Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Inca Kola: The Curious Peruvian Cola, Or The Story Of The Little Cola That Could

Photo: Lall

What is that strange yellow beverage everyone is drinking?

It's the first question a Peruvian food newbie asks when confronted with Peru's ubiquitous soda: Inca Kola.

It's a drink people either love or hate, but personal preferences aside, it has an interesting history in the annals of the global carbonated beverage world. It really is the tale of the little cola that could.

What many may not know is that the extremely sweet (some say the taste is similar to bubble gum or pineapple) and brightly yellow soda (some say it looks like, well, I'll let you figure that one out) is one of just a handful of locally produced colas in the world that was never able to be beaten by the world's number one soft drink: Coca-Cola.

Despite years of trying to dominate the Peruvian market, Coca-Cola finally gave up and decided it had to buy a share of Inca Kola because it simply couldn't outsell it.

The Lindleys in the early years.
Photo: Inca Kola

It was back in 1910, when a young English couple arrived by boat in the port of Callao to start a new life in Peru. Settling in Rimac, one of the most historic districts of Lima, José Robinson Lindley and his wife Martha opened a small shop where they sold homemade carbonated beverages.

Retro Inca Kola
Photo: Inca Kola

In 1935, Lima was celebrating 400 years since its founding, and the Lindleys decided to produce a unique drink to commemorate the event and their new homeland.

José Lindley had learned of a concoction based on hierba Luísa, lemon verbena, and began experimenting with different mixtures, fussing with the ingredients and the levels of carbonation until finding just the right formula. Thus was born, Inca Kola, a fruity soda that was launched with this catchy slogan:

Inca Kola, sólo hay una y no se parece a ninguna.
Inca Kola, there is only one, unlike any other.

Isaac Lindley
Photo: Inca Kola

By 1945, Isaac Lindley, José and Martha's son, improved the technology and expanded Inca Kola's reach in the Peruvian market. Within a few short years, Inca Kola was the leading bottled beverage sold in Peru, in part because it appealed to the Peruvian sense of national identity. After all, how many sodas are named after the Incas?

Photo: Matito

For years, Coca-Cola and its arch-rival Pepsi tried to dominate the Peruvian market, but despite their vast resources, they were never able to overtake Inca Kola as the preferred soft drink of the Peruvian public.

Inca Kola cleverly marketed itself as the nationalistic soft drink option, and Peruvians drank it by the gallons. Knowing the Peruvian market, Inca Kola targeted small mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, offering incentives and marketing assistence. Partly due to national pride, partly due to its sweet flavor, and partly due to its cost (less than its rivals) Inca Kola became the leader of the Peruvian soft drink industry. One of its key marketing strategies was to convince Peruvians that Inca Kola was a much better complement to Peruvian food than either Coke or Pepsi.

Finally, in 1999, Coca-Cola and the Corporación José R. Lindley entered in a strategic alliance whereby the multinational purchased 50% of the company for a rumored $300 million.

Inca Kola bottling plant.
Photo: Inca Kola

From its small, almost artisanal origins in Rimac, Inca Kola now has the largest soft drink bottling plants in Peru. Wherever you go in Peru, from coastal beach towns, to Andean villages thousands of feet above sea level, to the hot steamy jungle towns, Inca Kola is still the preferred soda of Peruvians.

Inca Kola and its current slogan:
El Sabor del Perú, The Flavor of Peru.

Photo: _e.t

Peruvians love their Inca Kola. There is a sense of pride that a soda in a small, poor country was not able to be overtaken by the most important beverage company in the world. Fast-food restaurants like the Peruvian company Bembo's switched from Coke to Inca Kola, and even McDonald's had to come to a unique agreement with Coca-Cola to allow both beverages to be sold in its restaurants, something unheard of in the fast-food restaurant industry. Inca Kola was like the persistent lover that had come into the marriage between McDonald's and Coca-Cola. In Peru, Big Macs are eaten with Inca Kola, not Coke.

US Inca Kola has its own slogan:
The Golden Cola

Photo: Fresh Electrons

What has really surprised me is that in the past few years, Inca Kola is now available in many Latino-oriented supermarkets here in Los Angeles. Any Peruvian restaurant in the United States worth its salt sells Inca Kola. And, Inca Kola is now bottled at a Coca-Cola plant in New York state. This is due to the deal the Lindleys made with Coca-Cola.

Haute Inca Kola.
Photo: Inca Kola

Inca Kola has a mystique in Peru and I'm sure dissertations have been written about it. When the partnership between the two companies was clinched in 1999, the Lindleys came out winners. Not only had they earned an incredible sum of money, they were also awarded bottling rights at their plants for all Coca-Cola products sold in Peru, and Coca-Cola agreed to use its formidable marketing muscle to expand Inca Kola into markets outside of Peru.

For those who read Spanish, there is a great excerpt of an article
in the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra by Marco Avilés and Daniel Titinger (who allowed me to translate, The Ceviche Route in an earlier Peru Food post).

They tell story of M. Douglas Ivester, Coca-Cola's CEO who arrived in Lima in 1999 to work out the final details in the new joint venture. As part of the ceremonies, Ivester had to drink a glass of Inca Kola at a press conference which became a Peruvian media frenzy. It was the symbolic defeat of Coca-Cola in Peru. Quite simply, Coke was not able to convince the Peruvian public that it was a better soft drink. The next day's newspapers all had photos of Iverson splashed on their front pages with the caption: Coca-Cola's President Toasts with Inca Kola. In the cola wars, the Third World David had beaten the First World Goliath.

