Paul-Gerhard Ritter was a smart cookie. When the Berlin Wall tumbled in 1989, Ritter, managing director of the city’s Coca-Cola bottling plant, raced to the scene — not to celebrate or pick up a souvenir chunk of masonry, but to hand free Cokes to East Berliners streaming across the Glienicke Bridge. When an East German guard shouted for one, he and a colleague threw a few boxes over the wall.
Ritter’s quick thinking helped secure East Germany for Coca-Cola, but Germans have long enjoyed America’s iconic soda. Since it arrived there in 1929, Coke and its many rivals have carved out a unique place in Germany’s drinks culture, particularly its beer culture — from the popularity of Spezi, a cola-based non-alcoholic drink made by South German breweries, to the national inclination to blend Coke with beer.
That’s right — in the nation where the beer purity law means brewers in stricter southern states can’t use anything beyond malt, hops, water, and yeast, drinkers are adding cola to beer willy-nilly.
How has Coke secured this remarkable position? It’s a long and fascinating story, involving the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, American capitalism, East German copycats, Bavarian businessmen, and much more.
When Hollywood’s top filmmaker, Billy Wilder, arrived in Berlin in 1961 to make “One, Two, Three,” a political comedy in which Coke takes a central role, he was hoping for another smash hit to follow “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment.” Alas, his timing was off. While the film was in production the Berlin Wall went up, setting a more tragic than hilarious tone.
By putting Coca-Cola front and center of a story about Germany, though, he got it exactly right. By the early 1960s Coke was huge. Having arrived in 1929 and then disappeared during and immediately after the war (German Coke bosses came up with Fanta to fill the gap), it boomed in the 1950s, an emblematic treat for the thirsty workers driving West Germany’s economic miracle (“Mach Mal Pause” was the advertising slogan: “Take a Break”).
By 1965, West Germans were drinking almost 4 and a half million bottles of Coke a day, nine times as much as the French, according to a report in Der Spiegel that year. While some French regarded Coke as a mortal threat to the Republic, Germans saw something else.
What that was is complex, according to Dr. Jeff Schutts, a historian of modern Germany at Douglas College in Vancouver. He argues that Coke’s success rested on a seemingly contradictory appeal: It was both native and traditional, having been in Germany since the 1920s; and foreign and modern, having returned with American GIs at the war’s end. “It was associated with the United States, but it was also something that [Germans] knew from before the war,” Schutts says.
It continued to be a cultural lightning rod, inspiring East German imitations like Vita Cola and Club Cola — both available today, having been revived in the 1990s — and featuring in films like 2004’s “Goodbye Lenin,” when the appearance of a giant Coke banner represents a key plot point.
Coke has many rivals, but probably the most potent hails from Bavaria, in the form of Spezi. It’s a blend of Coke and orange soda, a combination that confuses the uninitiated but is beloved by many Germans, especially in the south.
“Whenever I used to take it to a global innovation meeting, people would say, ‘Are you insane? You can’t mix Coke with Fanta! But we can, and it’s one of the biggest categories in Germany.”
The drink was invented there during the 1960s by Brauerei Riegele in Augsburg, Bavaria, taking its name from a beer introduced in 1956. It was inspired by the brewery’s customers, who had begun to make their own Coke-and-orange mix. “They had to open two bottles and some was wasted, so we decided to make a pre-mixed drink,” says Riegele owner and head brewer Sebastian Priller.
Made in six different breweries under license from Riegele, Spezi has enjoyed a significant revival over the past two decades, according to Priller. He says it’s twice as popular as it was 20 years ago; Paulaner, which acquired rights to make the drink from Riegele in 1974, saw sales rise by more than 35 percent in 2021.
Paulaner’s ability to market its version as Spezi is a sore point for Riegele, especially since a court ruled in the former’s favor last year. Others use different names, like Mezzo Mix, Coke’s own version, introduced in 1973 and only sold in the German-speaking world.
“Whenever I used to take it to a global innovation meeting, people would say, ‘Are you insane? You can’t mix Coke with Fanta!” says former European Coke executive Michael Schwarz. “But we can, and it’s one of the biggest categories in Germany.”
It’s not the only Coke-based drink that baffles outsiders. Blending beer and Coke — especially in a nation famous for its rigid Beer Purity Law — is even more out there. And then there are the names for the various blends, which evoke characters in a Guy Ritchie film: Diesel, Dirtbag, Spritzed, Moorwasser, Dirty, Shot, Pilsshot, Krefelder, and so on.
It sounds like a joke, but sales of pre-mixed options continue to rise, going from 1.4 million hectolitres to 4.4 in the past 20 years. The concept started in a similar way to Spezi, with customers mixing their own, but after a tax law change in 1993, the market was open for brewers.
“It’s a huge topic inside the Coca-Cola Corporation. Everybody is aware of it.”
The first to move was Karlsberg from Homburg in Saarland, close to the French border; it introduced Mixery, a blend of Coke and pale lager, in 1996. It remains the market leader. Composed of around 60 percent beer and 40 percent cola, it’s popular among younger drinkers, who use it “on the go,” according to Karlsberg head of marketing Andreas Oster.
“We target consumers in the age group 18 to 29,” he says. “It’s a young product where we always try to innovate to keep the price reasonable.” Sales are “still growing,” he adds, although he wouldn’t get into the specifics.
These beer-cola mixes have become a big part of German beer culture, to the extent that the ability to produce them is now taught and tested in German brewing schools. It’s very open-minded for an industry often characterized as stultifyingly conservative, but one thing, apparently, is beyond the pale: mixing beer with Spezi. “That I haven’t seen at all,” Priller says.
“Never, never, never!”
A lot of things have changed since the 1950s, and Coke’s position at the heart of German culture has undeniably faded. There are so many more options now. “[Germany] has a special role for Coca-Cola, but there are other big markets now,” Schwarz says. “In a recent survey, Italy came out top for the biggest consumer brand love for Coca-Cola.”
Schwarz left Coca-Cola in 2021 to set up FUNQ, producing “superfruit syrups” designed to be diluted with water, with fellow ex-Coke directors Fabian Roschig and Sebastian Kroth. Although two of them are based in Spain, the drink launched back in May in Germany — because it’s a big market, Schwarz says, and because as Germans they have strong contacts there.
The product illustrates Coke’s problem, even in a relatively conservative market like Germany. FUNQ is designed to tackle the two serious issues with soft drinks: excessive packaging and sugar. “It’s a huge topic inside the Coca-Cola Corporation,” Schwarz says. “Everybody is aware of it.”
Coke, of course, has a much more diverse German portfolio now than it did in the 1950s, even if original Coke is still its biggest product. Consumers are less loyal to it, though. “I think younger Germans relate differently to Coca-Cola,” Schwarz says. “It’s now like it was with my and my parents’ generation.”
That’s inevitable. In this age of infinite choice, it’s hard to imagine a drink with the cultural clout Coke once had — but the Berlin Wall seems unimaginable, too, now. Much like the Berlin Wall, Coke is still having a huge impact on German culture.
The article Cola Craze: Germans Love America’s Iconic Soda So Much They Put It in Their Beer appeared first on VinePair.