Coca-Cola Mexicana

by John. T. Edge - April/May 2009

Why cane-sugar Cokes from south of the border are creating a buzz stateside

Photograph by John Autry

Taqueria La Oaxaquena, nine miles south of downtown Atlanta, by way of Tara Boulevard, is famous for tlayudas, gargantuan takes on what you may know as quesadillas. Its carne asada–layered riff recalls the wood-fire-roasted version I once ate at a late-night stall perched at the gates of the cathedral on the zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico. Also on the menu are Coca-Colas Mexicana, priced at $2.25. They recall, counterintuitively, a taste from my Georgia youth. Incised with the slogans Hecho en Mexico and Refresco, bottled by Bibidas Mundiales in Monterrey, they are the most expensive nonalcoholic drinks served. A quick look at one of the white labels, plastered in seeming afterthought to a faceted green bottle, tells you why: Azúcar.

That’s sugar. Cane sugar, more than likely. While American bottlers have, since the 1980s, sweetened their Coca-Colas with high-fructose corn syrup, many, if not all, Mexican bottlers cleave to the old ways and, by extension, the old Coke recipe. (Among the reasons are arcane trade tariffs and raw materials costs.) A thriving gray-market trade has developed. Mexican Coke is now sold across the United States, from border towns like San Diego, California, and Houston, Texas, to the burbling heart of Coca-Cola country, Atlanta, Georgia—the hometown of America’s most fabled brand.

Mexican migrants, the customers of American bodegas and taquerias, were early adopters. They recognized the heavy returnable bottles as totems of home. They argued that a proper Coke deserved more than a mere aluminum or plastic conveyance. That the thick glass bottles sustained a greater wallop of carbonation. They claimed the fizzy brown water within tasted somehow sweeter, but less saccharine. That Mexican-bottled Coke was somehow more caramel-y. Somehow better.

Green and gourmet consumers followed. Acolytes of journalist and gastro-activist Michael Pollan pointed out that our daily caloric intake is too corn-centric. (Once the scourge of dentists and parents alike, sugar, in light of recent Surgeon General reports on the potential perils of high-fructose corn syrup, has been redeemed.) Readers of glossy food magazines, focused on what Dana Cowin of Food & Wine calls luxocratic indulgences, began demanding the best pizzas, the best burgers, the best beers, and yes, the best possible Cokes. Excepting Passover—when some American bottlers sell a corn-free version in areas with a high concentration of Jewish consumers—that means imported Coke, trucked into the United States by the trailer load, to the consternation of American Coca-Cola bottlers, who lament the loss in sales, but with the assent of the U.S. Customs office, which cares only that the product is not counterfeit.