Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World

Tristan Donovan won my heart with Replay: The History of Video Games and repeats with a story about the cola wars

Daniel Gusev
Jan 12 · 8 min read
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Games and fizz drinks were both present in my childhood. Revisiting the joy from sweet memories is doubled by good storytelling of Tristan Donovan: where the book Replay I first read in 2010, following a review in Wired magazine to which I was glued every month, Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, while published in 2013, came to my desk (or, technically speaking, flew to my Kindle) only recently, after a skillfull re-enactment in Wondery: Business Wars podcast I am glued to today on my way to work and back as well as travel.

The power of soft drink manufacturers, while waning, pressured by conscious consumption and impact on health, is still strong: there are a number of good books about fast-food diet, the habit formed in the aftermath of the war and still supported by hidden network of players producing the ingredients (like sugar) that try to defend the status-quo, armed with tools like science to discover tingling taste of gaseous minerals, tame them with available tech and promote with heavy-hitting, habit-forming marketing.

The set was the same with how it began too.

Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician often regarded as the father of modern medicine, promoted the idea that mineral waters could cure disease in 400 BC.

Hannibal, in the Second Punic War (Spring 218 to 201 BC), upon travelling over the Alps, discovered several mineral springs — one of them today producing Perrier water.

“In 1340 the Italian physician Giacomo de Dondi studied the hot springs of Abano Terme, hoping to uncover what gave its waters their curative power.”

The discoveries from this research in part led him to overall concept of minerals and their qualities for medicine. Yet only in the 1600s the culprit of today’s tingling taste, the ingredient of soda, was discovered in the process of burning coal by he Flemish scientist Jan Baptist van Helmont, a student of Paracelsus, who lived during the times of iatrochemistry and pneumatic chemistry. Where the first is a branch of chemistry that studies the impact of chemicals and minerals on human body (and is effectively prescribed medicine branch, where chemicals are used to tread ailments and illnesses), the second is a branch studying elements in gaseous form.

His work preceded studies by a famous Anglo-Irish scientist, Robert Boyle, who in 1684 published Short Memoirs for the Natural Experimental History of Mineral Waters, where he presented a clear method of analysing minerals in water. Anecdotally, he came to believe that carbonated water could treat scurvy, a horrific disease that came to kill over 2 million sailors between 1500 and 1800 — so accelerating interest in trans-continental travel, insured by medical properties. He was, of course, wrong.

A lack of fixed air in the blood caused scurvy, Priestley argued, therefore drinking water impregnated with the gas would cure it. The Royal Society agreed. In the same year that Priestley presented his findings, the society gave the explorer James Cook the equipment necessary to carbonate water, hoping it would prevent scurvy among his men as he set sail to find Australia.

Cook was lucky enough to have relied on Navy regulation introduced in 1747 to consume fresh fruit and sauerkraut and not on Priestley’s theory that carbonated water prevented the disease — while taking the equipment from Priestley who was once considered for a position of an astronomer on Cook’s second voyage in 1772. He then published a pamphlet with Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air (1772). Improvements were gradually made to improve the method, one by John Nooth in 1775 with his SodaStream, who for one decided not to use pig bladder and his water did not reek of urine. Where Priestley did not tried to commercialise on the discovery of artificial carbonation, others did.

One was J.J. Schweppe, a Swiss German entrepreneur, who took Priestley’s discovery and started manufacturing carbonated water in bottles (that were originally prone to explode), receiving endorsements from London high society.

Then came adding flavours. Starting with a Schweppe’s competitor, Erasmus Bond, who in 1858 started adding quinine and than mixing it with sugar to mask the bitterness — where quinine proved to be a vital anti-malaria remedy, first used by Quechua tribe against shivering and muscle relaxant.

Another innovation — made in a leap of faith, since originally tonic beverages were consumed warm — was to cool them.

Doctors warned patients to avoid cold drinks, and those who dared to sip icy water often poured some on their wrists before drinking in the hope that it would prevent them from dying of the shock of imbibing the chilled beverage.

Packaging and distribution of bottles that exploded was sold with the invention of the Crown Cork bottle cap by William Painter in 1892.

John Pemberton, the father of Coca Cola drink, may have been one of the numerous tinkerers trying to create a perfect beverage, especially at the time of temperance movement killing the business of alcohol drinks, so he experimented with coca and cola nut that energised those drinking his tonic (in fact, tonics will save the day for putrid alcohol brewed at the time of Prohibition, masking the odours). He sold the patent to the drink, then laborously acquired by Asa Candler.

Differed tastes and numerous tonic brands appeared since that times. What became important then was the distribution (mastered by Coca Cola that was the first to license of bottling the sypup infused soda with regional players and the financial prowess leveraged by loans secured by the original recipe) and marketing communication that shifted from just the drink to how that was perceived.

