Taste Test: Is Mexican Coke Better?

Photograph: Robyn LeePhotograph: Robyn LeeIf there's one thing this country is really great at, it's coming up with clever new ways to take what is a completely normal product, apply a bit of subtle psychological manipulation, convince people that it's something special, and sell it at a jacked up price.

I'm talking here about Mexican Coke, and I do so not without a hint of irony, because I myself am a firm believer in its superiority over regular old American Coke. I mean, how could it not be better? Real sugar instead of corn syrup. Glass bottle instead of aluminum or plastic. The cachet of seeing the words refresco and no retornableprinted instead of plain old pedestrian "refreshing."

But here's the thing. More than once in the past, I've discovered that the brain has a powerful effect on the taste buds. Free-range eggs taste better? Nope. Darker colored eggs taste better. Is New York pizza better when made with New York tap water? Nope. At least my panel of experts couldn't tell the difference. I've done tests where I've fed an entire room full of people two batches of identical carrots, labeling one as organic and the other as conventional. Unsurprisingly, they unanimously pick the carrots labeled organic as superior in flavor every single time, even when they are two halves of the same carrot.

Is it possible, however unlikely, that somehow we-the cult of Mexican Coke lovers-are all being hoodwinked? Does Mexican Coke really taste better? This week, we're gonna find out.

Behind The Bottle

Photograph: Robyn LeePhotograph: Robyn Lee

First off, before we even get to the tasting, let's examine the differences between regular old American Coke and Mexican Coke.

  • Mexican Coke contains: Carbonated water, sugar, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, caffeine.
  • American Coke contains: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, caffeine.

The Tasting Photograph: Robyn LeePhotograph: Robyn Lee

For the purposes of my taste test there were a couple of criteria I had to set up first:

  • Mexican Coke would come in bottles, American coke would come in cans.Of the packaging widely available in America (plastic or aluminum), aluminum is less reactive, less porous, more opaque, has a longer shelf life, and is thus more likely to give me a product that simply tastes more like it should.
  • All Coke must be served ice cold. Bottles and cans would be stored in the fridge then placed in an ice water bath for at least 1 hour before tasting.
  • All Coke must be as fresh as possible. According to Annette, canned Coke and Mexican glass-bottled coke both have a shelf life of 9 months (plastic bottle coke, on the other hand, starts losing bubbles after a mere 10 weeks). I managed to find cases of Mexican Coke and American Coke with expiration dates within a week of each other next April.
Here's what I tested in my first round. All tests were carried out completely blind. Tasters were brought one at a time to taste and did not discuss their answers with either myself nor any of the other tasters until all responses were completely collected. For each taster, tests were administered in a completely random order (both in terms of test order and sample order), and fresh bottles and cans were opened for each taster. In cases where liquid had to be poured from one vessel to another, the utmost care was taken to ensure a minimal loss of carbonation. Tasters were asked to pick their favorite from within each sample set of two.

The Tasters and the Feelers Photograph: Robyn LeePhotograph: Robyn LeeThe spread of results I got from this initial testing was surprising to say the least, and answered one thing for sure: There is a perceivable difference in the flavor between Mexican and American Coke, despite the best efforts of the Coca-Cola company to convince us otherwise.

So that settles it. America reigns supreme in the Coke flavor wars, right? Not so fast. Looking closer, we see something even more interesting: Half of the tasters seemed to have no real preference between American and Mexican Coke, while the other half of the tasters unanimously chose American Coke as their favorite for nearly every test, regardless of the vessel it was served in. We'll call these folks the Tasters-the ones who let their tongues and noses do all the deciding.

The Tasters pick out American Coke as superior to Mexican Coke a full 7 times out of 8.

When you take the Tasters out of the pool in order to determine what the other half are basing their tasting decision on, everything becomes clear: the other half of the tasters unanimously picked Coke served out of a glass bottle as their favorite for nearly each and every test, regardless of whether the liquid in there was Mexican or American Coke. We'll call these folks the Feelers-the ones who care more about the tactile sense of the bottle against their lips or in their hands than the minor differences in flavor or aroma that the product inside may have.

So just to sum up here:

  • People prefer American Coke to Mexican Coke from a pure flavor and aroma standpoint.
  • People prefer glass bottles to aluminum cans from a purely tactile standpoint.

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