Beer buffs have brewery flights; oenophiles have Napa tours. The sodaphile has but one temple: the World of Coca-Cola at Pemberton Place, a museum-slash-advertisement in the heart of Atlanta.
A red can of Coke is a modern symbol of the bland sameness of global culture, the Coca-colonization of American capitalism, and what Andy Warhol once described as a great leveler. (“No amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”)
Yet at the temple to the brand, the draw—the perk of the $16 admission—is a room of limitless samples where nothing tastes like Coke. Soda fountains are arranged by continent around tall chrome poles, and each drink at each fountain represents a different country. Gathered together, the array represents a muscular display of American capital’s reach, the soda equivalent of a hunting-lodge trophy room. (Still, the one hundred-plus varieties on tap represent but a skinny sliver of the corporation’s 3,500 products.) Through it all, puffing like a nineteenth-century train through virgin forest, weaves a factory line that carries classic American Coca-Cola bottles toward the exit.
Of Coke’s global reach, two continents are missing—Australia and Antarctica. From the vast Middle East, only Bahrain is represented—the teensy island nation whose government announced it would join the U.S. fight against the Islamic State. (Its rep is Crush Lemon, an unthreatening take on Sprite, grouped under the “Asia” section.) Still, the variety on hand is staggering, ranging from Costa Rica (Fanta Kolita) to Zimbabwe (Sparletta Sparberry).
To taste every flavor here is, according to the museum’s website, like treating “your taste buds to a trip around the world with more than 100 different beverages!”
Let’s do it.
My grand tour began at the chrome fountain that hosts Asia’s soda offerings, where two twenty-four-year-old graduate students from South India, Rizwan and Sudeep, were hanging out beside a spigot of soda marked with a logo that they knew well. In South India, the sign had blinked from billboards, glared up out of their mothers’ fridges, sparkled in movie stars’ hands: a red hitchhiker’s thumb covered with the words Thums Up.
No exclamation point; the soda didn’t need one. Rizwan and Sudeep each slugged back a portion generous for what was ostensibly a “tasting,” then cajoled passersby to try some. A group of four women visiting from Korea agreed, but then wrinkled their noses at the flavor—a disappointing reaction.
“It’s stronger than Coca-Cola,” said Sudeep with a salesman’s flourish.
Thums Up, a beverage with the tagline “Taste The Thunder,” tastes as if a can of Coke had been electrocuted in a batch of tangy tea. Zinging burps of citrus are followed by an aftertaste as deep as a fairytale well: a dank, herbal basement.
China’s offering was lighter: a soda called Smart Watermelon that had a subtler, sunnier melon note than the sour-as-a-lemon fake-watermelon flavor foisted on us stateside. Thailand’s Fanta Melon Frosty was as refreshing as a scoop of honeydew gelato bought in a Florentine piazza.
Not everything was a success: Korea’s Joy, a flavor that is hard to find outside of the World of Coca-Cola, had the flavor profile of a sweetened piece of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch paper. VegitaBeta, from Japan, tasted like orange juice poured in a dirty glass. Taiwan’s offering was a spigot marked Sprite, which tasted, as far as I could tell, like Sprite.
If the World of Coca-Cola tasting room reveals the company’s inherent biases, it is interesting that, of all the countries in Europe to choose from, Coca-Cola selected two entries from Germany: Mezzo Mix (a citrus-infused, lighter take on cola that had a nice tartness) and Banaqua Apfel-Birne (a pear soda that tastes like industrial hand soap). Perhaps two German sodas other than Fanta are required to wash away the particularly sour flavor of that soda’s role in the company’s past—in 1940, it was introduced in Nazi Germany to circumvent a trade embargo on Coca-Cola’s classic syrup.
Yet the European column also contains a Fanta flavor—Greece’s Fanta Pineapple, an unremarkable candy-flavored concoction. It can’t stand up to Bjäre Lingonberry, Sweden’s tart but subtle offering, which fulfilled all my ideas of the country: I could imagine a glamorous blonde somehow drinking it while bicycling, even if that seemed unsafe.
Still, the most memorable flavor in “Europe” has to be Italy’s Beverly—which is scarlet-lettered with a red sign that asks visitors to post their reaction to its flavor online and hashtag it #ITastedBeverly.
The drink—an aperitif discontinued in 2009—tastes of grapefruit zest and cocktail bitters, a grown-up blend that recalls the bitter note in a brussels sprout, the bite of an arugula salad. Which is to say, it could not be more un-American in flavor.
