Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mexican Coke: A Taste Test

Robert Sterling

The times, they are a changin'. Less than two years ago, an article with the above title would immediately conjure up visions of Al Pacino in Scarface or Crockett and Tubbs in Miami Vice. Thanks to modern soda fads, however, most people would correctly deem this a review of Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico.

It was only a year and a half ago my pal Richard Metzger of DangerousMinds.net wrote an article titled "I Am a (Mexican) Coke Fiend" that signified the rising trend. As usual, Metzger knew the next big thing before the average bear, and soon drinking bottled Coke from south of the border became a hipster staple like skinny jeans or being ironic.

Of course, hoodie-wearing Silver Lakers aren't the only ones drinking the sweet brew. Indeed, the Mexican Coke market has become pretty big business that is part of a larger trend. PepsiCo has been selling versions of Pepsi and Mountain Dew that are "Throwback" and Dr. Pepper has a "Heritage" label. Meanwhile, Sierra Mist, tired of being Cliff Barnes to Sprite's J.R. Ewing in the lemon-lime soda war, has changed its formula to have sugar as the sweetener. There's even a bottled version of Mexican Pepsi. Still, Mexican Coke is the Big Kahuna of the movement, in no small part due to the cult-like following Coca Cola has to its adherents. Way before iPods, iPads and iPhones gave iOrgasms to worshippers of Apple and their deity Steve Jobs, Coke has had devotees to its magical potion, made all the more mystical due to its secret formula. (The formula, incidentally, was reputedly uncovered recently on public radio, something you dear readers may not heard about due to the fact nobody listens to public radio.)

Central to the whole "throwback" soda movement is the usage of sugar over high-fructose corn syrup, a food substance that is now demonized (and probably deservedly so) on the level of trans fats, MSG and Nutrasweet. That's why the special Coke is made in Mexico: HFCS isn't used there like it is in the USA. That's because, thanks to the power of the corn producers lobby, corn syrup is heavily subsidized in the United States and is thus much cheaper than sugar. (That's the official explanation, anyway: the real reason is that HFCS is being used by the Illuminati to wipe out Americans as part of their plot to depopulate the planet.) In any case, sugar hasn't been used widely in American Coke since it returned from a brief hiatus in 1985 during the "New Coke" fiasco, even though many believe it's both tastier and healthier. The end result of the widespread usage of HFCS in America is doubly ironic: one, that now consumers seem to trust a food product made in Mexico more than one made in the United States, and two, sugar is now viewed as a healthy alternative in people's diet.

While most of the popularity of Mexican Coke can be traced to its lack of HFCS, there is another explanation that I have been a proponent of for its superior taste. It's not the sugar that makes bottled Coke better, but the bottle. Specifically, a glass bottle, unlike a aluminum can or a plastic bottle, doesn't leach chemicals that are both unappealing and dangerous into the drink. That has long been my theory, as I remember it tasted infinitely superior to Coke in any other form when glass botles were popular back in the day.

Of course, it's one thing to have a theory, and it's another thing to test it. I don't have a Mannlicher rifle and even if I did, the Dallas police probably wouldn't let me carry it to Dealey Plaza to fire it off. But I can buy a bottle of Mexican Coke and a plastic container of Coca-Cola made in the USA, and then compare them in taste. So damn it, that's why I did!

As it turns out, there seemed to be a bit of truth to both theories in my sampling. US Coke had a smoother, more refined taste than Mexican Coke did, but that worked against it, as it tasted more like syrup and less like a sweetened liquid. Likewise, there was a more metallic taste to US Coke, even though it was in plastic and not a can. All in all, Mexican Coke was the winner either way.

Or was it? Keep in mind, this was not a blind taste test, so I knew which was which. Certainly, I thought Mexican Coke tasted better, but was it a decisive advantage like I expected it to be? Definitely not. And while I think I'd probably pick the Mexican Coke in a blind taste test (actually doing such a test sounds like a little too much work for me) I can't be sure. Is it possible my mind was just playing tricks on me with my admitted biases? Definitely.

In many ways, the taste test reminds me of taking the Pepsi Challenge back in mid-80s at Vallco Fashion Park (the shopping mall haven in the tough streets of Cupertino.) I was then, as now, on team Coke (though I do not shun Pepsi) so I expected to know which was which and pick Coca-Cola with no problem. As it turns out, I did pick Coke, but it was in no way decisive or definite like I assumed it would be. Credit must be given to Pepsi: it's brew is a lot better than someone like me gives it credit for and far closer to The Real Thing than I believed. Likewise, credit must be given to Coca-Cola: sugar or HFCS, glass or plastic, this stuff tastes bitching any way you make it.

So what's the real explanation for the popularity of Mexican Coke? The corn syrup controversy can't explain it all: there are plenty of other products filled with HFCS doing fine. Perhaps it's just that my taste buds aren't as highfalutin as that snobby prick Richard Metzger? Possibly. Still, keep in mind, before I took the test, I too was a strong believer in the infinite superiority of the stuff.

I suspect the answer here isn't in the actual ingredients or the actual taste, but the process involved. Just as part of the appeal of absinthe is the elaborate ritual involved in drinking it, there is something to opening a container that's not made of industrial waste that seems pleasantly anachronistic. Personally, it reminds me of being on my grandpa's porch in Maryland as a child, having a drink on a hot summer day. Others may have their own associations. No matter the personal reason, my guess is that the psychological factor outweighs all other reasons behind the popularity of Mexican Coke.

But what do I know? My taste buds aren't the final judge of all things. I encourage you all to try this experiment yourself and give me your own report. For the record, I was not paid by Coca-Cola to write this, though I would be happy to accept a check from them...

For more on the Coke secret formula story:

Coca Cola Secret Formula!!!
Robert Sterling
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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