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Throwback, Surge

Pictured, clipped from the online historical archives at JG-TC.com, this AP article about Surge, the once-popular citrus soda of the mid-90s, from the April 12, 1997, Journal Gazette. Columnist's note: It's still popular.

This week’s Throwback doesn’t have a lot going for it in the looks department, but it’s got it where it counts. That’s right, The Throwback Machine welcomes you to Flavor Country for a look back at the hot trend in cool drinks in 1997: Coca-Cola’s Surge... or more appropriately, if you went by the can, “SURGE!!!” This was an era where a product wore the badge of being “extreme” like an honor, and the exclamation points were mandatory for maximum enjoyment.

Surge, if you don’t remember, was packaged in garish cans with red, green, black, and yellow battling it out for supremacy; packaging which I’m sure was market tested to send adults screaming the other direction and to turn kids into drooling overly-sugared caffeine-obsessed zombies. As it was and as it ever shall be.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a Surge addict. That stuff got a hold of me and got a hold of me bad. Granted this was at a time when your teenage life was defined by hanging out with your buddies and stopping only long enough to fuel up on some carbonated drink that was the color of cartoon toxic waste. And back then, your choice of soda was your choice; it defined you. Heck, it owned you.

Very much like how a buddy of mine at the time was hooked on Mug Root Beer. Actually, I wonder if he was more addicted to purchasing Mug in those half-gallon cups called “The Moby” you used to be able to get from the “Bigfoot” gas station on Charleston Ave. And yes, just in case you asked, there was a big whale on the side of the cup; cups which he would invariably leave at my parents’ house after we were done with whatever horror movie we were watching that evening. To this day, I’m certain that my mom still has about four of those cups in that Lazy Susan corner cabinet where we always kept the random bits of mismatched Tupperware.

And while there were other soft drink pretenders to the throne (anyone remember Orbitz?) the summer and fall of 1997 were ruled by Surge! Look, we’re all aware that if you wanted a soft drink experience but you just had to make sure it was some weird color of green, you had plenty of choices. Mountain Dew was always the green soda of record, and sure you had a whole array of citrus sodas that were that weird opaque dusky green color of a bar of Lava Hand Soap, like Squirt or Fresca, but let’s be honest, at that time there wasn’t anything less “extreme” than a can of Fresca.

Surge, on the other hand, was colored a bright neon green sure to freak anyone if they ever saw you drinking it outside of the can, a rare experience to be sure, since Surge may have been the first soda I can think of to be sold in what they called the “Wide-Mouth Slam Can.” In other words, it had an opening at the top that was, as advertised, wide, so you could hypothetically “slam” the whole can just before you got back to important 90s business like doing kick flips on your older brother’s skateboard in front of the gas station. It was perhaps the most daring innovation to soda cans since the discontinuation of those razor sharp pull tabs (you know, the things your beach bum dad kept “blowing out his flip flops” on in the 70s while chasing your mom around), and the Coca-Cola “Magi-Cans,” a promotion I’m actually going spare you the details of in case I want to talk about them in a future column. Patent pending.

Surge tasted not a bit unlike carbonated lime Kool-Aid, and packed a whopping four milligrams more caffeine compared to “normal” Coke, although, as is mentioned in the article, that’s still nowhere near the amount of caffeine in a few cups of coffee, and certainly nowhere near the amount that, all these years later can be found in, well, everything we drink. I mean seriously... these days the amount of caffeine in Surge is probably the amount doctors actually recommend giving to your kids.

The folks at Coke discontinued Surge in the early 2000s, for unknown reasons. The ways and means of soft drink companies remain a mystery to me and I’m sure they do to you folks out there who still miss Coca-Cola Blaq (that coffee-flavored Coke they sold in the tiny bottles), Pepsi Blue (for those people who just need more “berry” flavors in their life), or all three glorious months of 7-up Plus, that vitamin enhanced 7-up that, also, yes, had a berry favor.

After “replacing” Surge with some greenish-swill they called “Vault”, Coke announced a few years ago that Surge was being brought back but only as a mail order product which had to be purchased by the crate, and sold so quickly that resellers were hawking the crates on Amazon for hundreds of dollars. I’m sure glad I didn’t pony up that kind of cash because a few months later I found, at a gas station in Mahomet, Surge, back on the shelves and even in the same (now-retro) can design, although, I must mention, helpfully increased in size to a 24-ounce Tall-Boy. Yikes.

Some notes as I cracked open my first Surge in almost fifteen years. First thing... it wasn’t bright green anymore. Second, it just didn’t taste the same. Keep in mind, this may have less to do any wistful notion that possibly the “missing” of something is better than the “getting” of it back. No... it probably has more to do with the fact that in the intervening years I’ve blown my taste buds out on energy drinks that are probably three times as strong as Surge.

Did I feel a little disappointed? A bit. That’s not to say I’ve learned my lesson because I’m still holding out hope that someday they’ll start making Nintendo Cereal System, Lays Cheese Waffles, and Micro Magic French Fries again. There’s no possible way those don’t live up to my memories.

"The Throwback Machine" is a weekly feature taking a look back at items of interest found in the JG-TC online archives. Contact Walker at cwalker@jg-tc.com.

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