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?


  1. I love your drinks posts. Especially since I see some of these products in my local Turkish shop - who have an astonishing range of soft drinks - and wonder who the hell buys them.
    Well you do, eh?

  2. What do you love about it? That I treat something frivolous so seriously?

    I do buy them, but only the once. Apart from Irn Bru.