Sunday, September 20, 2009

The flavour of the weak

It’s time for yet another fizzy dip.

Spar, the convenience store chain that have apparently been the official sponsor of ‘European athletics’ since 1996, have their own branded cola range. It seems that their marketing people decided that the nationality of the cola is what entices the consumer, hence their decision to go with “american diet cola” – “real american style, real american taste.”
It’s confusing enough that the label seems to call it american cola diet, but the instance of lower case for american is nearly as confusing as the idea that a cola is able to taste American. They even have a little logo on the bottle with a smidge of what looks like a New York skyline, proclaiming “Authentic American Taste” (this part is all capitals but I’m not going to replicate that here unless absolutely necessary).
They might have a point if the recipe wasn’t all chemicals, but the ingredients are the same as most colas. It does say in the blurb that it’s produced in the UK form cola flavourings imported from the USA. Because we don’t have taste labs in the UK, obviously.
Anyway, their heart’s obviously in roughly the right place as they care enough to include the adult GDAs for calories and salt and such, despite the fact that the levels in the drink are all ‘trace’.

On pouring the drink is fizzy, building a good head that lasts a fair few seconds, and leaving a good numbers of bubbles around the perimeter of the glass for a few minutes after the pour. The smell isn’t strong, giving a faint hint of cola bottle sweets. The taste is also faint, barely registering to the point that you could be forgiven for thinking it was slightly flavoured carbonated water; holding a mouthful before swallowing in an attempt to maximise the flavour makes little difference, if I didn’t already know I was drinking a cola I think it’s possible that I wouldn’t be able to identify what it was, besides it being sweet and not fruity.
In the grand scheme of things it’s hard to decide which is more important – for the cola to have a strong flavour or for that flavour not to be foul, but ultimately if you’re so very close to drinking water the only difference here is the added caffeine. Stereotypically the USA isn’t renowned for it’s subtlety, so attempting to sell this on the back of its american-ness isn’t going to do it any favours.

Spar do a vanilla flavoured version of their cola, though unfortunately only in the sugared variety.
Like the diet, this cola has only a faint whiff once you open the bottle, the vanilla is definitely present but there’s a lot less fizz on the initial pour.
First impressions? These are not the droids you are looking for. Taking a good nosefull at the edge of the glass brings in the kind of vanilla smell that you get with a vanilla coke with vodka, except that the mix has been poured in favour of the vodka leaving the acrid, poison smell of the alcohol tainting the bouquet. Hardly a good start. The first gulp fares no better; the vanilla taste is there, but in an oppressive way, coating the roof of your mouth. It is the vanilla of ice cream, but not some rich Devonshire vanilla ice cream, no, instead it has the taste of the cheapest most synthetic vanilla ice cream you could imagine – the panda cola of vanilla ice cream.

After the first couple of gulps the smell doesn’t lessen; that bitter warning remains suffused within it – “stay away, stay away”. And the taste continues to coat the roof of the mouth, barely lighting upon the tongue as if it works along the lines of a strange, reversed gravity.
It seems more and more likely that this cola was brewed using some dark magic.
Safe to say I’ve not found my diet vanilla Coke substitute in this offering.

As cola variations dwindle I have to diversify. To this end, bring on Idris drink company’s Fiery ginger beer. “Try me if you dare!!” The double exclamation marks clearly point to a beverage even more extreme than Pepsi MAX. Imagine!
Who Idris are I don’t know as it clearly states on the back that Britvic makes the drink. It uses ginger root extract, but is it fierier than other ginger beers? Not being a ginger beer connoisseur I have no idea, but I can at least see if it’s fiery.
So, fizzy on pouring but no head, the odour isn’t immediately noticeable on cracking the can, and the colouring is that of cloudy lemonade. A whiff from the glass brings a hint of ginger, but also a lot of lemon as you may expect what with citric acid being a main ingredient. And what does it taste like? Sweet lemon with a very slight ginger kick that mainly takes effect at the back of throat, lingering long after the swallow and threatening to build like hot spices, but never doing so, in a similar manner to the many moments of tension building in the film The Orphanage that see no release. Is it right to use Spanish cinema references in soft drink articles?
If you buy Fiery ginger beer in an attempt to cement your Extreme reputation then you’re likely to be disappointed, I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly resistant to spice and I find this particularly weak.