Rumor has it that Iverson hated the taste of Inca Kola, calling it too sweet, and some have less than kindly attributed this statement to him: Looks like pee, tastes like bubble gum.

That may be the case, but 28 million Peruvians can't be wrong.


Click here for the Peru Food main page.

TAGS: Peru, Peruvian, food, cooking, cuisine, cocina, comida, gastronomía, peruana


Luis Colan said...

I love Pichi Cola, I mean, Inca Cola! That's what we used to call it in Peru. I was so happy to see sold in the latin markets of CT a few years back. It was unbelievable to see this drink in yuppie CT. Was also very happy to see it in Queens, NY when I lived there.

Marea said...

What a great post, I am peruvian who lives now in the San Francisco bay area, my conclusion is that Inca Kola is for Peruvians as Root Beer for Americans, we will never understand root beer flavor, yikes is like medicine. You forgot to mention that we have Inca Kola Light, I love it but have not seen it yet here.

::Alejandro:: said...

Glad you two liked the post about Inca Kola!

Luís: Un abrazo.

Marea: I really liked your blog!

Mario Navarrete Jr. said...

Interesante el tema y saber mas de la gaseosa nacional


m said...

Wow! You have a great blog! I bookmarked it for regular reading.

I remember when I first tried Inca Cola when I was visiting my sister in Peru in 1996. I rather liked the taste.


Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where I could buy Inca Kola around the Sacramento, CA area? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great article about what about BIMBO ??

I'm a peruvian working / living in London. I miss la inka. No se ve mucho por aqui pero thats only a matter of time.

If anyone knows where i can get inka cola in Central london pls send me a note.


Saludos !

Anonymous said...

So...the creators of INCA COLA were English!!?? whowwwww
I love it, I am Peruvian (charapita, that is) and my boyfriend is a plastic surgeon from New Zealand....and he loves INCA COLA too. We both loved your article, very interesting...thank you, ah! we live in South Beach, Miami.

El Aguajal UK said...

Estimado Alejandro!
Mil disculpas por la omisión de tu crédito. Ya está correcto espero que en algún momento nos visites por aquí...
Éxitos siempre!

Anonymous said...

I always want to fill my luggage with Inca Kola light when I leave Peru, but only manage to get one or two back home. These are saved for weeks, but then....gone. No more. Can't find the stuff in the US. Definitely not in the midwest. If anyone knows of a US store that sells it and might ship it, please please, please post.

Anonymous said...

amigofoods.com and labodegaperuana.com are websites that sell Inka Kola as well as other Peruvian food items. They even have Diet Inka Kola!

Anonymous said...

OMG!!! Thank you for the link. I am going to order a case of Inka Cola Light.
I discovered at a Peruvian restaurant in Hollywood, but that place is now closed. BUMMER!
Thank you,
Los Angeles, CA

Anonymous said...

Hi! Im peruvian and I live in New York...I love Inka Cola...but before I read your article I got an e-mail saying that our Inka Kola is not peruvian anymore but CHILEAN...I just hate this idea...Can you please inform us if it is true? ...By the way your article is very informative and full of pride.

Anonymous said...

Z1gDaX write more, thanks.

Unknown said...

Great post! Just to add to it, Harvard Business School actually has a case that they teach in their marketing classes for MBA candidates about this Inka Kola's success over Coca & Pepsi... by the way, can you provide us with the history of Kola Inglesa? La chaposa mas sabrosa ... It has started to show up in Latin markets around here.

MasterNutrition said...

Hello everyone! check this site out www.PeruSuperMarket.com they sell all peruvian food realted products including Inkacola.... Great site!!!

Anonymous said...

Yes, so I am told Inca Kola is now bottled in Chile and is now 100% owned by coca-cola... thats what the big goliath does, make you think you have won but really they will take it away from you in the end.

Also Inca Kola is not as sweet now as it was before coca-cola bought them out.

Anonymous said...

Bueno no se si este sea el lugar apropiado.
Soy peruana y recien acabo de llegar a Londres y busco la colonia latina o amigos.

Yo soy arquitecta y hablo japones tambien y espero que alquien me responda.
Les agradeceria mucho su amistad.

Anonymous said...


¿Dónde puedo comprar inca kola online en Europa, hay algunos sitios webs?

Muchas gracias por sus respuestas.

Anonymous said...

We have Inca Kola here in major supermarkets here in Virginia. I love the stuff! It's like a cream soda but way better! It's sweet, this is true, but it have an interesting flavor that's very addicting. I've seen it sold here in 2-litre bottles, small 12 packs of glass bottles and even in 6 packs of cans.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I liked your blog about inka cola, besides I like the other subjects you talk about Peru, it is good to have people who likes to show the world our culture. I live in GA and I know it is not easy to find peruvian products around here; but I found a peruvian store on line that is called labodegaperuana ..I hope you can find useful.

Well thanks for your time Liz

::Alejandro:: said...

Thanks for all the comments on this post!

Unknown said...

No me canso de tomar Inca Kola... la bebida del Peru... aqui ya hay gracias a los canales de distribucion de la cocacola... :D Arriba Inca Kola

::Alejandro:: said...

Avilio: Inca Kola power!