The imported Mexican version of Coca-Cola has long been a favorite in the immigrant community, with its distinctive bottles on sale at bodegas and ethnic grocery chains.
But in recent months, it’s moved into the mainstream of L.A.’s food and beverage world as a new big thing. Ralphs is displaying the imported bottles at store entrances, trendy bars use it for mixed drinks, local chefs incorporate it in their recipes and one brewer even fermented the sugary drink and mixed it in a custom beer. The limited edition brew quickly sold out.
Dieter Foerstner, brewmaster at Angel City Brewery in downtown Los Angeles, said he decided to create a beer using Mexican Coca-Cola due to its distinctive flavor: It’s sweetened with sugar instead of the corn syrup used in American Coke.
The brewery had a contest asking customers for their flavoring ideas.
“The one that caught my attention was Mexican Coke,” he said. The woman who suggested it said she enjoyed the taste after dancing at a club and refueling on street food.
Foerstner made only one batch of 30 kegs in April. It proved wildly popular at Angel City’s bar.
“It lasted for a couple of weeks and then it was gone,” he said.
At Ralphs, Mexican Coca-Cola is displayed at the front of the store as part of the chain’s “Taste of Mexico” promotion. When it’s not a featured product, it can be found in other parts of the store, or even right next to its American cousin.
Kendra Doyle, vice president of public relations and government affairs for the chain, said that the grocer has carried the drink on and off. Sales haven’t been skyrocketing, but she acknowledged that it was something that customers want.
Thomas Ortega, owner and chef at Amor y Tacos Mexican Cantina in Cerritos, uses Mexican Coke with chili peppers for his pork belly recipe.
“Because of the natural sugar in it, it just made a good glaze,” Ortega said. Plus, “it just goes with the theme of the restaurant, modern Mexican.”
Ortega created the dish when he opened his restaurant 11 months ago. It’s one of his top selling dishes.
He also sells Mexican Coke as a menu drink for $3, but it doesn’t sell as well as fountain drinks because it costs more and doesn’t come with free refills.
The bar at Bazaar by Jose Andres at the SLS Hotel on the border of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood uses Mexican Coke as part its Cuba Libre, a cocktail of rum, star anise, cinnamon sticks and lemon juice. Mexican Coke is served as an accompaniment.
A search of the website Yelp showed several L.A. food trucks, including Ruben’s Taco Truck, El Chato Taco Truck and El Pique, sell bottles of Mexican Coke to quench their customers’ thirst.
Mexican Coke has been steadily growing in popularity due to a change that had been made to American Coke’s formula. Before that, Coca-Cola had been sweetened with cane sugar but switched to high-fructose corn syrup in 1985.
Sugar, however, remained the sweetener in Mexico. And, according to published reports, a Coca-Cola bottler in Texas started a 2005 pilot program to import Mexican Coke into the Lone Star State. The import made its way to California in 2006, then to Florida, Georgia and other states in 2007.
It’s been a staple at ethnic grocers as folks who grew up in Mexico tend to prefer the taste they knew from their home country.
Coca-Cola’s official position has long been that there is no difference.
“Taste is complex and it’s subjective,” Coca-Cola Inc. spokeswoman Lauren Thompson told the Business Journal. “It can be affected by many things, including the type of food you consume, the size of the glass, the amount of ice, temperature. It’s a subjective sense.”
She acknowledged that the Mexican version of her company’s product has become a “thing” in Los Angeles, however.
“The product is imported and the product and availability is limited and with that that it carries a certain cachet,” she said.
Customers pay a premium for the bottles. At Ralphs, it’s sold for $1.50 for a 12-ounce bottle, the price of a 20-ounce bottle of the American version.
Will the craze continue? Or will it be undercut by changes in Mexican Coke’s recipe?
Connoisseurs of Mexican Coke swear by it because they believe that it is made with cane sugar. But last year, Francisco Garza Egloff, chief executive of Arca Continental in Monterey, Mexico, Coca-Cola’s Mexican bottler, revealed that the company was considering using more high fructose corn syrup in its Coke, according to a Bloomberg News report.
A Mexican law in January placed an 8 percent tax on junk food to combat the nation’s obesity. Egloff said the switch would help Arca cut costs to meet the pressures of the tax. Arca later said it uses both high-fructose corn syrup and cane sugar in its Coke. The company later swore to only using cane sugar in its Coke, though.
The label on Arca’s bottle isn’t exactly deceptive either. Listed among the ingredients in English is simply “sugar,” rather than cane sugar.
John Nese, owner of Galco’s Old World Grocery and Soda Pop Stop in northeast Los Angeles, a store that sells specialty drinks, said he noticed the flavor when first introduced to the drink years ago.
“It was totally different,” he said. “Oh, my Goodness, the Coke was so good I couldn’t believe it.
But he’s noticed it’s changed recently, too; it doesn’t have the same bite it once had.
“When Coca-Cola is on and it’s made with cane sugar, it just pops,” he said.
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