Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.
One thing I’ve really enjoyed about living in a country that, until relatively recently, had a completely different system of government, in this case Communism, is talking to those who remember living under the regime. Consistently, I keep hearing about Communist doppelgangers – things that acted as de facto alternatives to Western products or traditions that were shut out of the country. This ranges from Santa Claus, to Lego, and even Itchy & Scratchy.
But perhaps the most noticeable of all the bizarro-Western products that emerged from the former Czech regime was Kofola, a soft drink that can be considered the Communist Coca-Cola.
Kofola was released into the Czechoslovak marketplace in 1960. It was designed as not only a way to make use of surplus caffeine left over from coffee roasting, but also to fulfill a government requirement to find a home-grown substitution for Western, imperialistic, colas like Coke and Pepsi. In a country that cherishes time spent meeting for a drink, Kofola quickly became a popular non-alcoholic choice throughout the nation.
The ingredient in Kofola that gives it a unique taste when compared to its American counterparts is known as KOFO syrup. The syrup is composed of a blend of fourteen herbal and fruit extracts, which give the cola a sharper aroma and more bitter taste than Coca-Cola. Additionally, according to the Kofola Group’s web-site, using the KOFO syrup reduces the sugar content of Kofola by a third, while the level of caffeine is only half as much as “classic cola beverages”.
After the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, the Czech market opened up drastically, and the people of the Czech Republic had a considerable interest in the new and exciting foreign products that were flooding into the country – products and brands which they’d only read about or seen on TV were now a common sight. As a result of such fashionable competitors, sales of Kofola took a significant hit in the early nineties.
Down but not out, the brand made a surprising comeback at the turn of the century. Most of this was due to a massively successful marketing campaign in the early 2000s that touched upon nostalgic fondness for the drink and used quirky, well-received advertisements to revive the struggling brand. Currently, Kofola controls 32% of the Czech soft drink market (just behind Coca-Cola at 35%, but twice as large a share as Pepsi), making it the largest domestic cola producer in the Czech Republic.
The slogan “Když ji miluješ, není co řešit” (When you love her, nothing else matters) was used in the successful campaign at the dawn of Kofola’s revival:
Since the reemergence of the brand, sugar free and lemon versions of Kofola have been released in an attempt to compete with Coke and Pepsi on all levels.
I had the opportunity to ask a number of Czechs, both those who grew up under Communism and those who were still in diapers when it fell, about the enduring legacy of the beverage. Sheer nostalgia from the enduring memory of drinking Kofola during childhood appear to keep it in the cups of the older generations. Those who grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s all agree that they started drinking Kofola simply because it was much more accessible. Sure, Coca-Cola existed, but it was difficult to get; it wasn’t commonly carried by vendors and it was much more expensive when compared to Kofola.
In a great deal of bars and restaurants, Kofola is available on tap and served in a frosty mug, so kids get to imitate mom and dad when going to the pub. I liken it to drinking root beer in Canada, especially those brands which are served in bottles.
The fact that it’s a cheap alternative to alcohol and the aforementioned marketing campaign have maintained the drink’s popularity among a younger crowd. For those who spend their days more actively (like so many Czechs do) Kofola is often the cheapest non-alcoholic alternative on the menu, served cold and in large quantities, making it a popular option for joggers, cyclists, inline skaters, or those who simply don’t care for beer. Keep in mind, water will often be more expensive and served in a smaller quantities than either beer or Kofola.
The taste of the drink may take some getting used to as a foreigner and I can’t say I enjoyed my first encounter with Kofola. However, I have to admit that the drink grows on you after a while. It isn’t as sweet as Coca-Cola, it tastes akin to the classic drink but with subtle differences that you can’t put your finger on – notes of fruit, primarily cherry, which provide something unique and previously absent from a cola drink. It’s available nearly everywhere and impossible to escape while you’re here. Over time I’ve grown to enjoy it and I imagine that I’m not the only expatriate in the country to feel that way.