilla ice cream.” Young remembers seeing the Original flavor in the 2000s on sale at, a website that catered to computer enthusiasts and geek culture, as well as at numerous fandom conventions like Otakon and NekoCon.

How did gamers come to rely on Bawls as their all-nighter liquid elixir? When Buppert was growing up, his knowledge of gaming was limited to Atari and Nintendo, and he wasn’t very familiar with the concept of LAN parties. “A fan of the beverage invited [Buppert] to a LAN party in Orlando,” Young adds, “and that’s when he got a glimpse into how this beverage could fit into that lifestyle.” Buppert never saw anything quite like it: A group of 30 gamers gathered at this fan’s house (he says his wife wasn’t very happy), cleared out all the furniture to fit their personal computers, and played all through the night. “They were a very dedicated group,” Buppert remembers. As more gamers discovered Bawls, it wasn’t unusual for the hosts of LAN parties to stock entire mini fridges with the drink. Buppert caught on to the trend and started sponsoring as many LAN parties as possible. “We needed them, and they wanted us.”

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