Going on Assignment in Prague July 2024 – July 6, 2024
From Czechoslovakia With Love
By Ian Garrahan
Kofola, developed as a response to “Western” colas during the Cold War, is thriving, besting even its international rivals.
“How do I rank Kofola? Easy, a 15 out of 10. There’s no way I’m going lower. It’s even better if you get it on tap,” says Petr Hais, a young Czech man. “If you have to get a bottle, it’s not as good, but it’s still better than Coca-Cola,” he adds, his thirst bubbling up amid the rising heat of a Prague summer day.
Kofola´s branding through the years, back when the coffee bean was yet to be replaced by the licorice leaf. Source: Kofola.cz
The original flavor is still the most popular around the Czech capital, typically served with a slice of lemon. Photo via Mark Harmon.
He’s far from the only one. According to a study by the market research company Nielsen, the Czech drink was the most popular cola brand in 2018, with 37 percent of total market sales, beating out Coca-Cola with a 28 percent share. Kofola, a Cold War-era drink that is still sold across the Czech Republic, is part of the select few soft drinks around the world that have stood up to the might of Coca-Cola and beat the giant’s incursion into their respective home markets. The most famous are Scotland’s strident-orange Irn-Bru and Peru’s electric-yellow Inca Kola, which was partly bought by Coca-Cola in 1999.
Just as Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once referred to the Peruvian beverage, which still outsells Coca-Cola in Peru with its bubble-gum flavor, as “an implausible drink,” and a thickly accented Scottish man described Irn-Bru’s taste to the author as “like fokin’ coins laddie,” Kofola also attracts a particular palate with a penchant for licorice and 14 herb and fruit extracts. Such taste, coupled with a very strong nostalgia and country-of-origin bias, are the main factors marketing experts cite when speaking about the beverage’s long and storied success.
Cold-War Era Roots
The Czech beverage can trace its origin back to the height of the Cold War, when high-ranking government officials tasked the country’s labs in 1957 with the development of an alternative to “Western” cola drinks. These had started to make their way to the local populace after World War II when American soldiers traded cans of Coke for the local Pilsner beer.
It took two years, but in 1959 Professor Zdenek Blazek produced the Kofo syrup that became the basis for Kofola’s unmistakable flavor, best understood through the lens of the company’s longtime slogan: “If you love it, nothing else matters.” Kofola’s taste profile comes not only from its founding formula, but also from containing 30 percent less sugar than Coca-Cola and no phosphoric acid, the component that makes fizzy drinks fizzier. In its first decade on the market, the Kofola factories exhausted the required local herbs and had to have them imported from neighboring countries.
After the Velvet Revolution ended the 41-year reign of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia in 1989, and later with the peaceful separation of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in December 1992, the love for Kofola entered hibernation as Western-made products flooded through the now drawn Iron Curtain into the former Warsaw Pact nation. This chrysalis stage lasted until the early 2000s when Kofola reemerged into the market. It did so triumphantly by riding a wave of what analysts refer to as “retro-nostalgia” that has carried it well, and profitably, into the 2020s.
In 2022 the company registered 7.88 billion Czech crowns ($345 million) in sales – an 18.7 percent jump from the previous year. And Martin Pisklak, CFO of the Kofola Group, forecast up to 1.25 billion crowns in profit for 2023. Such growth would be underpinned both by the group’s iconic soft drink and an ever-expanding portfolio that has seen the company branch into mineral water and healthier juice options, he explained.
“Look around, they are only selling Kofola, not Coke,” says Karolina Fejtova, a young woman attending the local Colours of Ostrava festival in Moravia, as she shelters from the sun under a Kofola-branded tent. “When I go to the river with my friends that’s what we have,” she says, as she turns away to order a glass of the undying drink.
Ian Garrahan is a social communications and journalism graduate from the University of Buenos Aires. He has previously reported from Kenya for the Spanish publication Planeta Futuro and recently participated in Transitions’ Going on Assignment in Prague study abroad program where he had the opportunity to report this story.