www.ethanwiner.com - since 1997

Ethan's Soda Blind Test

When I was a kid 50 years ago I used to love Coca Cola. As I got older I found it too sweet, and years ago I switched to flavored seltzer as my usual soft drink. But I always remembered how great Coke tasted back then, especially when served very cold over ice. Soda manufacturers switched long ago from real sugar to corn syrup, but last year I read that Coca Cola made from cane sugar is now available again. One review said the cane sugar version is much better than the regular Coke sold in most stores. I was intrigued, and wondered if Coke made with cane sugar would have that great taste I so fondly remembered.

The last time I was at Costco I spotted Coca Cola made with cane sugar, and I immediately bought a case. The Coke was even in old fashioned glass bottles, rather than the plastic bottles and cans sold at the supermarket. As soon as I got home I eagerly opened a bottle, and poured it over a glass full of ice. It tasted good, but not as wonderful as I had remembered. In fact, it didn't seem to taste very different from regular Classic Coke.

My work in audio has taught me that human senses are fickle and fleeting. Music that sounds great one day might sound not so great the next day, or even five minutes later. Every time you play a piece of music it sounds a little different, and often you pick out details you never noticed before. As the old joke goes, "An audiophile can always tell which amplifier he's hearing, as long as he can see the label." The same is true for our taste buds. For example, a glass of wine can taste different depending on what you ate or drank previously.

So the next time I went shopping I bought a 16 ounce plastic bottle of regular Coca Cola, and had my wife Elli give me a blind test to see if I really preferred the cane sugar version, or if I could even tell a difference. Elli set up two glasses side by side on the counter (no ice), and filled one with each type of Coke while I looked away. Then I tasted them in turn to see which I preferred. The first one seemed to taste better than the second. But when I reversed the order and tried the second one first, that time the other one seemed better! After going back and forth several times I realized I honestly couldn't tell one Coke from the other, though I found it interesting that whichever sample I tried first after a brief pause seemed to taste better.

Fast forward a few weeks. I've always loved Cream soda, and sometimes I'll drink that instead of seltzer. I'm a cheapskate, so at the supermarket I buy whatever is on sale or the store brand. One day I opened a can of Main Street Cream Soda from Stop & Shop, and for the first time I noticed it tasted cheap. Not watery or awful, just not as rich as I imagined a good cream soda should taste. So again I had Elli set up a blind test, to help me separate fact from fantasy. If I really could taste an improvement with a better brand, I'd be willing to pay more and switch.

This time I lined up four brands of cream soda on the bar - Stewart's, Jones, IBC, and Main Street. Since Jones cream soda is clear, not colored with the usual caramel, I actually closed my eyes as Elli handed me each glass. Drinking one after the other it was easy to tell there were differences, but finding a preference was much more difficult! I tried each type twice in a random order Elli chose, then Elli did the same with me choosing. The table below shows our comments for both trials.

  Stewart's Jones Main Street IBC
Ethan first time "Distinctive, but not great" "Distinctive, good" "Good" "Ordinary"
Ethan second time "Not very good" "Good" "Ordinary" "Good"
Elli first time "Very good" "Ordinary" "Not good" "Sweet, good"
Elli second time "Very good" "Too sweet" "Ordinary" "Not creamy enough"

As you can see, Elli's taste is more consistent than mine, but both of us gave conflicting comments at least once. In particular, the first sampling of the same Main Street soda that previously tasted "cheap," I judged it Good. So this further confirms to me that taste is not absolute, and just as with audio it helps to see the label to know what you prefer.

Ethan Winer has been an audio pro and skeptic for most of his adult life. He now heads up RealTraps, where he designs acoustic treatment products for recording studios and home listening rooms.

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