Looking for the Real Thing

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The full can of Coke II I purchased on eBay in 2005.

A quick note: this first appeared on my old blog, Inane Crap, back in 2005.

Soda has always fascinated me. I think it’s mainly because when I was a kid, I didn’t get to drink it very often. Aside from the occasional bottle of Schweppes raspberry ginger ale, all of the dinnertime drinks at my house consisted of chocolate milk and Tetley instant iced tea. Of course, that’s not as healthy as you think — it was whole milk, and Tetley iced tea mix is essentially brown-colored sugar water. That doesn’t mean that I completely missed out on drinking soda (I wasn’t raised by one of those nuts). It was, according to my parents “a treat” to have a bottle of Coke in the fridge, so whenever there was one present, my sister and I usually went to town.

My lack of carbonated elixir during my elementary school years meant that I kind of went hog wild drinking it in college, but it also meant that I more or less missed out on one of the most infamous screw ups of the 1980s. That is, I’m hard pressed to remember New Coke. I knew of it, of course, but being that I was eight years old when it debuted in 1985, I cannot recall how it tasted, even though it’s pretty likely that I had it at a family party or some other function. I’ve always been curious about its taste — after all, it was only on the market as Coke for a short time because the backlash upon its introduction was so negative, it made an anti-abortion rally look like an episode of Barney & Friends. Coke rescinded, rebranded, and reintroduced its original soda as Coca-Cola Classic in 1986 and New Coke became Coke II. It was available nationwide until the mid-1990s before being phased out in all but a few Midwestern states.

As I tend to be with most things that involve random foodstuffs, I’ve been wanting to try this cola for a very long time. I looked for it wherever I could, and even had a scout in Chicago try to track it down. Alas, that was all to no avail, and a few weeks ago, I discovered why. Coke has a 1-800 number that you can call with weird queries such as this, and one day while bored at work, I decided to give them a call and ask about Coke II. My operator was a very nice woman who seemed genuinely interested, and amused by my question. She put me on hold and a few minutes later, told me that unfortunately, Coke II was no longer manufactured. I thanked her and hung up, then turned to the Internet, where I quickly found a full can for purchase. $5.00 and a week later, a full can of Coke II that had expired in November 1996 was sitting on a shelf in my refrigerator, waiting for me to formulate a plan for drinking it.

Okay, I know how to drink a can of soda. But as I examined this artifact, with its red-white-and-blue design, lack of a “big mouth,” and bold italic “Coke II” logo, I realized that I had an important choice to make. I could crack open the can and go for it, or drag it out in some elaborate and unnecessary way.

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C2, which was discontinued in 2007. (image via Wikipedia)

Naturally, I went for the latter and decided to conduct an experiment — more specifically, a taste test. Armed with a couple of dollars, I went to a local convenience store and bought three bottles of soda. The first was Coca-Cola, which was an obvious choice, since it was the original cola formula (some Coke aficionados claim it’s not. I don’t care). The second was Pepsi. This was important because it’s the raison d’être for New Coke because back in the early 1980s, Coke lost to Pepsi in a nationwide taste test. Lastly, I purchased a bottle of C2, which had been introduced as a “low carb” cola during last year’s Atkins-induced societal meat sweats. It’s essentially the halfway point between Coke and Tab (which is a lab accident all its own), but since it apes the Coke II name, it kind of made sense to give it a try.

The first thing I evaluated was the sodas’ color and aroma. I would have gone with the packaging, but since Coke II was not available in a bottle back then, I felt that it was at a slight disadvantage. I opened each soda and poured a glass, sampling and smelling. Coke had a musky scent, kind of like Old Spice; and it had a color to match. What was interesting is that Coke also had the most violent bubbling out of all four. Pepsi’s color was brighter and the smell was sweeter. C2 and Coke II were very similar to their inspirations — C2 looked like Coke, while Coke II actually held its own as a Pepsi impersonator.

