Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Passover Pepsi

Why is this cola different from all other colas? Because it's the Real Thing

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For Jews, the eight-day holiday Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. For some others -- Jews and non-Jews alike -- Passover means something else.

"That's right: Passover Coke is here! (Or Passover Pepsi, if you're on that side of the Cola War)," wrote one of the bloggers for whom Passover colas have acquired a cult following.

So why is this Coke different from all other Cokes?

The answer requires equal parts biblical history and soft drink history. During Passover, Jews traditionally cannot eat foods made from five grains: wheat, oats, barley, rye, and spelt. Anything made from these is chametz, a leavened product. The no-grain proviso is, of course, a nod to the Exodus, when Israelites fled bondage in Egypt in such a hurry they didn't have time to wait for their bread to rise. For observant Jews, the list of alimentary no-nos also includes legumes and corn. These fall under a category known as kitniyot -- small things.

Which is where Coke comes in. high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been the main sweetener in Coke since 1985 when it switched to the less expensive -- and less tasty, say many -- ingredient from sugar. But Passover Coke, and Passover Pepsi, are made with real sugar, to the delight of cola purists. "It tastes like Coke used to taste," says a fan.

" Try it. You'll see," he said, adding that if any is found buy it immediately. "I only have three, two-litre bottles left. That can't last me a year but I'm sure the stockpilers have cleaned out the shelves by now."

A stock list at a Sobeys indicated it was sold out but they did have a brand of Israeli pop -- called Be'er Mayim. There were still several bottles of Passover Coke left on a designated floor stand at a city Safeway.

Credit for the Coca-Cola company's introduction of kosher Coke, and an early version of Passover Coke goes to Tobias Geffen. He was an Orthodox rabbi based in Atlanta in the 1930s who was pestered with questions from his congregants about whether Coke was kosher.

Rabbi Geffen was one of a select few who got his hands on the famously secret list of ingredients in Coke, whose company headquarters, like him, were based in Atlanta.

The company gave him the list on condition that he keep it secret. The Rabbi discovered one ingredient in Coke was tallow-based glycerine, which the company changed to vegetable-based glycerin. That took care of regular kosher Coke. He managed to get them to make a Passover proof version, too.

Although sugar was used in those days, Rabbi Geffen found that one of the sweeteners used in Coca-Cola included traces of alcohol produced from grain. Due to that finding, the company's lab found a sweetener made from cane sugar and beet sugar.

"Because Coca-Cola has already been accepted by the general public in this country and Canada and because it has become an insurmountable problem to induce the great majority of Jews to refrain from partaking of this drink, I have tried earnestly to find a method of permitting its usage," the Rabbi wrote.

Coca Cola has been making modern HFCS versions of Passover Coke for about 20 years. "In Canada, it's only available during the Passover season," said Teresa Pavlin, a spokesperson for Coca -Cola Canada, who downplayed it, saying the beverage was made "as a service to the Jewish community." It's no surprise that the company doesn't advertise it. If more people started demanding it, they might have to start making Coke with sugar, which is more expensive than HFCS.

That hasn't stopped Social Media coke nerds from announcing its arrival, extolling its virtues, and campaigning for year-round Passover Coke. One started a Facebook page, Year-round Yellow Cap Coke!! (The yellow cap refers to the special coloured lid that signifies Passover Coke, although this year the yellow cap, in Canada at least, was replaced by the COR and MK symbols, on the side of the bottle, the stamp of approval by orthodox Kosher certifiers, as well as Kosher for Passover written in Hebrew.)

Jason Perlow, a New York City area food blogger and founder of the site, noted where to get Passover Coke in the Big Apple and it is most read posting.

Passover Pepsi (marked CorP on the bottle) isn't available in Canada, officially. "If Canadian retailers are selling Passover Pepsi it is because they have sourced and imported it from the U.S.," says Pepsi Canada spokesperson Shauna Simons. Desserts Plus, on Corydon Avenue, which specializes in kosher food had Passover Pepsi, which was imported from Israel, said owner Ed Reiss. But they sold out.

This is all disappointing news perhaps to fans of Pepsi Throwback, the Pepsi Cola made with real sugar and released in nostalgia laden cans two years ago in the U.S. and introduced recently in Canadian markets for a promotional period but is no longer available. For many fans of that product Passover Pepsi could have filled the gap.

At the end of Passover seder many Jews utter the refrain, `next year in Jerusalem.' For cola purists, for now, it's `next year in the kosher aisle of the grocer.'

-- Special to the Free Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2011 D1

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