Go past the La Croix. Past the Coke, the Sprite. Go past the Canada Dry, and you’ll find yourself in a Cloud Cuckoo Land of sugary soft drinks in any South Florida supermarket.
Behold the Latin American sodas.
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A liquid rainbow denotes a cascade of flavors — combinations you never thought to imagine. But Latin America has imagined them.
Incidentally, some things are better left to the imagination.
If you’ve ever played Russian roulette at the self-serve soda machine, mixing different kinds of soft drinks into the cup you told the cashier was just for water, you might have accidentally happened upon some of these tastes. They aren’t always pleasant.
Two general observations: Cream soda is the chicken of the soda world. Everything you don’t recognize tastes like cream soda — albeit so sweet you might be able to see into the future. Most pack a whopping 30-40 grams of sugar per serving.
And I think we need to have a serious talk about why so many of these are labeled champagnes and beers. I’m not saying you have a problem, Latin American Soda. I’m just saying your family loves you and wants you to be around a long time. Do it for the kids.
We obviously didn’t try them all. Sedano’s supermarket alone carries at least 70 different varieties of sodas and soft drinks from around Latin America.
“We take requests all the time,” said Pedro Mesa, who supervises all 34 Sedano’s stores. “We try to have all the sodas they had back in their countries.”
So make your dentist appointments and come with me on a tasting of the myriad sodas you can find in any South Florida supermarket.
I’ve ranked my favorites. Tell me if I missed any of your go-tos.
1. Iron Beer
Look, I know it looks like Latins like to prep their kids for beer early (see: malta), and I can’t defend this. But I can defend this drink that made its way from Cuba and has been produced for 100 years now.
Think of this as Cuba’s version of sarsaparilla, a root beer that’s less tart and more sweet, like caramel. Call it halfway between a root beer and a cream soda.
Just make sure to pronounce it correctly, as if reading the name in Spanish: EE-ron bear
Everything about this drink wants you to think “pineapple.” The name is a play on the words jugo and piña (juice and pineapple) spliced together. The can is decorated to look like a ripe pineapple.
The taste? Not so much. But kids raised on Jupiña have a Pavlovian response to its sweet, subtlely tropical and citric taste. We will always think “pineapple” when we hear its name.
“If you plan to drive, don’t drink. But if you must drink, drink Materva.” It sounds catchier in Spanish, and maybe that commercial is one reason Materva was such a hit in Cuba that it survived the revolution to be produced (like Jupiña) in Miami.
Materva is supposedly made from brewed mate leaves, which is popular as a tea in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. It’s crisp and refreshing without tasting overly sweet. Oh, but it does pack a whopping 40 grams of sugar per serving. Yikes.
It’s beer for kids! What better way to start them early than this lightly carbonated beverage brewed from barley, hops, corn and water. It takes on a rich, malted flavor, a sweetness like molasses.
Folks in the Caribbean and east African countries like to mix malta with condensed or evaporated milk — because why wait months for a cavity when you can have one on contact?
5. Coco Rico
Lots of big promises in that title. It’s the only one of the soft drinks that tries to convince you it’s delicious before you even open the can. If you’ve ever had fresh coconut water and thought it could use a half-dozen spoonfuls of sugar, Coco Rico lets you skip a step.
6. Inca Kola
This Peruvian soda should be a hit with the stoner-black-light crowd. No need to soak highlighters in water. Inca Kola is already highlighter yellow and is sure to make for a moody glow in your college dorm. Dubble Bubble gum flavor is an added bonus.
7-11 (tie). The ‘champagne’ cream sodas
You’d need Thomas Keller’s palate to discern any appreciable difference between this section of soft drinks, all of them riffs on cream soda. But then, you’d have no palate left and enough sugar in your body to qualify as a carbohydrate instead of a mammal.
Blindfolded and without the benefit of recognizing Yellow No. 5 or Red No. 40, you might be hard pressed to tell them apart.
This “Colombian-style cola champagne” claims on the red-yellow-and-blue packaging it “tastes like Colombia.” In related news, Colombia tastes a lot like cream soda.
The soda war comes to Colombia. Very presumptuous, by the way, of Colombiana to call itself “la nuestra,” as if the country is claiming this as its beverage of choice. If you’d rather drink your bubble gum-scented cream soda, this one is definitely “la tuya.”
We see you there, Venezuela, and so does Colita, which calls itself “la venezolana.” As your liquid spirit animal, it breaks from the cream-soda-and-bubble-gum pack. This one has a slight grassy aftertaste, like Materva.
The color of rosé and a the flavor or melted creamsicle. I could see it pulling double duty as cough syrup.
Original Kola Champagne
This soda is a hit in Puerto Rico, apparently, which is why you can find it at most of South Florida’s Latin supermarkets. I don’t know if root beer-flavored bubble gum is a thing, but this soda would be the inspiration.
Milca’s not trying to taste like anything. It just wants to be red and sweet with no discernible flavor. It proudly calls itself “red soda pop.” Bonus points for truth in advertising.
LAST PLACE. Couronne
If “fruit champagne” were a thing, as Couronne claims, Schnebly’s would have made it by now. But Haiti beat it to the punch. Add a vague “tropical” scent to the yellow-orange cream-soda glow. Not gonna lie: I spat this one out. DNF.