Presenting the Crystal Pepsi Challenge: Coke vs. Pepsi vs. 2015 Crystal Pepsi

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A magical thing happened the other day. Like a ticket from a candy bar, several boxes found their way into the Paste offices. This is not an uncommon occurrence (we drink a lot of beer here) but this box was special. Inside was the sacred drink, one long since forgotten by myself and my millennial ilk.

It was two cases of Crystal Pepsi.

As we marveled at the soda and its transparent luminescence, a thought occurred—I had no idea what it tasted like. Did anyone really know, except those who tasted it for the first time back in 1992, before its terrible failure on the soft drink market? Could you pick Crystal Pepsi out of a crowd, having never tasted it?

So we initiated the First Inaugural Paste Crystal Pepsi Challenge (trademark pending) to see just how unique this Crystal Pepsi truly was. We had tasters from all walks of life: our resident beer connoisseur Jim, only drinks Coke Zero, while editor-in-chief Josh grew up drinking Coke but quit earlier in 2015. We rounded this out with our young, naive interns, who vary in soda consumption from low (Annie and Lauren) to “do you drink water ever?” (me).

The concept was simple: each person is blindfolded and drinks from five different glasses, containing five different sodas. Pepsi and Coke were obvious choices, and of course there was the Crystal, but we tossed in RC Cola and a store brand Publix soda into the mix to get some more data, just to be sure. Contestants—excuse me, subjects—would taste each, and afterward name their favorite, as well as which one they thought was the Crystal Pepsi.

Our test had to be blind, because otherwise it would be a little too easy to pick out the Crystal, so we employed a dollar store leopard-print face mask for good measure and got to work.

josh tasting.jpg

As the testing went on, two things became very clear:

Everyone knew which one the Crystal was without much difficulty, and
There was no clear winner in terms of favorites.

To the first point, the Crystal Pepsi was very distinct from the other four sodas on the table. We all commented on hints of citrus, with almost a Sprite-like aftertaste. It felt like a citrus soda too—while the colas were heavier and maltier, Crystal Pepsi reminded us more of the lighter side of lemon-lime sodas with a cola twist, but possibly with increased sweetness at the same time.

We also noted the caffeine content, and found an interesting statistic. Per fluid ounce, Crystal Pepsi contained 25 percent more caffeine than regular Pepsi. Not quite Pepsi Next levels, but if you’re looking for a soda to speed up your morning, Crystal will be a little more efficient at kicking out the drowsiness. This is all the odder when you consider that during the original release of Crystal Pepsi in the early ‘90s, the cola was actually caffeine free. It begs the question of how much THIS Crystal Pepsi actually has in common with its original version.

Coke and Pepsi, meanwhile, were more recognizable, as would be expected. Both had their hallmark flavors: Coke with a more carbonated and mellow vanilla, and Pepsi with its sweeter side, and both were easy to identify from the crowd.

RC Cola was an oddball, as many were reminded of root beer when they first tasted it, thanks to the more prominent cola spices. Several said it reminded them of old time-y sodas from a soda jerk, and that’s the kind of flavor they would expect if they “went into a Stephen King novel and ordered a soda at a malt shop.”

The Publix brand generic soda was adequate, but a little forgettable. It was usually identifiable simply by its lack of any pervasive qualities – it was a cola, just not a very individual or unique one compared to the other four.

No one named Crystal Pepsi their favorite, though we all thought it was unique and certainly different from what was offered. Most of the favorites went to Pepsi and Coke, with one rare standout naming RC as top cola.

The more interesting part was that many of us incorrectly guessed the other sodas, including ones we’ve drank for years. Both Josh and myself drank Coke for a long time, but only he named it as his favorite—I chose Pepsi. I even incorrectly identified Coke as the Publix brand soda, something a bit strange considering I had a real Coke (non-diet) not four days prior.

Ultimately, Coke and Pepsi tied as the most favorite, though the star of the show (the Crystal Pepsi) was the one we poured more seconds of after-the-fact. We also tested a Pepsi Next afterwards, which is one of Pepsi’s newer sodas that uses a mix of sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners, but if it had been on the table it would’ve been fairly easy to identify. It was … recognizable, let’s say? Not in a good way.

Crystal Pepsi is by no means bad, but it was interesting exploring the range of colas and seeing just how different the product was. It might explain why it underperformed in the first run during the ‘90s, but it makes far more sense that people were simply turned off by its odd appearance. Regardless, it’s probably the only one I’d like to pour another glass of and drink again. Or maybe I’ll just take a break from colas in general after drinking that many in one go. I’ve heard that water thing is alright.