The first time I visited my local grocery store in Belgrade, I was captivated by all the cheap energy drinks that I’d never heard of. I’m a regular sugar free Red Bull drinker, but I’d be happy to find an alternative. In addition to Red Bull not necessarily giving you wings (according to a certain class action settlement in New York federal court¹), it’s also unreasonably expensive.
So that’s what’s wrong with Red Bull, but it has good points, too:
- IMO it tastes better than most other energy drinks I’ve had. I mean, it’s not particularly good. It is an energy drink after all, and even good energy drinks are, at their core, at least a tiny bit awful. But then, I don’t love coffee either, unless it’s turned into a frozen dessert. And Red Bull’s sugar free option is less sweet than most of its competition, which suits me.
- Red Bull’s standard size is about right; not comically large or small. In Japan, they sell them in somewhat smaller cans (to suit Japanese sensibilities) with the same amount of caffeine as the standard size, and that’s even better.
- Red Bull packs a nice, moderate 80 mg dose of caffeine (not too high). I don’t want to be uncomfortably energetic.
Those were the factors that used to be relevant to me, but at the Serbian grocery store, things were different from the States. Almost all of the energy drink options used the exact same size can, and had identical liquid volume (250 ml) and caffeine (80 mg). Maybe these values are standardized in Europe? I don’t know. But I do know that, given the wildly cheaper prices of the other brands, it made me want to do a taste test. So I bought five. A sugar free Red Bull for comparison, and four new brands I’d never heard of.
When I excitedly showed my can collection to my girlfriend that evening, she suggested I take it further than just tasting them, and write reviews. She also helpfully suggested things to comment on, including their fizziness, sweetness, aftertaste, stickiness, color, and overall experience.
That sounded like important work. So here goes.
Meet the Contestants
All contestants agreed to be tested in chilled 250 ml cans, and weighed in at exactly 80 mg of caffeine. Here they are, listed in order of how many 12 year old boys approved of their naming:
- Hell, Classic — Hell is apparently the market leader in Hungary (where it was founded) and a few other small countries.
- Ultra, Original — There’s not much info about Ultra online, but poking around on their basic, Serbian-only website, I noticed they’re owned by Monster Energy.
- Red Bull, Sugar Free — Red Bull started in Thailand, but is now an Austrian company. It’s also the world’s most popular energy drink. No one else comes close.
- Guarana, Original — Made from guarana plant extracts (as you might expect). This is produced by a Serbian company and is popular in Serbia.
- 365 Essential — The cheapest option in the store. Apparently part of the way they keep costs down is by doing zero marketing, because I couldn’t find any information about them on the web.
I’m going to be evaluating each drink on four dimensions before declaring an overall winner. Each factor will also be weighted a little differently, with the order of importance (from most to least) being: flavor, value, mouth feel, then design/coolness.
Round 1: Flavor
Red Bull’s flavor is hard for me to describe, but I found a variety of descriptions online: “Flintstone vitamins”, “bad pink bubblegum”, “delicious energizing battery acid”, and the even more colorful “lemon that has been sexually assaulted by cough syrup” and “old flat Mountain Dew filtered through a well-used bowling shoe”.
In fact, the flavor was based on Asian energy drinks, which pushes the flavor question one level down. I remember drinking things that tasted like it in Japan as a kid, long before encountering Red Bull after I moved to the States (where the drink was introduced in 1997). So for me, I’d say Red Bull tastes like a less sweet Real Gold, which is a Japanese drink. It’s not delicious, but it’s not bad. It has no significant aftertaste, and it’s familiar. I also appreciate the lower sweetness of their sugar free version.
As it turns out, 3 of the other 4 brands I bought were Red Bull copycats, and similar in flavor. Ultra was the best, in fact slightly better than sugar free Red Bull (though slightly more sweet). Hell and 365 Essential, on the other hand, were too sweet for me, and had an added syrupy honey flavor (especially strong for Hell) that I thought was nasty.
Guarana was the one drink doing something different. I’m assuming its taste is based on the guarana plant. The result is a somewhat sour, fermented, and vegetable rooty flavor. Guarana definitely got more of a reaction from me than any of the others, and although the taste wasn’t for me, I can imagine other people digging it.
🏆 Flavor winner: Ultra, by a smidge.
Round 2: Mouth Feel
Smoothness: Ultra was an especially smooth drink, not hard on the throat, but the difference wasn’t too large. Most of these drinks have a mild fizziness that feels like a soda gone a bit flat. Guarana was more carbonated, and a little harsher.
Aftertaste: This wasn’t a huge factor for any of the brands, but it was worst for Hell (the aftertaste is even sweeter, ugh), Guarana, and Red Bull. Least for Ultra.
