Rob Hardy on books


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Bubbling Drinks through the Centuries



Rob Hardy


We drink lots of water in different forms, with lots of stuff dissolved in it to make it more interesting. One of the things we like in our water is bubbles, just a bit of fizzy gas. Add some color and a little flavor and a little sweetener, none of which are too terribly expensive, and you can charge a lot for it and make billions. And that is the story in Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World (Chicago Review Press) by Tristan Donovan, who has previously written a history of another mild addiction, video games. It is surprising how much history, politics, science, law, and medicine is conveyed here, as if the world's society revolves around soda pop. For sheer entertainment by means of surprising facts and situations, Donovan's book is a delight, and I do not have to say that it is bubbly or sparkling or effervescent, but I couldn't resist. 




"Taking the waters" has always been a pull, with people traveling long distances to gain the supposed benefits of a particular spring. In some places, like the springs from which Perrier gets its supply, the water has a natural carbonation which has been a particular draw. (Hannibal, his army, and his elephants drank from the Perrier spring in what is now Vergeze, France, in 216 BCE.) In the eighteenth century, scientists started trying to understand the minerals and gases that were in the water, and Joseph Priestley (more famous for discovering oxygen) felt that bubbling water was particularly good for the ill, and he experimented with "Impregnating Water with Fixed Air." He found he could get some carbonation into water if he poured it back and forth in containers over vats of fermenting beer, and he invented a gadget that used piping and a pig's bladder to mix up water, sulphuric acid, and chalk in just the right way to produce fizzy water. It didn't cure scurvy as some had said it did, but it was just as delightful to drink as waters that bubbled naturally. It was the dawn of the age of soda pop. 




No one knows who started flavoring the sparkling water, but such drinks were popular before 1800. One Jean Jacob Schweppe used more refined mechanisms than Priestley's to carbonate the water drawn from Lake Geneva. He moved to London, and his mineral water became a fad in the 1820s. He eventually got rich and got out of the business, but his name lives on, emblazoned upon cans and bottles the world over. The capturing of soda within containers is a story in itself; stoneware bottles let the fizz out, and glass was often too weak to hold in pressure without exploding. In America, only glass imported from Britain had such strength, and in 1806 when there was a ban on imports, Benjamin Silliman, an early American scientist, started selling soda water by the glass in his store in New Haven. "It was the fork in the road," writes Donovan, "America's approach to carbonated water found its own direction, one distinct from the bedside gasogenes of France and the bottled waters of Britain. This direction took carbonated water into an environment closer in spirit to the bar or the coffeehouse, and it turned soda drinking into a social, public activity open to people of all classes." In other words, Silliman had invented the soda fountain. When he tried to bring his invention to New York, he faced competition from others who wanted to make soda fountains into pleasure palaces. One of the fears that had to be conquered before we had chilled soda drinks was the commonplace worry that ice cold water was deadly; once people had accepted that the refreshment of a cold drink was worth the risk of death it posed, drinking soda cold was thereafter the style, setting up new engineering problems for ice delivery. 




Naturally much of Donovan's book is taken up by the Coke and Pepsi war. From the beginning, Coke's success was built on advertising, with posters, coupons, and streetcar signs being used in an initial campaign of 1887. Coca-Cola caught on, but its popularity was restrained in 1907 when the Army refused to sell it to soldiers because of complaints that it had alcohol and cocaine in it. The Department of Agriculture got a report from one of its members "of Coca-Cola fiends hanging out in Atlanta soda fountains, of soldiers driven wild by mixing whiskey and Coke, and of four-year-old children drinking it from beer jugs." When the fears about alcohol and cocaine in Coke proved groundless, government agents stirred up fears about caffeine. Dr. Pepper came along and assured customers that it had no "injurious drugs" in it. Pepsi-Cola, created in 1898 and designed to help with indigestion (dyspepsia), wanted to fill the same niche.  




And so the war between the giants began, and Donovan describes plenty of battles and skirmishes. Coke came up with its distinctive hourglass bottle in 1913, a move to distinguish itself tactilely from the other bottled drinks in the tubs of ice and water from which stores sold soft drinks. In perhaps the most brilliant strike of the war, Coke avoided the problem of sugar rationing in World War II by insisting that our boys in Europe were fighting for such freedoms as drinking Coca-Cola, and that bottling plants were needed over there. The plants remained to churn out the drink for grateful Europeans who took to the symbol of America and liberty. Coke arranged to hand out free Cokes to East Europeans crashing through the Berlin Wall in 1989. They had never had it, but they all knew what it was. Pepsi rallied by marketing to black Americans in the forties and fifties, and (without actually changing its formula) it bragged that it was "The Light Refreshment" when people started worrying about calories. It also caught the youth wave in its "You're in the Pepsi Generation" ads of the sixties, and got a famous ad starring Michael Jackson. But Coke got launched into space on the Shuttle in 1985, in an especially designed can with a safety lock and spout. 




Donovan reviews the "New Coke" debacle of 1985, and the worries that colas had too much sugar or artificial sweeteners in them. It might be that the campaigns against empty sweets and huge portions will bring down the two giants, but there is a surprising strike coming from outside. Just as craft beer has been getting attention from those who take beer seriously, there is a craft soda movement. Individual brands pose no challenge to Coke or Pepsi, but collectively they make a difference. For instance, Jones Cola has a loyal following of drinkers who submit their photos to be included on the labels, and who get a kick out of trying the novelty of flavors like turkey and gravy for Thanksgiving. Brooklyn Soda Works makes a drink of apple and ginger, and one of cucumber, lime, and sea salt, and has deals to sell their products to upscale restaurants in New York. Things are changing so much that it is impossible to predict what the soda shelves will look like ten years from now, except that if the past 250 years are any guide, we are still going to be hankering for our fizzy drinks of whatever new formulas.



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