How a German Soda Became Hackers' Fuel of Choice
After gaining a cult following at hackathons and raves, Club-Mate has quietly gone global.
Sixteen years after his first sip, Jens Ohlig remembers his initial taste of Club-Mate as vividly as if the drink had taken his virginity.
It was 1998. Ohlig, then a software developer in his 20s, was attending an outdoor hacker camp in Cologne hosted by Germany's Chaos Computer Club. He describes the fizzy caffeinated soda as a kind of enchantment washing over all in attendance, and the Chaos hackers as the harbingers of its sorcery.
"They brought their magic potion with them and infected everyone at the camp," Ohlig says. The soda is infused with extract of yerba mate, a caffeine-laden plant native to subtropical South America. "The first time you drink it," Ohlig says, "it kind of tastes like horse urine filtered through hay."
But then it starts to taste, and feel, good—really good. Stamped on Club-Mate's label, beneath an image of the drink's gaucho mascot, is its tongue-in-cheek slogan, which translates from German roughly to "One gets used to it."
Today, Club-Mate is the keystone of Ohlig's diet. The Berlin-based Wikimedia engineer drinks between three and four half-liter bottles of Club-Mate every day. "In crunch time I've had like 10 bottles in a day," he says, "but that was extreme."
Ohlig is far from Club-Mate's only convert. The golden soda has become essential nourishment for anyone in Berlin involved in hacktivism, club culture, dance music, tech—just about everyone in the city under the age of 40.
The drink owes its popularity as much to its function as its flavor. It provides a more mellow and enduring caffeine buzz than coffee and avoids the saccharine slap of energy drinks like Red Bull or Monster. It's crisp and tart on the front and has a grassy finish familiar to anyone who's sipped yerba mate tea.
During a tour of SoundCloud's headquarters in August, a community relations woman named Emma Rugg made sure I got a good look at the company's Google-like amenities, which included a fridge packed with bottles of Club-Mate. SoundCloud is the centerpiece of Berlin's nascent tech ecosystem and views itself as a leader not just in business but also work culture. Keeping the Club-Mate flowing is crucial to productivity and morale, Rugg said.
"If we run out," she said, "it's a problem."
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The first crates of Club-Mate arrived in Hamburg and Berlin in the early 1990s. For about a decade, the drink was enjoyed primarily by hackers like Ohlig at CCC gatherings. Then weekend dance club goers adopted the drink as their fuel of choice for all-night raves. Staying awake for lengthy stretches is key in both hacker and rave cultures and, as Ohlig says, "Club-Mate is one of the legal options."
Fast-forward two decades to 2014. Bottles of Club-Mate (pronounced KLOOB Mah-tuh in German) swing from the hands of seemingly every young person in the German capital, and distribution of the drink has quietly gone global. It's exported to 40 countries, from Kazakhstan to Chile.
But you're forgiven if you haven't heard of Club-Mate until now. Brauerei Loscher, the small Bavarian brewery that produces the drink, refrains from marketing, relying instead on word-of-mouth and independent distributors. You won't find Club-Mate at your corner bodega or local BevMo. For years there was only one US distribution point—in New York City—and only in the past six months has another distributor emerged in San Francisco to drum up interest from Silicon Valley tech companies and startups. So far, only a handful of venues in the states have taken advantage—a club in Brooklyn, an alternative bookstore in Seattle, and, as of a couple months ago, a rock climbing gym in San Francisco, to name a few.
John Barclay went to some lengths to procure his first shipment of the mystical libation. After tasting Club-Mate at a club in Berlin at the insistence of a friend (it's a popular mixer for vodka or rum), Barclay set out to find a source in the US. He drove two hours to buy a crate out of the trunk of a man's car at an Applebee's parking lot in New York. Barclay is the general manager of Brooklyn's Bossa Nova Civic Club, the first US bar to carry Club-Mate.
"We sell Club-Mate because we believe it to have a metaphysical relationship with techno music," Barclay says. "There is some sort of cosmic bond between this mysterious potion and the exploration of computer technologies."
The drink has soared at Bossa Nova. Patrons guzzle "roughly a mini van full" of Club-Mate every two weeks, Barclay says.
It may not command as great a portion of the US mate soda market as the Miami-made Materva (originally from Cuba) or California's Guayaki brand. But where it has landed, Club-Mate has found a loyal audience.
"All of my employees here at Ada's drink—and love—Club-Mate," says Danielle Hulton, owner of Ada's Technical Books in Seattle. Hulton started carrying the drink in 2010 after returning from a conference in the Netherlands called Hacking At Random the year before. Her employees were all introduced to the soda through their work at the bookstore. It's been a hit among customers as well.
"For this last quarter, it is the second highest sold product in our store, in terms of frequency," Hulton says. But it's a pain to ship and costs are rising, so Hulton is tinkering with her own mate soda blend.
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In 2010, the German Pirate Party was entering its second phase of mainstream political ascendence on the back of a series of parliamentary election victories. The Berlin House of Representatives was suddently overrun with young digerati. Their first order of business was stocking the government building's vending machines with Club-Mate.
"They spent hours bickering over what should go in what slot in the vending machines," Ohlig says.
What had been a cult beverage suddenly gained national attention, and the ensuing buying spree took Loscher by surprise. The brewery didn't have enough of Club-Mate's sleek signature bottles stockpiled to keep up with demand. For several months, the flow from Loscher slowed to a drip.