With the hashtag, one drinker called the soda “bottled depression.” Two tasters captioned their responses, “Sorry, Italy.” Further reactions can best be described as “yucky faces.” The World of Coca-Cola gives visitors a chance to sample a selection of the globe’s sodas while also giving visitors a chance to reject them as too exotic.
My favorite and least favorite sodas of the day could be found in “Africa,” a section that ranged from Madagascar’s bland, almost flavorless Bonbon Anglais—a clear soda which tasted as though it was flavored with nothing more than simple syrup—to Mauritius’s sour Sunfill Blackcurrant. From Uganda, Fanta Exotic tasted strongly of a fresh grapefruit, in a honeymoon-on-a-yacht kind of way, while Tanzania’s tart, spicy ginger beer Stoney Tangawizi would improve 90 percent of American Moscow mules. It was my favorite drink of the day.
My least favorite soda was the almost bluish Sunfill Menthe, of Djibouti. Its flavor so closely mimicked Listerine mouthwash that swallowing it became a slow-moving psychological exercise; every oral sex act that I had ever erased with mouthwash flooded back to mind, as if projected in a crisp film montage sequence.
Speaking of sexual acts, my fiancé wanted me to include his reaction to the soda Bibo, from South Africa, as though his reaction were also my reaction. He claimed the soda tasted like cum, to which I responded by asking him how he knew what cum tasted like. He said that he had a certain idea, though no exact knowledge, after which we had an argument about why he makes absurd claims that he doesn’t know anything about. On the following trip to the museum, I tasted the soda and I wrote down that it was a nutty, sweet take on coconut water, and was good—kind of like drinking a liquid Almond Joy.
What is a “guarana”? I found myself Googling the plant, as I tried to place the flavor of Kuat Guaraná, Brazil’s representation in the Latin American column. The flavor was somewhere between fake apple and fake cherry, in a no-man’s-land that was difficult to name in a fun way.
Latin America’s flavors were spiky and inventive, playing off fruits or in the fruitless territory of pure invention that is uncommon in America. Inca Kola, from Peru, is a sugary mayhem of highlighter yellow with no defined flavor behind it, while Delaware Punch, from Honduras, is a grape soda with only a third-cousin-removed relationship to the fruit. Costa Rica’s Fanta Kolita is not based on cherry flavor as much as it is based on cocktail maraschino.
But Chile’s Manzana Lift Roja began as a bubbly apple cider and finished off with a smoky, autumnal aftertaste, as though perhaps the apples that went into it had been roasted.
And who besides Paris Hilton could possibly drink Mexico’s Ciel Aquarius—a neon orange citrus drink that smelled sweetly of hibiscus flowers?
The soda section that represents Coca-Cola’s homeland has three times more flavors than the other continents, a fact that could be characterized as an unfair advantage. But Coca-Cola has evened the playing field by saturating the North American section with drinks which have somewhat recently been introduced (Vitaminwater’s “açai-blueberry-pomegranate” flavor) or do not have any kind of wide audience (my beloved Tab).
Fanta Strawberry was a dream from childhood that maybe I had never had—a strawberry-ice-cream-flavored soda that undid the harsh work of Sprite Zero. It was a cruel governess, a blank stare: the negation of soda.
What is there to say of the twenty-three other sugar beverages? They had flavor names like Orange Lavaburst (Hi-C) and Wild Cherry (Fanta), like Passion Awareness (a Fruitopia flavor) and Squeezed Lemonade (Vitaminwater). They tasted like root beer or cherries or lemons, but most of all, they tasted like sugar. I saved for the end Hi-C Fruit Punch Lite. But by the time I got there, I could not bring myself to taste it. What could it have tasted like but all the other sodas, blended together?
What did I learn? It’s hard to say. After sampling even five flavors, the connections between flavor and reality seem to dissipate; the difference between faux apple and faux grape becomes a mind puzzle. It’s as if you’ve repeated a word in your head so many times that it turned absurd: soda, soda, soda, soda, soda, soda.
If the “Taste It!” room at The World of Coca-Cola is like a trip around the world, as advertised, maybe it is because it creates similar feelings of nausea and jet lag. There is nothing quite like the ache of having consumed a Thanksgiving-sized meal made entirely of sugar. And the caffeine overload, like a soft jet lag, refuses to fade.
But the experience is also like a trip around the world because one can imagine that having seen one hundred different countries, one would want, at the end, to throw up and go home. At the exit, standing in the pose of a cruise ship steward handing out life jackets, is a World of Coca-Cola employee. She passed out plastic gift bags of old-fashioned bottles of Coca-Cola. I accepted a bottle with a kind of relief.