Aside from an occasional value meal or float, from January to October each year my daily beverage regimen is coffee, decaf coffee, water, or seltzer. Come November and December, with several vacation days that involve family gatherings, smorgasbords, and televised sports, the holidays are a time to break out the soft drinks. It’s hard to justify the bodily toll of 52 weeks of daily sugary soda intake, so in my mind three weeks is justifiable.
My pop of choice has been Caffeine Free Coca-Cola. If that’s not available, I’ll settle for Caffeine Free Pepsi. Caffeine intake has a higher impact on my sleep schedule than the normal grown adult, so I steer clear after my one cup of coffee in the morning. And to be clear, I like the non-diet Caffeine Free Coca-Cola and Pepsi. These sodas have all the bite, sweetness, and effervescence of caffeinated cola, minus the chemical aftertaste of their diet equivalents and the sleep deprivation of the genuine article.
However, as with anything straightforwardly enjoyable in 2020, my inane little holiday indulgence in caffeine free soda has been forcibly postponed.
It started on a trip last month to Sunset Foods in Northbrook, the best grocery store on Earth. Already anticipating soda season, I window shopped the pop aisle. To my surprise, within the yards of Coke and Pepsi products, the gold-labeled caffeine free varietals were gone. This seemed odd. It wasn’t for lack of product selection—Sunset Foods stocks Cel-Ray, folks—and I’ve bought my holiday soda there before. I was now determined to find it, and later that weekend I visited the nearest Jewel, Walmart, and Target. I was 0 for 4 in my search.
Some quick Googling turned up fellow shoppers who had had the same realization I did: grocery stores are no longer stocking these products, as an aluminum can shortage has forced the two largest armies in the cola wars to narrow their selection for the foreseeable future.
A call to Sunset Foods confirmed this as well, as the Coke delivery person mentioned they hadn’t been delivering the caffeine free version for months. Fresca fans are feeling the same pain.
You can still find Caffeine Free Coke and Pepsi, but at a steep price: the going rate on the secondary market is $19 for a 2-liter, as of this writing. That’s in the neighborhood of a nice bottle of wine! I like it, but I don’t “20 dollars” like it. Instead, I’ll break with decades of brand loyalty to try another caffeine free cola.
One of the only apparent options is Whole Foods 365, as most store brands do not make a caffeine free cola—after all, how many customers could possibly be demanding it? But 365 appears to be out of stock, too. If you want a caffeine free product this year, you might be resigned to one filled with tinny, off-putting artificial sweeteners. To quote Marie Kondo, the flavor doesn’t spark joy, and it doesn’t pair well with chili cheese dip and the Alamo Bowl.
To inject additional worry into my future imbibing, recently Coke announced a plan to slash a large part of its beverage portfolio (my thoughts and prayers to Tab fans). One would hope that the company would just rip the bandage off and let us know if we’ll need to settle for inferior products on into infinity. I am holding out hope that this is a temporary interruption, but this year has trained me not to get my hopes up.
Against the backdrop of the current state of affairs, the absence of caffeine free cola doesn’t warrant any output greater than firmly pursed lips or an exaggerated, childish sigh. If this were 2019, I’d be pouting to family members and maybe even the employees at Sunset Foods. Fortunately I’ve been insulated from many of the hardships that millions have faced this year, so settling for root beer or 7-Up is something I’m gladly willing to contend with.
It’s never fun to see the foods you enjoy disappear from store shelves. Across the last 40 years, I’ve bid adieu to such favorites as Frank ‘n Stuff hot dogs, Giggles cookies, Lipton Split Pea Cup-a-Soup, McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, Merkts Nacho Cheddar cheese spread, Doo Dads snacks, and the pre-KC Masterpiece “orange bag” Lays BBQ chips, among other things. We’ve all had to deal with these painful partings, remembering each item’s former place in the grocery store aisle.
When we can hug our friends and family inside again, I hope to celebrate by raising a tumbler of caffeine free cola. Heck, I may even splurge and buy a vintage 2020 magnum of Caffeine Free Coke off the secondary market to mark the occasion.