"People were after it, like, Prohibition speakeasy style," Ohlig recalls. "They were hard to find. I had to phone several suppliers to get a batch."
The brewery sorted out its bottle deficiency in 2012. Loscher brewmaster Marcus Loscher is tight-lipped about all facets of the Club-Mate operation, but he assures that the Mate-pocalypse won't see a second coming. He has a personal stake in seeing that it doesn't. He's hooked on the potion as well.
"Even on vacation I take it with my diet," Loscher wrote in an e-mail. "A day without Club-Mate is a day wasted."
What Loscher wouldn't comment on, and what is unclear at this point, is whether or not that kind of brand loyalty comes with any serious health consequences.
In the US, energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster have become associated with visits to the Emergency Room if consumed in excess, especially by teenagers. A New York Times investigation from November 2012 showed that 5-Hour Energy is mentioned in 90 filings with the Food and Drug Administration, a third of which involved "serious or life-threatening injuries like heart attacks, convulsions and, in one case, a spontaneous abortion." Thirteen of the cases involved deaths. The FDA is now investigating the health effects of energy drinks.
Club-Mate contains 100mg of caffeine in every half-liter bottle, which makes it the rough equivalent of an average eight-ounce cup of coffee. By comparison, Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine in each of its 250ml cans. Another thing Club-Mate has going for it is that its caffeine is the product of yerba mate, which contains polyphenols that are known to help relieve allergies, reduce the risk of diabetes, and generally give our immune systems a nice boost.
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Half a liter of Club-Mate sloshed around my stomach on the walk from my office to Meta Mate, Berlin's only yerba mate bar, where I met Ohlig for a sampling of craft mate sodas.
The sheer volume and variety of mate sodas springing up in Germany is striking even as the demand for traditional yerba mate tea has stayed relatively low. Club-Mate's success has spurred spinoffs from brewers large and small, including an indie collective in Hamburg (1337Mate) and the German national supermarket chain Bio. The alternatives vary slightly in hue, texture, sweetness, and the strength of mate flavor, and feature hedgehogs and geckos on their labels rather than gauchos. But, ultimately, they fall within the Club-Mate wheelhouse.
"In Berlin, there are already certain people who don't drink Club-Mate anymore," Ohlig says. "It's viewed as too mainstream. It's kind of the Starbucks of mate sodas."
Meta Mate is a subterranean space tucked beneath an apartment building in Prenzlauer Berg, a gentrified neighborhood in what was formerly East Berlin. Its main room is lined with cubbies of assorted mate-infused consumables—sodas, chocolates, soaps, and "mier," a blend of mate soda and beer.
"We call ourselves mate hackers," said Krithika DoCanto, who owns the bar with her husband. She brought a half-dozen sodas to our table.
Ohlig is something of a mate soda expert. He and two of his friends published a book on caffeinated sodas in 2011 called "Hacker Brause." (Brause translates to "shower." In this context, it means fizzy drink.) Our meeting at Meta was significant not only because it's the only bar of its kind in Berlin, but because Prenzlauer Berg is the neighborhood where the story of Club-Mate's modern origin began.
According to Ohlig, Loscher Brewery happened upon the drink recipe by accident. The recipe changed hands among German businessmen beginning as early as 1924, the earliest known date of its existence. The Loscher family acquired it in 1994.
Before the fall of the wall in 1989, Prenzlauer Berg was a poor pocket of Soviet-controlled East Berlin defined by abandoned warehouses and factories. When the wall came down, residents fled to the west, leaving in their wake an abandoned city – an "empty playground," Ohlig calls it. It became a haven for squatters and starving artists. In the neighborhood Ohlig remembers, enterprising young people would pry the locks off an abandoned building, clear away the rubble, install a sound system, hang a sign over the front door and reclaim the space as a techno dance club.
"The saying was that there are three things every squatter needed," Ohlig says. "Coals for the winter, plaster for renovating, and beer for partying." (The German acronym for those three necessities is KGB.)
During these first tumultuous years of reunification, one merchant led a donkey-drawn cart around Prenzlauer Berg, selling spirits to the clubs. Without the proper licenses, club managers had to get creative about bringing in booze. They would hail the man with the donkey cart, who took purchase orders down on his clipboard. Soon, he exchanged the cart for a truck he used to shuttle his beverage inventory. One night, during his rounds, a patron put in a special request for a soda from his Bavarian village called Club-Mate.
"The distributor added it in the mix and it went through the roof," Ohlig says. "The Loscher Brewery didn't know what they had."
Ohlig credits the drink's success to the parallel emergence of electronic music and the internet—a synergistic cultural trifecta. Club-Mate's rise loosely traces the rise of transnational hackathons. It's only in the last five years or so that the drink has come to prominence as a hacker necessity.
At Meta, I ask Ohlig to name his fuel of choice before Club-Mate.
"I can't really remember," he says. "But I think we drank a lot of Jolt Cola back then."
"Back then" being 1995, the year the film "Hackers" hit theaters. Ohlig recalls people going to "great lengths" to import Jolt from the US.
"Now," he says, "the tables have turned."
(Disclaimer: The bulk of this story was written under the influence of Club-Mate and other such sodas.)