For westerners accustomed to the candy-sweet taste of Coke and Pepsi, the first sip of Kofola - one of the most popular non-alcoholic alternatives in Slovakia - may come as a bit of a surprise. But the sweet-and-sour mix of herbal, caramel and fruit flavours that characterises Kofola is a source of both pleasure and pride to local palates.
"I drink Kofola mostly because I remember it from my childhood, and actually, I prefer it to Coke and Pepsi. I like the taste, but it does take getting used to," said Košice resident Andrea Bublišová.
With sales of Kofola once again on the rise in this country, it seems that Bublišová is not alone in having rediscovered the drink, which for many Slovaks evokes nostalgic memories of simpler times.
In Slovakia, the number of hectolitres sold by Kofola's sole licensed producer, the Galena firm in the Czech Republic town of Opava, nearly doubled between 1996 and 1999 from 117,000 hectolitres to 226,000 hectolitres. But as the popularity of the beverage has soared, so have the number of companies which make kofola imitation drinks, a process which has both infuriated Galena and confused customers.
Much of the success of Kofola can be attributed to its history and tradition in the Czech and Slovak regions, explained Galena spokesperson Alice Černá.
But to the dismay of the Galena headquarters, this very tradition has given Kofola a name recognition and identity that has motivated other companies to make imitation drinks. "The problems started in 1999, when smaller producers of drinks started to produce cola-based beverages but named them similarly to Kofola - names such as Kofča, Šofola and MK Kofola, which are located in Slovakia," Černá said.
Slovakia's Stein brewery is one of the 15 bottlers of Kofola in the country which purchases the syrup from the Galena factory. Jozef Turaz, production director at Stein, said that customers were well aware of the imitation products and made their choices accordingly.
"The problem with other companies is that there are a lot of imitations with similar names and tastes, but they are not Kofola. But customers know the difference and ask for the real Kofola - they don't want the imitations," Turaz said.
However, Turaz's theory did not appear to hold water with all customers, many of whom believed that Kofola was a native Slovak brand.
Bratislava resident Lucia Mináriková, 25, said that she usually bought draught Kofola from bars and restaurants, and that it wasn't until she saw a recent billboard campaign that she realized there were different manufacturers and copycat brands of Kofola. Regardless of where it was produced and who made it, Mináriková said she had always seen it as a Slovak product.
"I consider it Slovak because I have known it from my childhood and have always drank it here," she said.
Košice's Bublišová has also been a Kofola drinker since childhood, and only recently discovered it to be a Czech product. This fact, however, did not affect her opinion of the drink. "I don't think whether it's Czech or Slovak is very important. I remember it in a particular way from my childhood, and where it is made does not affect this," she said.
To correct public misperceptions, and to capitalise on Kofola's potential, the drink's traditional and nostalgic qualities have been key elements of the Galena marketing campaign. Černá cited a Kofola television commercial commissioned by Galena in which two teenagers playing guitar are disrupting an older gentleman upstairs. When the old man comes down to reprimand the youngsters, he sees they are drinking Kofola, and decides to join them. In this way, Černá said, the company was trying to cast Kofola as a product that could span the generation gap.
She added that in the future, the company was looking to expand distribution to Poland and manufacture the syrup in Slovakia to further reduce costs in the Slovak market.
A bitter-sweet history
Kofola is one of those rare products discovered almost by accident. In 1960, a doctor for the Prague-based research institute SPOFA (the parent association to which all Czechoslovak pharmaceutical companies were associated until the early 1990s) was researching the use of caffeine extracted from the remains of roasted coffee grounds. Doctors from the Galena pharmaceutical company (also under the SPOFA umbrella), working on the development of extracts for medical use took the leftovers from the coffee grounds and mixed them into a syrup. The result: Kofol, the basic ingredient of Kofola.
The addition of more than a dozen other flavours - including caramel, cinnamon, coriander, liquorice and orange tree sap - helped to define the taste of Kofola and launched it to regional success through the 1960s and 1970s. Kofola struggled through 1980s as increased competition from regional cola manufacturers such as Citro cola, Fatra cola and Tatra cola congested the marketplace. The fall of communism made the situation even more dire for Kofola as popular western brands and their well-financed advertising campaigns entered the new open market.
But in 1990, SPOFA disbanded and in 1996, the Galena operation obtained the official license to manufacture Kofola. This move allowed Galena to refocus its energies on the product and consolidate operations. The drink has since been on the rebound, and is presently produced in 14 locations in the Czech Republic and 15 in Slovakia.
Having grown up with the product, consumers such as Mináriková have long found the drink to be a pleasant alternative to some of the more popular soft drink brands on store shelves. However, Kofola has never been seen as among those products specifically associated with Slovakia such as bryndza cheese and halušky.
"I like the drink, but it does not belong among the most important things that I would mention as representing Slovakia," Bublišová said.
Additional reporting by Zuzana Habšudová
4. Sep 2000 at 0:00 | Keith Miller