Day 243: From Kola To Cola – Inside The Bubbles

originally published August 30, 2012

Lately I find myself taking an increasingly long time to decide which carbonated soda beverage I want to pour into my gullet on a weekday afternoon. And while I’ll occasionally ride the wild seas of root beer, surf the jagged waters of a lemon-lime soda, or explore the untamed wilderness of Dr Pepper’s 23 mysterious flavors, inevitably I return to Coke. The plain-flavor pop. Standardized soda.

But what is the ‘cola’ flavor? I’ve tried many incarnations, from Coke and Pepsi to their hick cousin, R.C., and numerous distant relatives that no one ever calls and invites over: Jones, Happy Pop, Jolt, generic Safeway brand. But if someone who had never tried any of them were to ask me to describe the flavor, I’d be tongue-tied beyond “Coke-ish”.

The kola nut, that must be the answer. Everyone knows that Coca-Cola was invented using two distinct ingredients: kola nut and coca leaves, which come from the same plant that gives birth to cocaine. There’s a super-secret recipe which was safe-guarded for 99 years until some marker-huffing board of directors decided the public deserved this:

Except that the kola nut is passé. The big soft drink titans have moved on to other ingredients. Besides, biting into a kola nut isn’t going to taste like crunchy soda. It tastes bitter at first; how someone came to boil it for consumption with rum, I have no idea. I’m grateful, but I have no idea.

Georgian pharmacist John Pemberton was looking for a cure to his morphine addiction when he decided to pair the kola nut with a dash of coca. He brewed them together into a wine. I have no doubt that the magic elixir did the trick – nothing beats down a craving for opiates better than a good dose of cocaine and alcohol.

In 1886, Atlanta and Fulton County raised up the temperance flag, so Pemberton’s wine had to be retooled into something safer, something with all the joy of coca, but without being weighed down by the evil mistress alcohol.

Coca-Cola’s secret formula was a big thing when I was a kid. People talked about it, along with the eleven herbs and spices in the Colonel’s chicken, like it was the deepest and most sacred secret known to mankind. Of course we live in the Age of Knowledge, which means that there are hardly any grand secrets left. Even if the online published accounts are wrong, the people who wrote them probably believe they’re close enough. Presumed knowledge can pass for the real thing if you hang the right curtains around it.

(By the way, notable author and professional snoop William Poundstone ran a laboratory analysis of KFC and found only four ingredients in the seasoning: salt, pepper, flour, and MSG.)

Any trace of cocaine was removed from the Coca-Cola formula in 1903, and after that it was marketed as a mere beverage, not a “brain and nerve tonic.” They switched to using spent coca leaves, which are leaves that have been processed and sucked dry of any trace of cocaine. Whether or not they continue to use these coca leaves remains unknown; the Coca-Cola company won’t confirm or deny anything about their recipe, including the published versions on the web or in Poundstone’s book, Big Secrets.

One thing you won’t find in Coke – at least in North American Coke – is sugar. High-fructose corn syrup is the new star of the show, which means that the Coke I knew as a kid no longer exists.

Maybe. The common conspiracy theory is that Coca-Cola Classic, the supposed ‘original formula’ Coke that was introduced after everyone collectively decided they hated New Coke, marked the point where sugar was dropped in favor of corn syrup. The reality is that Coca-Cola started easing corn syrup into the mix as early as 1980. By 1985 when Coke underwent its facelift, sugar had been gone from the recipe for at least six months.

Pepsi, who pulled their name from the digestive enzyme pepsin, also stopped using sugar around the same time. Recently they marketed throwback versions of the cola, subbing the sugar back in. It was supposed to be a novelty, limited-time item, but sales were huge. It’s now part of their permanent lineup.

Coke hasn’t been so kind. At the World Of Coca-Cola in Las Vegas, I tried a bottle of Mexican Coke, which still contains sugar and is still sold in the tall contour glass bottles. Jewish fans of the beverage can also purchase a version labeled as kosher for Passover – these bottles also contain real sugar (actually, I’m pretty sure anybody can buy Passover Coke when it’s available, not just Jews). Very handy for those of us who haven’t abandoned our religion because of a passionate love affair with bacon.

So what is the secret formula? Every brand of cola uses its own variation, and somehow they all come out with that similar cola taste. Apart from the carbonated water and sugar/corn syrup, you’ll inevitably find citrus oils from oranges, limes, or lemon peel, cinnamon, vanilla, and some kind of acidic flavorant, usually phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid is also suspected (but of course unproven) to be the reason cola consumption is tied to the risk of chronic kidney disease.

The original Pemberton recipe has allegedly (maybe, possibly, who knows?) been tracked down in an unearthed diary, written in 1888, shortly before his death. It includes caffeine citrate (from the kola nut), citric acid, vanilla extract, lime juice, sugar, coca extract, water, and caramel for color. Then there was a ‘flavoring’ mix, consisting of alcohol and oil of orange, cinnamon, lemon, coriander, nutmeg, and neroli, a plant oil derived from the bitter orange tree’s blossom.

How the recipe is mixed and prepared, or what order the ingredients are added, those are tidbits lost to the ages. I don’t know if people even care about the secret recipe anymore – Coke is just Coke. Some prefer Pepsi, others are content with the generic store brand. A lot of people can’t tell the difference.

In the sixth grade, when the Pepsi Challenge was showing up in virtually every commercial break during Miami Vice, I ran my own experiment. First I surveyed everyone in the class. My numbers may be slightly off, but as I recall, about 20 out of 25 kids expressed a preference for Coke over Pepsi. When I ran the blind taste test, Coke won by a single vote, 13-12. Both the Coke and Pepsi fans appeared just as likely to select their expressed favorite as its rival.

Which goes to show that the real winner is the cola flavor. It’s the standard, and the true global king of soft drinks.

But if you haven’t sampled it, you have got to try Mexican Coke. It’s not the original recipe that put Pemberton on the map, but it’s pretty damn good.

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