I'm here for the Bang bang
A closer look at the troop-loving "super creatine" energy drink brand currently suing Pepsi
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In late April 2020, Bang Energy, an energy-drink brand, signed an exclusive distribution deal with soft-drink giant PepsiCo. By late October 2020, the deal had gone seriously sideways. The smaller firm began trying to dissolve its partnership with the larger one on the basis of “multiple issues and concerns” (???) about how Pepsi was handling the Bang portfolio. Via BevNet/Brewbound (emphasis mine):
“Bang Energy has had, and continues to have, a remarkable 11-year relationship with many of its prior distribution partners, including the independent Pepsi bottlers,” CEO Jack Owoc said in a press release. “Therefore, we sincerely expected PepsiCo to execute at an even higher level based on their enormous resources and promises. Unfortunately, we were wrong. PepsiCo, you’re fired.”
If you’re wondering whether the chief executive of this once-promising, now-stumbling energy drink business is deliberately quoting our big wet outgoing president in his bid for corporate contract dissolution, he almost certainly is. But you’re also probably wondering what the shit I’m talking about, more generally.
Allow me to explain—not just what Bang is, and how I know that its CEO is a Trump guy, but also why it’s relevant to our (mostly alcoholic) interests here at Fingers HQ. It’ll be fun, I promise!
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The Rainbow Unicorn of energy drinks
Bang Energy is, in short, an upstart competitor in the $50B-and-growing global market that Red Bull built. You know those energy drinks you see in the Wawa or the Sheetz or whatever that make you momentarily pause to wonder “whomst the fuck is paying actual money to guzzle 22 ounces of ‘Demon Jizz BerryFister Blast?” Demon Jizz BerryFister Blast is not real (as far as I know), but Bang Energy is. They make Bang Birthday Cake Bash, Candy Apple Crisp, Bang Cherry Blade Lemonade, and Bang Rainbow Unicorn. It also makes another beverage called REDLINE; truthfully I’m not sure what it is, but it looks, uh… intense.
If you’ve never tasted any of Bang Energy’s many fantastical, vaguely threatening flavors, good, keep it that way, your stomach lining/pancreas/everything will thank you. But there are plenty of people who have: Bang Energy reported a 780% uptick in sales growth in 2018, and in the intervening years became an exciting young player in the space. Bang’s sales reached $1.1B in early 2020, but have been sliding ever since—presumably part of the reason Owoc is now trying to get out of the PepsiCo deal that, just a few months prior, he hailed as “one for the history books.”
Of “super creatine” suits and MAGA PACs
My first introduction to Bang Energy actually came not at a convenience store cooler, but via Judd Legum’s Popular Information, an independent accountability journalism newsletter I’ve mentioned here before. Back in August 2019, Legum reported on the pro-Trump donations and social media posts of Bang CEO Jack Owoc and his wife Meg Liz Owoc:
On Wednesday, the [America First Action PAC] announced its fundraising haul for the first six months of 2019. Among the largest contributors is Vital Pharmaceuticals, the parent company of Bang, which kicked in $250,000. Bang founder Jack Owoc and his wife, Bang Marketing Director Meg Liz Owoc, are MAGA devotees. Now, they are using their profits to help Trump win four more years.
In that piece, Legum detailed the Owocs’ pattern donations to pro-Trump PACs, deranged posts, and photo ops with Don Jr., who is the energy drink of Trump children. He also laid out the pseudo-science behind Bang’s dubious claims, including that its product:
included “Super Creatine” (they have no normal creatine in them, and competitors alleged in a 2018 lawsuit that the “super creatine” compound is “essentially useless when ingested by consumers”);
could “reverse mental retardation” and “helps with all forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and other forms of dementia” (the video in which Owoc makes these claims has since been taken off YouTube);
And so on, and so forth. Owoc, Legum reported, also touts himself as “the author of a book called the ‘Bang Anti-Diet,’ although there is nowhere to purchase the book or evidence that it was ever published.” Must be one of those anti-book books.
Bang for The Troops™
Since 2019, the Owocs seem to have gotten slightly more cautious about sharing their MAGA views for the whole internet to see. Meg Liz’s Twitter profile is now locked, and Jack’s 1M-follower Instagram account (@bangenergy.ceo, naturally) is mostly just him shouting about “building the billion-dollar Bang business” and whether high-protein foods kick you out of ketosis, or something. I suspect the couple might have some pretty cool ideas about early January’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but if they do, they’re not posting about ‘em. Bummer for us.
Despite the Owocs’ relative silence, Bang remains vocal about one of the American right wing’s very favorite shibboleths: The Troops™. Bang offers a special case of “military energy drinks” in two (2!) unique flavors—Purple Kiddles and Strawberry Blast. (Don’t ask me what a Purple Kiddle is, because I do not know and simply refuse to find out.)
“All you need to do to get these unique flavors is sign in to your existing account at Bangenergy.com (or create a new one if needed), pick your products, and enter your military ID at checkout,” explains the website. Seems legit!
Why drink booze when you can drink Bang?
