NOTHING gets the juices flowing like a secret recipe.
It gets the competitors guessing, the customers curious and the press in a tizzy.
Coca-Cola is one of the most iconic products on the planet and it has famously guarded its secret recipe.
When your brand name is worth $67bn, it’s a secret worth keeping. Unfortunately for Coca-Cola, after 125 years, it looks like their secret might be out. Almost every child in the world could pick out a Coca-Cola bottle.
The drink is an international household name, and has prided itself on being a symbol of all that was right about the US of A — the America where everyone could live the dream, where the sun always shone and the waitress always wore roller skates.
I do not drink Coca-Cola often and do not serve it in my cafe. People in the restaurant industry told me the iconic drink could not be omitted from The Cake Cafe menu. I was told customers would be lost if I did not stock Coke or its lemon-and-lime flavoured partner. But I did not want to support such a powerful company, choosing to use smaller Irish suppliers instead.
It is said that only two employees of Coca-Cola, at any one time, know the secret formula and that they are not allowed travel together in case of an accident. Until now, only these two employees in Atlanta, Georgia knew how the concentrate was made; they then sold it to licensed Coca-Cola bottlers throughout the world. A website for This American Life claims to have found an article written in 1979 that printed a handwritten copy of the recipe. The journalist at the time obviously did not know what was in his possession as the article was not noticed until last month.
I have decided to try and recreate the Coca-Cola flavour from the list of ingredients on the website. I am guessing that without specialist equipment it will not taste quite the same.
The original recipe had coca leaves, which are from the cocaine plant. Coca-Cola are said to have dropped these from the recipe in the ‘90s but it is unclear whether they have replaced it, and, if so, with what. The rest of the list should be easier to obtain, or so I hoped. Citric acid is my first hurdle; I dropped into the chemist on my street and asked for it. The lady behind the counter inquired why I would need it. I answered and she told me they had none in stock. She gave me the name of a larger chemist that may have it.
My next stop is a specialist delicatessen for limes, caramel extract and sugar. They have the limes and sugar but no caramel. I am sure life was easier for Dr John S Pemberton when he made the first batch in 1886, but he was a pharmacist so he had interesting ingredients at his disposal. I wander into the health food shop with my long list of essential oils. They have them all, bar nutmeg and coriander. I now only have the citric acid, nutmeg oil, coriander oil, alcohol and caramel left to get. Almost all the important stuff. I call the bakery college in DIT to ask about the caramel. The girl tells me they have none in stock, but have a recipe telling me how to make my own.
I take matters into my own hands for the last few ingredients, after being told sharply by a health-food shop assistant that nutmeg oil is “practitioner only.” I pick up some fresh nutmeg and coriander seeds. I will have to compromise. A cocktail shaker might be my best bet for mixing the ingredients as there are oil-based and water-based ones. First, I have to crush the coriander seeds to get oil out of them. I pour the correct amount of the seeds, with the nutmeg powder, and the other essential oils into my pestle and mortar. I start to bash them, creating a bit of a mess but I can smell the flavours blending. The neroli is strong. How do I get the rough bits out of the mixture? I push the gloppy mess through a sieve. Time for the caramel. I dissect the details they gave me at the pharmacy and take out my sugar thermometer. The brown sugar and water take a few minutes to heat, but turn a rich caramel colour very quickly. I want a rich, dark colour so I leave the pot on a little longer and then set this aside as well. There is no mention of carbonation in the recipe, but Coke is full of fizz. I run to the shop and pick up a bottle of sparkling water as my soda stream has not been seen since the ’80s.
My kitchen resembles a laboratory, which seems appropriate as this is the environment in which Coca-Cola was first made. I start to mix my various ingredients, the vanilla, citric acid, caffeine-type syrup, the essential oils, lots of sugar, lime juice and the fizzy water. I give it a good shake and, with trepidation, pour it into a glass. On first examination, it is much murkier than Coke and not as dark in colour. I smell it. Now I am afraid. Maybe I got the measurements wrong, but this is nothing like that free-pouring liquid we are all used to seeing bubbling out of curvy glass bottles. So here goes. I taste it. Ouch! I do not think my concoction will be grabbing any of the market share away from this global giant. It tastes awful. Even though I don’t drink Coke, I like the taste and I can understand how people love it. Now that I know it contains alcohol as well as caffeine it is easier to understand why it can be so addictive. This recipe has been guarded for so long, but it’s not worth much to the general public.
