As a third dessert option was being squeezed on to the kitchen table in front of four sufficiently full young men, all too polite to refuse a final helping, I reflected on how fortunate I and my companion Marco were to be visiting Bratislava with friends who grew up in the city. Marek and Kubo were back in their home town from Barcelona and Prague for a short time only, and so their mothers were keen to feed them – and their two lucky guests – while they could.
That evening we’d gorged on the sweets from my friends’ childhoods: buchtičky se šodó, a doughy vanilla cake with just a touch of rum, and šišky s mákem, sweet dumplings made from potato, sugar, butter and poppy seeds. It was when a dark and dense beverage was passed around in plastic bottles that Marco, the designated driver for the evening, looked as though he could take no more.
This was my first introduction to Kofola. Although it resembles a stout beer, Kofola is non-alcoholic, and originates from the second half of the 20th Century when Czechoslovakia was a Soviet satellite state. Created as an alternative to Coca-Cola and Pepsi at a time when Western goods were prohibitively expensive, the drink has since gone on to become a national favourite in the now-independent countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
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The syrup that forms the foundation of Kofola was invented in the late 1950s by Zdeněk Blažek, a scientist who had been commissioned by the state to create an alternative to American cola brands, using ingredients available in Czechoslovakia. The result was Kofo syrup, a mixture of fruit and herbal extracts that forms the base of Kofola. Some historical accounts say that Blažek and his team came up with the recipe for Kofo syrup (which remains secret to this day) when experimenting with ways to use the waste generated from roasting coffee, but while Kofola is caffeinated, these accounts are unsubstantiated.
The beverage is still served on tap in most of Bratislava’s bars and restaurants, and the company that makes it boasts a following of half a million people on Facebook, making it one of the most popular Czech/Slovak brands on the social networking website.
As the four of us left Marek’s family home and gave thanks for a wonderful evening, his mum passed each of us a huge slice of poppy seed cake wrapped in foil, and we promised to try ‘proper draught Kofola’ on our next visit to a pub.
Kofola has become so popular that knock-off versions of it have been produced in Slovakia. Linda Metesová, who gives food tours of Bratislava, laughed when she told me that after analogous brands like Lokálka became available, “pubs in Bratislava put up signs to advertise that they sell authentic Kofola.” Most people on her tours have not previously heard of Kofola, let alone Lokálka, and so when she gives her food tours she is keen for them to try the original version. She hears “it tastes like Jägermeister” a lot, noting that people are often surprised to discover that it’s not alcoholic.
As we drove away from Marek’s mum’s house, I reflected that the word ‘fake’ didn’t come up once during our conversation about the rich beverage. Kofola is perceived not as an imitation of Coca-Cola or Pepsi, but rather as a unique drink with a set of nostalgic associations that are deeply embedded in the two cultures. For Czechs and Slovaks, Kofola has come to represent a very specific period of their shared history.
A cold glass of Kofola offered refreshment without scandal
It was against a backdrop of scarcity that Kofola became popular in Czechoslovakia. During the Soviet era, Western goods such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi were only available in Bratislava’s state-owned Tuzex stores for heavily inflated prices, and could be bought with bony coupons – which were produced by the state and were like golden tickets to a world of luxury items unavailable to most. There were apparently local girls (known disparagingly as ‘Tuzex girls’) who dated foreigners who could afford to purchase bony. There was even a burgeoning black-market trade in these coupons during the 1970s and ‘80s, and you would hear “need some bony?” whispered in hushed tones by suppliers on Bratislava’s street corners.
A cold glass of Kofola, on the other hand, offered refreshment without scandal.
Kofola was by no means the only alternative to American cola that proliferated behind the Iron Curtain. In East Germany, consumers could choose from brands such as Vita Cola, Quick Cola, Kaffee Cola and at least 14 others. The Polish People's Republic had their own variant, Polo Cockta, as did the USSR, with a drink called Baikal. Yugoslavia’s Cockta, which is still available today, is flavoured with caramel and rose hip.
Yet Kofola’s distinct herbal taste has been key to its lasting success. Many of the other Cold War-era imitations matched the original product too accurately, and so could not compete with the originals when trade opened up after the fall of the Soviet Union. “My mum and her colleague managed to buy an expensive bottle of Fanta once in the 1980s,” Metesová recalled. “But after sharing it they were disappointed to find it tasted just the same as the fizzy orange [drink] sold in Czechoslovakia.” Kofola, on the other hand, which is noticeably less sweet than other cola drinks, offered a different refreshment experience altogether.
Although its flavour recalls a difficult period of Czech and Slovak history, Kofola’s present-day popularity is rooted firmly in nostalgia. When I asked Bratislavans about Kofola, it was their happy childhood memories that came to the fore. “I remember going with my dad to the pub and drinking draught Kofola with the other kids; we felt like adults,” said Martin Záhumenský, a Slovak chef and judge on MasterChef Slovensko.
Today Kofola’s aromatic taste is still a beloved alternative to the sugary flavour of Coke or Pepsi, and demand for the drink now extends beyond the boundaries of Eastern Europe. There is demand for the drink amongst Czechs and Slovaks living in the UK, according to Anish Shah, director of Halusky, a supplier that specialises in the food and drink of these two nations. “We initially started selling just a few bottles in 2004, when the countries joined the EU. Today we sell pallet loads, perhaps 3,000 litres a month,” he told me. There is clearly money to be made keeping the diaspora in good supply.
While Kofola purports to be healthier than mainstream colas (it contains roughly 30% less sugar than its big competitors, with no phosphoric acid at all), it is surely the sense of nostalgia and brand loyalty felt among its consumers that helped the company survive when the newly independent Czech and Slovak markets opened up to Western competitors in the 1990s. Kofola is now available in a variety of flavours, including lemon and vanilla.
When the four of us finally made it to the pub to sample proper Kofola on tap, it was colder and more refreshing than the bottled version we had previously tried. The heavy glasses accentuated the deep brown colour, and the herbal taste was much more pronounced. This was a small taste of life in Bratislava for four young men, two of whom not born here, and the other two too young to remember what it was like when Kofola was the only option.
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