I did two distinct taste tests for each soda. The first was a straight sip. Like one does when he samples wine, I took in the bouquet of each glass and then sipped the soda, swirling it in my mouth before swallowing, and then cleared my palate with water. Coke tastes much like its scent. It’s heavy, thick and biting in a way that’s actually a bit indescribable, but I guess “licorice” would come pretty close. Similarly, C2 was heavy and lived up to its hype. In other words, it had the heavy, sugary taste and texture of Coke. But it also had a distinct aftertaste, which you’d probably associate more with Diet Coke. I don’t think they’re going to be replacing the much-beloved “silver bullet of cola” anytime soon, though.

When it came to Pepsi, I pretty much knew what to expect. It has a much sweeter taste and usually isn’t as heavy as Coke. However, there are few things in the world that are worse than warm Pepsi, especially when it goes flat and takes on the taste of orthodontic cement. I thankfully got my Pepsi down the hatch in time for it to be both cold and popping. It’s not my favorite cola at all, but it did serve as a nice prelude to what would be the ultimate taste test and the whole reason I got involved in this endeavor.

I cleansed my palate and took a nice-sized sip of Coke II. It was kind of thick and went down like maple syrup. It tasted like musty Pepsi, and I found myself making several faces of disgust.

But that wasn’t the end. After all, what is soda without a snack? I grabbed a box of reduced fat Cheez-Its and decided to test each soda’s snack food interaction abilities. To make this a not at all scientific process, I grabbed a handful of crackers and shoved them into my pie hole in a very Blutarsky-like fashion. After chewing for a few moments, I had a nice-sized bolus going and decided that was the moment at which to wash the Cheez-Its down. Coke added phlegm and didn’t help with swallowing. Pepsi was once again too sweet, but did break the bolus up quite nicely. C2 was exactly like coke and the aftertaste made me twitch, which can’t be a good sign. Finally, the Coke II was a great swallowing aid, but the musty taste made the crackers taste kind of aged. You know, like exposure to nine-year-old soda instantly made them stale or something.

Next was the chemistry portion of the test. When I was a little kid, I had this secret soda formula that I’d use whenever I was at Burger King. I’d start with a base of Coke and add Sprite, then orange soda. Every once in a while, I’d add a splash of root beer for some bite. Yeah, it was disgusting, but when you’re a kid, you’ll eat dirt. In the spirit of those grand experiments of my youth, I mixed all four sodas in one pint glass. The amounts were relatively equal. I mean, I didn’t measure or anything, but I did briefly count to three before I finished pouring. The color stayed the same, obviously, and the aroma was more Coke than Pepsi. Being that I was uncertain of how the various sugar compositions would blend and/or settle, I stirred the concoction with a spoon. Said spoon neither tarnished nor corroded, so I took that as a good sign. I let the fizz settle and then took a mighty swig.

Now, I don’t usually soak my dirty socks in water and then wring them out into a glass, but I’m sure that by mixing these sodas, I captured that particular taste better than anyone ever has. At first, all I could taste was Coke, and it was okay, but upon my second sip, I was instantly transported back to my high-school gym locker room, with my once-was-white-but-now-is-gray-because-I-never-washed-it T-shirt and obliterated Chuck Taylors. It was a strange kind of nostalgia that started pleasantly but ended in horror and me pouring the rest of the crap down the sink. Thankfully, I can still see clearly.

My final test was the most important, and that was endurance. No, I wasn’t going to leave all four sodas out in the hot sun for hours and see how they decomposed or anything like that. I was going to chug. This was the experiment that had the most human error associated with it, especially considering I’m not the best at chugging any sort of beverage. But I did my best and went to town on all four. Coke lasted 5 seconds and was followed up with a concise but loud belch, which was disappointing. Usually, Diet Coke makes me sound like Booger, and I was hoping for that from at least one of these sodas. The Pepsi was a second less and had a more baritone belch, but it was just as short. The closest I got to a Diet Coke belch was with the C2, which, after a 7-second chug, had me let fly with three voluminous notes that would make any pro proud.

I was able to chug Coke II the longest, for 8 seconds, and when I didn’t feel a belch, I went back for more, finishing the can a few moments later. No belch came after that, either, as I wanted to vomit so badly that all I could do was gag for about thirty seconds before crushing the can and then downing about a liter of water so I could taste something that wasn’t noxious.

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