So, what’s Cherry Diet Coke like? One of Coke’s more enduring flavour experiments, Cherry Coke has been around since 1982, according to Wiki, with the diet variant around since 1986. Cherry happily seems the perfect fruity fit for Coke as it’s sweet enough not to be drowned out and yet retains its particular flavour in the mix.
Pouring acts like Coke, unsurprisingly, producing a fair amount of fizz and an average head before settling down. The smell hits straight away, though, even though the can was cracked a foot away – that unmistakeable, artificial ‘Cherry Drop” twang.
At the lip of the glass the smell is there, and for a fan of cherry-flavoured boiled sweets it’s tantalising. Nothing is given away in the ingredients to hint at where the origin of this nasal sensation is born, but the catch-all term “flavourings” no doubt masks the very same parentage as that of Basset’s Cherry Drops (Wiki search, no I don’t mean “Baroness Cherry Drums”).

And the taste? More fruity than Cokey, though the punch of the cherry is disappointingly subdued compared to the smell that this brown ooze gives off. There’s also a bit of that coating feeling that you rarely get with diet fizzy pop, particularly clinging to the tongue like a second skin. Definitely more viscous than standard Diet Coke, which dribbles down a lot more closely to standard tap water, it’s probably that mysterious chemical that does it.
Not unpleasant then, and a welcome alternative to your common or garden Diet Coke, but definitely not a vanilla beater.
Still, even if Coca Cola are unlikely to win any ethical awards any time soon they can at least bask in the pride of producing one of the most belch-worthy beverages on the shelves. Most gaseous.

Not being a man’s man, I hate ale and beer and this dislike extends to anything sharing the moniker, meaning I tar ginger beer and root beer with the same brush. Whereas the Fiery ginger beer tempted me with a promise of a challenge, root beer I have been recently informed, usually contains some amount of vanilla and so is now naturally tempting.
The Bundaberg Australian Root Beer bottle has an old school beer theme to it, the style of labelling, font, brown glass and the way the kangaroo image is used with the lightburst behind it all conjure a certain association, perhaps making this the tipple for kids to drink so that they feel like grown ups? The liquid isn’t very bubbly and the odour isn’t strong enough to carry; the colouring is very similar to cola and ultimately belongs to the same family of beverages that at one time would have been branded as tonics rather than alternatives to water. Even at the rim of the glass the odour is weak, and reminds me of the mouthwash that they use at the dentists to give you a rinse. It tastes like that to, and is a little thick, definitely leaving a bit of a sweet coating on the back of the tongue as if the sugar decided to hang back after the liquid had made its way to your epiglottis. Definitely not a taste I could get used to as the medicinal quality is never outdone by the sugar, no matter how natural the ingredients or the brewing process are supposed to be. I can detect the liquorice and the vanilla bean to some extent, but not the ginger and I’ve no idea what sarsaparilla or molasses are meant to taste like. Not something to revisit.

My tastes have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so, on from the time when I would refuse vegetables or foods with sauces (which are legion), but this small and unadventurous taste exploration into the world of the pre-prepared Western soft drink proves that I am still quite limited.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Doctor, look out!

I’ve never been much of a radio listener, so when I hear adverts on the commercial stations the form of the audio-only advert always strikes me – the techniques involved; the different methods used in the absence of visual aids. One advert that I noticed while staying with family recently (one of the few situations where I actually listen to radio, as opposed to podcasts) was on Kiss FM, and was a government sponsored anti-drug ad targeted at the mostly young Kiss audience. An actor played out a situation where they smoke a spliff, become paranoid and then get violent. I was reading a paper at the time and the radio was little more than background noise to me at that point, but once I focused on the ad I couldn’t help but release an audible exclamation. I’m sure that situations where cannabis users get paranoid exist, and a proportion of these may lead to extreme or even violent behaviour, but the idea that they were trying to promote this as likelihood rather than outside possibility incensed me.
I never enjoyed smoking cannabis back when I was a teen, though did sometimes enjoy the sensations that resulted, and I haven’t smoked or otherwise taken any in likely twelve years, but I can’t stand the hypocrisy that is flopped out time and time again when dealing with cannabis as opposed to the treatment given to alcohol. True, the government never condones binge drinking and the like, but you don’t need to binge to get a much higher proportion of people having reactions to alcohol that are far worse than those to smoking gear.
This is the TV version of the advert:

Despite the recent surfeit of blokey comedies in recent years, many of which are connected to the Apatow stable (who surprisingly has only directed three films to date but seems connected to dozens), it’s the Hangover that seems to be the enduring hit in the UK and is still screening in 21 screens as of September 12th despite having been released on June 12th, I’d be surprised if Mamma Mia had lasted much longer.
For a ‘bad taste’ comedy which not long ago would have invited comparisons with the films of the Farrelly brothers, the Hangover is pretty so-so with only a handful of belly laughs to be found in the overly familiar situation of people going to Vegas, over indulging and then engaging in a spot of OMG!!11! as they try to piece together the previous night. Perhaps the Great British public find the situations involving binge drinking comfortably familiar.