As a boozeletter, Fingers mostly focuses on alcoholic beverages, and Bang is not one. Not yet at least, though there’s industry speculation that it’s only a matter of time before the deep-pocketed, marketing-savvy energy drink brands try to muscle into the lucrative flavored malt beverage market. Take the framing of Bang competitor Monster’s 2021 product slate, for sample:
But just because Bang products are technically non-alcoholic doesn’t mean they’re always advertised as such. The brand sells at least three flavors that are 0% ABV but explicitly alcoholic in name: Frosé Rosé, and Piña Colada. (It also has Bang Lemon Drop, which may or may not be a reference to the syrupy cocktail by the same name.)
Back in 2015, I reported on the vape industry’s struggle to fend off cultural criticism while facing serious scrutiny from regulators. At the time, one of the hottest-button accusations for industry opponents and FDA investigators alike was that flavored “e-juices” and pre-filled pods were designed to attract underage users, who would then be more likely to develop a nicotine habit and trade up to combustible tobacco cigarettes. Here’s me for Thrillist almost six years ago:
Vaping advocates I spoke to recognize that this is one of the industry's Achilles' heels. "If you're standing in front of the California Health Committee," said Green, the business-owning YouTube star (who lives in San Diego), "and they hold up a bottle that looks like a Twizzlers but it's 'Vapez-lers!' you're like, 'Ah, shit. Yep. I can’t defend that.'"
Since then, the FDA brought the hammer down on the open-system vape industry, which cleared market space for Juul and other closed-system e-cigarette products. And depending where you live, you may not be able to buy flavored e-cigarettes at all; in the U.S., the Trump administration partially banned them.
What does this have to do with energy drinks in general, or Bang in particular? Maybe nothing! But considering the category’s popularity with young people—and, by the looks of the “Bang Fuel Team,” the target demo is just-turned-18 TikTok power users—it seems a smidge dicey to be hawking booze-flavored energy drinks. It sets up for the inverse of the issue vape faced: if the product is marketing itself based on well-known alcoholic beverages, and young people find they like those tastes, wouldn’t it follow that they’d eventually just go buy the real thing? Seems plausible! (Beverage lawyers: the Fingers tipline is open!)
Also, Champagne is a protected appellation, and one that the Comité Champagne has been none to shy to sue over in the past. So like… how does Bang Champagne even exist?! I’ve emailed the U.S. bureau of the French wine organization to find out. I’ll update if I hear back, but in the meantime, let’s return our attention to the lawsuit Bang is currently involved in.
An FMBang future
After Owoc’s initial shot across the bow in October—to which PepsiCo effectively responded “lol stfu breh”—the two have been bashing it out in a pair of lawsuits. VPX alleges Pepsi has been using Bang’s popularity to push other energy drink brands it owns, and that the larger firm has been “threatening” the smaller one’s former partners to make sure they don’t try to do business with Bang. (One man’s “threatening” is another’s “contract enforcement,” but hey.)
Despite an independent arbitrator ruling in December 2020 that Bang had no grounds to terminate its PepsiCo deal, the latter motioned to dismiss the suit entirely. VPX filed opposition to dismissal, and around and around we go.
The Bang saga is bizarre, weird, and undeniably funny. I love it. But the Owocs’ MAGA messiness aside, there’s massive cash to be made in the energy-drink category, and that’s just not the sort of thing alcoholic beverage companies are going to avoid for much longer. Four Loko’s meteoric rise and catastrophic fall (a trajectory that, incidentally, mirrored the effects that the beverage had on the physiology of those who drank it) is proof positive that alcohol and energy are a potent mix for American beverage brands. Neither that brand, nor Sparks before, could ride the lightning, but another, more-experienced beer/flavored malt beverage company might be able to.
That game may already be afoot. Per BevNet/Brewbound (emphasis mine):
Noting that many beer wholesalers were disappointed to lose their distribution rights to Bang in the first place, Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets wrote in a research note that the termination may be “a precursor to a partnership with another beverage company,” potentially one in beer that can “acquire the assets rather than just distribute them.”
Bang Super Creatine Hard Seltzer: you heard it here first.
The bottom shelf
FREE BEER (writing) MONEY! Good Beer Hunting reporter and Friend of Fingers Bryan D. Roth slid into the HQ inbox the other day to let you—yes, YOU—know that applications are now open for the North American Guild of Beer Writers’ fourth-annual Diversity in Beer Writing grant. Grant winners are eligible for cash stipends up to $1,000 for “stories that can showcase diversity and inclusion – in all its forms and challenges – within beer.” Per NAGBW, female, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities are encouraged to apply. Good luck!
Another Friend of Fingers, Austin L. Ray, was out last week with a great look at Georgia breweries’ legislative wishlist as lawmakers in the Peach State head back into session. I covered some of South Carolina’s own retrograde beer laws when I was still on the beat for Charleston’s local paper, and it’s remarkable how similar(ly stupid) things are across state lines. More to come on this subject from your pal Dave, but for now, check out What Georgia Breweries Want (and subscribe to Ray’s Georgia Brewsletter while you’re at it!)
My first piece at VinePair is live now, an interview with Barry “Mr. Tea” Allen, the dude who brained a racist white guy in a Circle-K with a tallboy of Twisted Tea last month. Allen had a lot of smart stuff to say about the overwhelming experience of going viral and what he views as the “iffy thing [Twisted Tea] pulled off” by reaping free publicity from the incident without really publicly acknowledging it/him. But my favorite part, by far, was his aside on American electoral politics (which came up in the interview because we were just days removed from the siege on the U.S. Capitol.) My questions in bold…