Stickiness: The biggest differentiator in this category was how a few of the drinks (especially Hell, but also Guarana and 365 Essential) had a sticky, syrupy feel in your mouth. That’s not the sensation of a refreshing drink, and it’s no bueno. In case you were wondering, the same three drinks were also a bit sticky when poured over me (yes, I actually did this), whereas Red Bull and Ultra were not.
🏆 Mouth feel winner: Ultra, with no faults.
Round 3: Design & Coolness
Red Bull cans distinguish themselves from all the other standardized pop-top cans by cutting one of the bulls from the brand’s logo into the tab on top. Unnecessary, sure, but it‘s a classy touch. On coolness, it seems there’s a common myth that the taurine in Red Bull comes from bull sperm. Google results for the drink are full of questions about it. Although it’s not true², just knowing that some people think it is gives drinking Red Bull a bit of a risqué edge. And it’s hard to miss Red Bull’s associations with extreme sports (due to relentless, global marketing), club all-nighters (“Vodka Red Bull” is a staple around the world, after all), and young, hard-driving night owls (programmers, gamers, students, etc.)³. All of this adds up to an image that people can genuinely aspire to or hate.
² BTW, there’s an official answer to the Red Bull sperm myth online, and its URL is glorious: <https://energydrink-eg.redbull.com/en/no-bull-semen-in-red-bull>.
³ This image of Red Bull as extreme is so pervasive that essentially everyone I tell that I drink Red Bull instead of coffee is surprised to learn that Red Bull has less caffeine than your average coffee. They’ll then respond about how Red Bull has taurine, but it’s well established that taurine at this dosage has no meaningful effect on hoomins.
Label design: Red Bull is the classiest of the bunch, Hell is the most cheeky and ridiculous, Ultra has the most Tiger King vibes, and Guarana is the cutest. 365 Essential, on the other hand, is one of the least cool cans I’ve ever held. Its label makes it look like a store brand that was probably designed by your mom in Microsoft Word. Come on, 365 Essential, your competition is putting flaming albino tigers and horny red devils on their labels. Where’s your energy drink spirit?
Color: Red Bull and Ultra have a golden yellow pee color. Drinking pee is not cool. Even worse, 365 Essential looks like concentrated pee, and Hell like dehydrated pee. The lone pee exception was Guarana, which was an elegant and very light gold that, although objectively not all that different from the others, made me think of tea and bougie alcohol.
🏆 Design & coolness winner: Red Bull. Its emotional and cultural connections, along with its global awareness and little touches, make it unbeatable in this category.
Round 4: Value
Here’s what I paid for each, sorted by price and converted from RSD to USD:
- Red Bull Sugar Free: $1.43.
- Ultra: $0.62.
- Guarana: $0.53.
- Hell: $0.48.
- 365 Essential: $0.39.
Does that mean 365 Essential is the automatic winner in this round? Not necessarily. Clearly Red Bull will have to sit this one out, since it’s a luxury brand (at least in this part of the world). But all the others cost within 23¢ of each other. So I’ll try to base this on value for money, with value coming from the three factors we’ve already considered.
At first I wanted to say Ultra won on value for offering a strong Red Bull alternative at less than half the price, but that was colored by the huge price gap with Red Bull. In truth, Ultra is fairly expensive compared to all the other contestants. So I’m giving this round to…
🏆 Value winner: 365 Essential, after all. Percentage wise, it’s substantially cheaper than all the others, and it’s still a decent drink.
Edit: The next week, our value winner went on sale (hot damn—energy drinks for 29¢!), while the price of Red Bull fluctuated from $1.73 at full price to $1.14 at its low. That’s the cheapest I’ve seen Red Bull in the world.
And the Overall Winner Is… Ultra
After considering all the above factors and going back for a second glass of each, Ultra stood out as the most well rounded contestant. It will now be my go-to supplier when I need gratuitous amounts of energy.
At a high level, for the five options I tried I’d say Ultra is the best, Red Bull is still a good drink but is overpriced, Guarana is doing something different and is worth a try, 365 Essential is a great bargain, and Hell is pretty bad, with not much going for it apart from its over the top name and logo.
Dishonorable mention: I didn’t include Monster—the other big global energy drink brand—in this round up because it was disqualified in advance. Compared to Red Bull, Monster doesn’t come in reasonable sizes (the smallest I’ve seen in stores is too big), it tastes worse, it has far too much caffeine for me, and it’s more expensive than the already unreasonably priced Red Bull (yes, Monster is cheaper per ml, but I don’t want the extra liquid). GTFO, Monster.
Honorable memes: Powerthirst and Brawndo ads were funny shit, back when they were fresh a decade ago. See: <https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/powerthirst>.
Future challenger: A web search while writing this brought an option from the UK called Pussy to my attention. Sure, the name is going for shock value (and eye rolling, presumably), but there are serious people online raving about it being the most delicious energy drink. There are a lot of thirsty puns I could write about that, but I’ll resist until I’ve tasted a Pussy of my own.