Friday, August 26, 2016

Crystal Pepsi is BACK!

Also, it may or may not be a genetic engineering experiment gone awry...

By: Jimbo X

Simply put, nothing is more ‘90s than Crystal Pepsi. If you were to synthesize the entirety of the decade – the post-Savings and Loans-spawned recession, the grunge movement, rampant heroin use, Blockbuster Video, AOL, the Sega Genesis, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Starbucks still being a novel concept, Michael Jordan, David Koresh, The Oklahoma City Bombing, the Rwandan Genocide, Pokemon, Bill Clinton getting his dick sucked in the Oval Office and the OJ Simpson murder trial– into pure liquid form, it would taste just like translucent not-Coca Cola. Well, that, or Pogs.

Yes, the same way Max Headroom (with or without the signal intrusion incident) embodies the absolute essence of 1980s commercialism, Crystal Pepsi is pretty much the living embodiment of trying-way-too-hard-1990's-consumer culture. Indeed, the product itself was launched with one of the most perplexing self-important ad campaigns ever, complete with a nigh-impossible to forget Super Bowl commercial set to the tune of Van Hagar's "Right Now." Pepsi's marketers wanted to convince us this was no gimmicky soda ... indeed, it was a full fledged revolution in the American consumer experience. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, all Crystal Pepsi was, ultimately, was normal Pepsi sans the caramel food coloring, and not even pre-Internet people who flocked out in droves to buy "pump-up" shoes were dumb enough to believe the cola juggernaut's self-aggrandizing hype. The way Pepsi touted it, you'd have thought the soda was the iPhone of its day, or some revolutionary new form of democracy - but yeah, it was simply Pepsi that was the same color as Sprite, and that was it.

The strange thing is - and I am SHOCKED nobody ever brings this up when discussing the long, long discontinued product - is that it was actually borne out of a contamination scare. Shortly before the product was launched, Pepsi was besieged by allegations that its products were being tainted with all sorts of crazy shit, with folks claiming to find bullets and needles in their cans of Pepsi A.M. Although Pepsi probably won't ever come out and say it, that had to have been the catalyst for the product - sales were dropping because people were afraid they were going to swallow a syringe, so what better way to reassure your base than to relaunch your flagship brand as a totally translucent offering? (Yeah, I know Wikipedia says some shit about Ivory soap being the impetus for the product, but fuck them, I actually lived through the '90s and I can tell you what really happened.)

Now, Pepsi was smart enough to avoid replacing their standard, black-sludge hued regular Pepsi and Diet Pepsi products like Coca-Cola did in the mid-'80s, instead opting to sell Crystal Pepsi is a tertiary revenue generator. The thing is, the product didn't really taste 100 percent like Pepsi. I mean, the general texture and mouthfeel was there, but it also tasted a little more citrus, like a little bit of Mountain Dew had been sprinkled into it. Furthermore, the stuff went flat in a hurry, with the last few drops of the cola on warm day tasting like watered down Kroger-brand soda. So, needless to say, Crystal Pepsi just was not long for this world. By the end of 1993, the product had been totally axed, although a variation of the beverage was offered in Mexico (of all places) all the way up until 2005.

So, here we are, 22 years since Crystal Pepsi was last seen on store shelves. With overly-romanticized 1990s nostalgia all the rage, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Pepsi tried wheeling out its see-through soda again. I mean, shit, they already brought back Cinnamon French Toast, so this thing was practically foretold in the stars.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the product, we've got to talk about the chemical composition of said product. Calorie-wise, it's more or less the same as regular Pepsi - 250, if you are counting - and there is a shit load of sugar, a full 69 grams. Also, unlike the original Crystal Pepsi, this re-do isn't caffeine-free, so if you just has to get you a buzz from your fizzy soft drink, yeah, this one will get your heart humming. 

The really interesting thing about the product, however, is its - would you call it a "warning?" - that it was "partially produced with genetic engineering." I've never seen wording on any kind of foodstuff hailing itself as the product of genetic modification before, so this one really took me aback. I mean, just how much DNA fiddling do you have to do to make clear Pepsi, anyway? It's not like we're making synthetic dinosaurs out of amber-encased mosquitoes, here - it's just the regular stuff without the normal food coloring, isn't it? ISN'T IT?!? But for real, though, this signage is weird as fuck and makes me feel all kinds of awkward, so yeah, good job PepsiCo, making me fearful that drinking your shit will turn me into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain or something. 

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this is just a downright horrible product to review. I mean, it's the same color as water, that totally indescribable color that I am aghast no one in human history has ever come up with a proper term for. Outside of simply saying, "well, people, it looks like Sprite, except maybe a little bit cloudier," I've got nothing at all to work with here. 

That said, I can go on for a bit about the product's taste - and its weird psychological properties.

First things first, this product DOES NOT TASTE AT ALL LIKE THE CRYSTAL PEPSI FROM 1993. That product had a very pronounced Sierra-Mist like twang to it, and the overall soda felt a little thinner and less sugary than regular cola. This one - for what its worth - tastes pretty much like your run-of-the-mill Pepsi, right down to its thick, saccharine, corn syrupy flavor. Therein lies the true mind-bending weirdness of the product. You see, even though you consciously know what you are drinking is Pepsi, taste-wise, your brain simply will not let you process the experience as "drinking Pepsi" because it looks so wildly different from what you are used to. It's a beverage that literally turns your brain against your senses, playing confused mediator between sight and taste. No matter how much you want to believe what you are drinking is standard Pepsi, you will swear up and down that what you are drinking is something altogether different - to the point where your taste buds start getting confused and you honestly think the cola changes "flavor" while sipping it. Yeah, it's hard to explain, but I assure you it's going to happen while you consume the cola. Shit, maybe that's why the label has the genetic engineering warning on it - it may unassumingly look like a fun throwback to the All That era, but deep down, it's really "MKUltra, the soft drink."

Pictured: something that hasn't been relevant since 1993. And beside it, Crystal Pepsi

Perhaps acknowledging  the intrinsic niche appeal of the product, Pepsi hasn't really put that much marketing elbow grease behind the relaunch. Indeed, it's actually pretty hard to find the product in my neck of the woods - I couldn't find the stuff at any of the big boxes and big name grocery stores, and just caught one at a random gas station by sheer happenstance. Furthermore, I haven't seen the soda released as anything other than a 20 ounce one-and-done container. No two-liter bottles, no 12 packs - in fact,there are no canned beverages whatsoever. That's a true shame, because those old school aluminum containers were probably more memorable than the soda itself - I mean, just take a look at that mid '90s NBA uniform-quality design!

So, uh, is there any sort of greater reason why you should go out of your way to try the revamped Crystal Pepsi? Well, if you never tried it before, there really isn't much of a point, because the inherent nostalgia of the release will be lost on you. It's kind of a Catch 22 in that regard, because even if you do vividly recall what the original formula tasted like, this one doesn't taste anything at all like that, so it's kind of a moot point. A moot point you can drink, but a moot point all the same. Still, the packaging is a gem of minimal design and drinking a foggy, Smirnoff Ice looking Pepsi does have a certain intrinsic appeal. Plus, it's definitely something feeling your mind go into mini revolutionary war mode because it can't rationalize the traditional Pepsi taste emanating from a Sprite-hued liquid. And in that? The sensory-disorientating experience is probably worth the $1.89 asking price - hell, maybe even $1.99, for that matter.


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