The famous bottle shape designed in 1913 allowed the customer to chose the bottle as one took it from a cold water pit filled with other bottles.

Statistical methods (Coca Cola started it 1923) analyzed the shopping habits of forty-two thousand drugstore customers and then used the results to teach soda fountain operators how to sell more Coca-Cola.

When in 1928 it predicted the economic crash, the company could better prepare itself for the upheaval. It then used the desolated space of billboards and bought them virtually for free, populating the whole of the US with the Coca Cola brand. The Depression and the availability of billboards stimuated the famous St. Nick with a bottle. Used by alcohol brands, nowhere to be seen in the time of Prohibition, he got his red dress, savouring the fizz drink with a smile.

Partially inspired by Clement C. Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” Sundblom painted a smiling, ruddy-faced Santa toasting the audience with a glass of Coca-Cola.

World fairs helped too. Especially, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Even by the grand standards of world’s fairs, this was a biggie. It cost $50 million to put on, and the site for the seven-month event packed 1,500 buildings into 1,240 acres. By the time the fair ended in December 1904, around twenty million people had visited the site. The exposition popularized the concept of convenience food, with visitors treated to an enormous selection of sweet drinks, instant hot snacks, and sugary treats. As well as Dr Pepper, Coca-Cola, and Hires Root Beer, many visitors got their first taste of iced tea, peanut butter, Jell-O, ice cream cones, and cotton candy. The event also popularized hot dogs and hamburgers as we now think of them. Most of these products existed before the event, but the coming together of these sweet beverages and handy snacks in St. Louis showed them in a new light. Instead of being a collection of disparate products, they could now be seen clearly as part of a new all-American cuisine unified by common traits of being quick, tasty, instantly satisfying, and rarely, if ever, demanding the use of a knife or fork.

A successful business Coca Cola built in Germany remained in good hands during the Nazi rule. Prohibited from importing the syrup, the business got inventive. It started producing soda made out of fruit waste that would otherwise end up in trash heaps, such as the apple pulp from cider presses. Coca-Cola Germany named it Fanta.

Then came the Khrushchev visit to the US and the dalliance between Nixon and Pepsi to woo the Soviets of the American way of life (and drinking Pepsi). The support of Cola and Pepsi pretty much remained alongside party lines, thus helping Cola to respond at the times of Carter and striking a deal with China.

The sugar wars was an indelible part of the cola wars. When artificial sweeteners were starting to threaten sugar producers, the latter funded research with 600 000 USD in 1969 to study cyclamate impact on health of rats.

Abbott Laboratories plied rats with the sweetener for eighteen months and reported that the rodents had developed cancerous bladder tumors. Big Sugar had found its silver bullet. That the unfortunate rats were pumped with so much cyclamate that a human would need to gulp down more than five hundred Frescas a day to consume an equivalent amount didn’t matter.

The fight over saccharin eventually ended in 2000 when it was discovered that it caused cancer in rats due to a toxicological mechanism that didn’t exist in humans.

Coke won the artificial sweetener round (with Diet Coke soon eclipsing the sales of Pepsi) in part because it was led at the time when it mattered by a former chemist who was in charge of the Diet project.

Goizueta knew the Coca-Cola recipe, and as a chemist, he knew it was just that: a recipe, not some holy relic with magic ingredients. His job was to increase the value of Coca-Cola shares, not to defend tradition. So he started reducing the amount of sugar in Coke, replacing it with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which was cheaper than sugar but tasted pretty much the same. By the end of 1984, Coca-Cola fountain syrup contained no sugar, just HFCS, and sugar accounted for just a quarter of the sweetener used in the bottled and canned versions of the drink.

Aspartame tasted better than saccharin and, at that time, was free from the cancer scares that so damaged the image of diet soda in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was also only available to Coke initially, as the company bought all the supplies before Pepsi could react. By the summer of 1984 Diet Coke was sweetened with 100 percent aspartame while Diet Pepsi was stuck with saccharin and its metallic aftertaste for a couple more years.

There are many more great stories in the book (not even quoting the colas space race or Michael Jackson Billy Jean . A highly recommended one to read for oneself.


Concise Summaries of Inspiring Books read at 36000 feet and…

Daniel Gusev

Written by

10+ years, 2 labs, 1 bank, 2 startups, 1 exit. Digital banker, wishful tinkerer, amateur father. Fintech VC @gauss_vc and co-founder of @finfitapp.



Concise Summaries of Inspiring Books read at 36000 feet and below

Daniel Gusev

Written by

10+ years, 2 labs, 1 bank, 2 startups, 1 exit. Digital banker, wishful tinkerer, amateur father. Fintech VC @gauss_vc and co-founder of @finfitapp.



Concise Summaries of Inspiring Books read at 36000 feet and below

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