I imagine it is Coke’s competitors that are licking their lips; you or I will not be recreating this at home any time soon.
Perhaps the flavour of a few of the other famous cola drinks will get tweaked in the near future.
Secret of success
FOR the past 125 years a simple soft drink comprising mainly sugar and water has been drunk by an ever increasing number of people across the globe.
According to the Coca-Cola Corporation’s own statistics, 19,400 beverages produced by it are consumed every second — the vast majority of those being Coke itself.
Two of its products, Coca-Cola and Diet Coke, are now ranked first and second ahead of its fierce rival, Pepsi, and if its advertising spend of about $2.6 billion is any indication, there is no sign of a let up in the search for profit.
When chemist John Stith Pemberton invented Coca-Cola in Atlanta in 1886, he did it with a view to curing ailments. In the beginning, the drink was sold from a soda fountain in a local pharmacy named Jacob’s but it had little impact.
Pemberton himself lost interest in the drink quite quickly and the rights to production were eventually bought over by Asa Candler, whose ancestors hailed from Kilkenny. Candler had an eye for a good product and more importantly a talent for marketing.
The now ubiquitous swishing script was patented and he took the marketing of the product to a new level.
The company made no bones about its use of specially-imported Peruvian coca leaves which give the product the first half of its famous name. And of course one of the great rumours is that the drink carries traces of cocaine; a story that later gained such traction it had to be denied.
Less than 20 years after its creation, Coca-Cola was being sold at a rate of one million gallons per annum. Before the outbreak of World War I, plants opened in Canada, Cuba and Panama. At that stage, the annual advertising budget had already reached a whopping $1m.
In 1919 the company was bought by a group of investors for $25 million and it was around this time that the famous contoured bottle was first designed. The objective of the company was to have a bottle that could be recognised in the dark.
Even at this early stage in its history the soft drink maker was having a major impact on popular culture. By the 1930s it had drafted in the help of movie stars such as Jean Harlow and Johnny Weissmuller. And it is of course Coca-Cola, through artist Haddon Sundblom, who standardised Santa Claus, making him the fat, jolly gent we know and love today.
During WWII, 5bn bottles of Coke were distributed to US troops.
In Germany, the company nearly shut down due to difficulties obtaining the magic syrup for Coke. Having come up with a new orange cola employees were asked to come up with a new name and thus Fanta was invented — in German ‘fantasieren’ means to ’come up with’ or ‘dream up’.
By the end of the war Europe was carved in two and a Cold War began between the Americans and Russians.
After its heroic exploits between 1939 and 1945 Coca-Cola now became a symbol of freedom and liberty. It was the choice drink of the free world, the young and the beautiful.
The American dream was the envy of the world and Coca-Cola was a symbol at the centre of it.
By the 1970s, however, Coke was forced to battle for that position with Pepsi; a company that it had had three opportunities to buy. At one stage, Coca-Cola tried to gain an advantage on its rival by introducing New Coke. Possibly the firm’s worst mistake, customers left in droves and New Coke was eventually dropped.
Apart from that glitch, Coke has always had a greater share of the cola market — although it should be noted that overall Pepsi, with its more diverse portfolio, is by far the bigger company at the moment.
Since its aforementioned expansion outside the US, Coke has seen the opening of plants in more than 200 countries. In some cases they have not always been welcomed.
Just this year a state committee in the Indian province of Kerala, said that Coca-Cola should be held liable for $48 million in “damages to the community and the environment around its bottling plant in Plachimada”. There have also been controversies involving trade unions in Colombia.
But for all its problems, Coca-Cola remains the real thing for many across the world.
Maybe the real recipe should be: “A little pinch of rumour, a heavy dose of advertising, be all things to all people everywhere.”