Unfortunately I’m no stranger to the concept of the lost night. A number of times I’ve found myself regaining consciousness the morning after and having no memory of what happened after a certain point. Regaining consciousness is not the most accurate way of putting it, as this implies passing out rather than blacking out, which is the phenomenon that I experience – a complete lack of knowledge of what I did or said, and then suddenly I’m back. A lot of the time it has to be said that it involved situations where a free bar led to me not keeping track of how much I’d had, or drinking at home or at parties meant that self-poured drinks contained undefined measures, but many is the time that I have eaten three meals, slept relatively well and only had 5 or so drinks before suddenly finding myself somewhere else at a later time. One study (GOODWIN, D.W; CRANE, J.B.; AND GUZE, S.B. Alcoholic "blackouts": A review and clinical study of 100 alcoholics. American Journal of Psychiatry 126:191-198, 1969) suggests that it is the concentration of alcohol in the blood that leads to blackouts, which is supported by the self-mixed and free-drink instances, although it would be interesting (and useful) to discover what variables resulted in blackouts in the cases where I consumed far less quantities and in seemingly ‘safer’ circumstances.

Some sort of homing instinct seems to get me back every time, though most recently I vaguely recall not being able to get into my flat and taking apart my wallet chain in order to try and pick the lock. I sat in my front doorway until half three in the morning when I remembered that my keys were in my back pocket.
I had been to a gig that night but do not remember a second of it; two CDs and a t-shirt testify to my presence there, and perhaps that I enjoyed it?
It’s not a happy time, as though I rarely get up to anything that I would be ashamed or embarrassed of in the cold light of day, it is uncomfortable to think of myself not in control of my actions. Am I really getting on with it, but much more drunkenly than usual, while the alcohol destroys the brain cells that record the memory of events? Or does another part of my consciousness take over while I am out of action – if so who is this version of me and where is he when I’m sober? More likely, but no more comforting, is the idea that excessive drinking leads to a form of anterograde amnesia – a state whereby you are unable to retain information so that you can still utilise skills you have learnt and can remember things before the amnesia took hold (usually due to brain injury), but anything that you experience afterwards is lost to your long term memory (most famously the basis for Christopher Nolan’s Memento).
Obviously in the case of binge drinking the effects are only temporary, with the ability to retain experience returning after the alcoholic influence subsides, but the idea that you can lose memory so utterly is disquieting.
Memory is ultimately the backbone of your very personality, formed as you are from the experiences and interpersonal exchanges that you build up over time – without these the ‘you’ that you take for granted when performing even the most cursory self reference as you look in the mirror in the morning would simply cease to be. You can lose snatches of it and still retain your essential self; but lose the lot and you are dead in mind if not in body. I find the physical connection between brain tissue and memory, and therefore the physical body and consciousness, to be the strongest argument against the popular idea of the immortal soul or reincarnation. Should the soul exist, it very well may ‘live’ on after your body dies, but once your brain is gone your consciousness goes with it – the ‘you’ that is reading and processing these words right now will cease to exist, which kind of makes the idea that you will meet your loved ones in heaven impossible – if brain damage can potentially destroy any memory you had of a husband or wife and a decades-long marriage, there’s no hope of retaining that information beyond the flesh and into the ethereal.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Arm me with harmony

My hunt for soft drinks continues.
Resigning myself to the fact that there is no adequate vanilla cola substitute out there, I still find myself as a night person with a normal nine to five job. This means a certain amount of sleep deprivation that can only be controlled by liberal ingestion of caffeine. As I’m not a proper grown up I don’t drink tea or coffee and so have to rely on fizzy pop alternatives. Red Bull is the obvious choice, its 250ml cans packing the punch of two filter coffees, but this concentration is sometimes a bit much so the next best thing is the 330ml cans of coke and the like, which carry about the same as a cup of tea.
There aren’t that many soft drinks besides cola that actually contain caffeine, and being a drippy ethical sort I’m not comfortable with blissfully quaffing away at the products of the Coke and Pepsico mega corps who aren’t exactly squeaky clean.

The A.G. Barr soft drink company has apparently been around since 1875, is based in Scotland and is arguably most famous for Irn Bru. Irn Bru and Coke regularly fight over the top spot as Scotland's soft drink of choice, but as far as I can tell Barr don’t indulge in any overtly unethical business practises, you know, like condoning the murder of trade unionists.
Thus I was simultaneously pleased to find that I had a taste for that bright orange brew made from girders, and dismayed that the diet variety is pretty hard to come by round these parts. Two litre bottles are found in the odd supermarket but aren’t ideal for a desk-based drink at work, and so far I’ve only found cans in my local shop over the road. For a medium sized cornershop their selection is pretty comprehensive, and not only do they have the cheapest vanilla Stolichnya I’ve seen but also a fairly wide variety of Barr’s other products.

Barr Cola seemed an obvious choice; where would it sit in the cola pantheon?
The smell hits you as soon as the brew pours into the glass – the cola qualities are all there and not dissimilar from Coke itself. A sniff taken from the rim of the glass gives more of a hint of that cola bottle, chewy sweet scent, though. The froth builds quickly and rides high once the liquid hits the glass, but it’s very short lived and soon settles down to a mostly calm, slightly bubbling state.
It’s a very odd taste sensation. Despite being a full-sugar version, it’s not especially cloying, but somehow there is no taste in the meat of the gulp. It is almost as if you are drinking water with a cola lining, the taste seems to be contained in only the outermost edges of the liquid mass that you decant into your maw. The lack of that cloying feel is echoed in the viscosity; Barr’s Cola slips down very easily (probably due to the aforementioned lack of density in carbonation).
Whilst not particularly tasty, this could become a regular alternative to Coke, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available in a sugar-free variety so is no good to me.

Then there’s Ka, the ‘sparkling Karibbean Kola flavoured drink’. That label design doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence.
A lot less fizz than Barr’s simply titled Cola on the initial pour, but it settles in the same way moments later. The smell isn’t as obvious on twisting open the bottle, but at the rim of the glass its bouquet betrays a definite citrus element. There’s fruit in there somewhere.
It just tastes weird. Not very cola-like at all, the fruit seems like some hybrid mix of berry and melon. Is this really “A Taste of the Caribbean”? As with the Barr Cola it only seems to be available in a sugared variety, but like Barr Cola it also is not cloying and slips down smoothly. Again it’s quite a pleasant little concoction but my tooth rot fear precludes me from making it my drink of choice. Besides that, caffeine is not even listed as ingredient, so it becomes even more redundant for me. Still, it’s not the hideous Panda cola-esque abomination that the packaging design might have you believe.

As for Irn Bru itself? Just like the other Barr drinks, the fizz settles down early on, leaving a few bubbles to make for the surface, but on taking a sip you find that there is still a fair amount of fizz present. Whilst it still goes down as smooth as Ka and Barr’s Cola, a lot of gulping in quick succession is going to leave you in danger of rather plosive belching.
The odour has a pleasant fruitiness to it, echoed in the taste that has a definite citrus tang, leaning heavily toward oranges. It makes for a much lighter and refreshing alternative to Red Bull, which seems deeply entrenched within its artificial nature. At least Irn Bru has the good grace to disguise this.
Whilst neither of the Barr colas had ingredients out of the ordinary, Irn Bru does have one thing as a point of difference – ammonium ferric citrate (0,002%), which is presumably where the Irn comes from. Essentially the compound serves as an acidity regulator, so it would be interesting to know if this is an industry standard or serves to add to Irn Bru’s uniqueness. Presumably the standard ‘acidity regulator’ description would be used if the actual type was unimportant?

It’s interesting how certain urban myths are perpetrated and why. Was the MMR jab scare of a couple of years ago down to a slow news week or was there another agenda at stake? The vilification of sweeteners used in some soft drinks is another unsubstantiated rumour that is now taken as read in the same way that most people believe that the Godzilla remake is rubbish even if they’ve not seen it (and I am one of that number).
The article linked below aims to look at how you can dig deeper into the background of a website to try and ascertain its worth as a source, and it just so happens to cover one of the stories that spread about the artificial sweetener Aspartame. It has been cited as the cause for any number of conditions, but as yet none of these have been backed by any sort of scientific research or evidence, and yet it remains one of those common misconceptions – that diet soft drinks are bad for you; the sweeteners cause brain tumours; they can cause cancer; carbonated drinks rot tooth enamel.
Caffeine is about the only exception that has documented effects on health, and yet those who cry foul on diet sodas are likely to be coffee or tea drinkers themselves.

Are soft drinks evil?