Review: Pepsi Throwback

Good News! As of March 2011, both Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback are permanent additions to the Pepsi lineup!

Read our updated Pepsi Throwback review and updated Mountain Dew Throwback review, both featuring revised designs.

Listen to our NPR interview about Pepsi Throwback.

One of the most anticipated beverages of 2009 is hitting shelves with the arrival of Pepsi Throwback, a natural sugar version of Pepsi sweetened with a combination of cane/beet sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Possessing an official release date of April 20, this limited edition soft drink will be available for only 8 weeks.

Pepsi Throwback
Pepsi Throwback

We first talked about Pepsi Throwback here at back in February, originally taking a look at the trademark filings for the new drink (along with its sibling, Mountain Dew Throwback). It wasn’t long thereafter that prototype bottle designs were released to the ‘net, gaining positive reaction from those who caught a glimpse. It was great to finally see something like this coming to the States after watching the UK get Pepsi Raw and Mexico launching Pepsi Retro.

Pepsi Throwback
Same bottle design and blue cap as regular Pepsi

Eventually, we were able to get in touch with the folks at Pepsi to answer our questions about the new drink, including confirming the final artwork design (different from the prototypes), sugar composition, and release window. Add to all that the release of Pepsi Natural, the annual hunt for Kosher for Passover Pepsi, and the continued disdain for Pepsi’s new logo, and frankly, it’s been a busy few months for the red-and-white Globe!

Pepsi Throwback
Love the taste, hate the design

It’s been interesting to read the comments both here and elsewhere on the Web — especially Twitter — regarding the enthusiasm about a drink that no one has actually tasted yet. Why do you think that is? Obviously, there has been quite a bit of news about high fructose corn syrup lately (mostly negative, to the chagrin of the folks at the Corn Refiners Association). But to me personally, as a beverage enthusiast, the anticipation of something like Pepsi Throwback goes beyond any health concerns, whatever they may be — and not discounting them. I think I’m more curious about actual taste, and having experienced drinks like Kosher Pepsi, Kosher Coke, and even Mexican Coke, there’s just something about the use of sugar in a soft drink that really makes it that much better. I mean, why are you reading this review? What’s your interest in this new soda that Pepsi has thrown our way?

Pepsi Throwback
Don’t let your Throwback go stale!

You have to admit that it’s an interesting concept for PepsiCo to bring to market. One might argue that they were responding to the ‘HFCS backlash’. When I talked to Nicole Bradley of Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages about the removal of high fructose corn syrup and the current debate over the use of that sweetener, I was pointed to the official press release spin on the purpose of the Throwback line: “‘As we revamp our brand with our ‘refresh everything‘ campaign, we want to give a nod to the fun things of the past… For some, it will be a trip down memory lane but for others, it will be a chance to experience a new twist on their favorite brands’.” She noted that “these products were not created because of any health concerns. There is a lot of misinformation circulating about HFCS, but the truth is that it’s made from corn and contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives. HFCS is essentially the same as table sugar and is metabolized the same.” Hmmm.

Pepsi Throwback

Perhaps the reasoning trumps the HFCS debate and is more in tune with their struggling financial performance vs. Coke or even the flagship’s position in the marketplace. According to Beverage Digest‘s “Top 10 CSD Results for 2008″ report (PDF) released back in March, Pepsi still sits at the #2 spot in market share, but Diet Coke is ever so close in overtaking it from the #3 position. And while the CSD (which is industry parlance for “carbonated soft drinks”) continues to decline — dropping 3% in 2008, continuing a 4 year trend — Coke Zero saw 36% growth.

New Pepsi Logo
New Pepsi Logo

Meanwhile, Pepsi sort of botched their entry into this “not regular, not diet” market with the release of Diet Pepsi Max, later redesigned, and finally renamed just Pepsi Max. (Let’s not forget that Coke Zero also got a redesign — remember the original white packaging?). All this to say that in 2009, Pepsi seems to be in a position to throw a lot more “hail mary” passes out there to see if something in the marketplace will gain traction (Pepsi logo redesign, anyone?), and as customers, we benefit with releases like Pepsi Natural and Pepsi Throwback (which incidentally cater to the growing anti-HFCS side of the debate). Whether sales support that will be answered later.

Kosher for Passover Pepsi
Kosher for Passover Pepsi

Now if you were to talk to someone who doesn’t care about beverages or HFCS or whatnot, they will probably ask you what the big deal is about Pepsi Throwback. And frankly, they’ll probably be right. Thus for those of us who aren’t “soda snobs”, I figured the best way to really understand Pepsi Throwback is to put it into context with what everyone already knows, regular Pepsi. Of course, by ‘regular’ I mean the everyday Pepsi you find on any store shelf, sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. For the sake of this review, we’ll call that HFCS Pepsi.

Mexican Pepsi
Mexican Pepsi
Mexican Pepsi

To add more context, I also sampled Kosher Pepsi, which I picked up a few weeks ago. Finally, I’m drawing on previous experiences with Mexican Pepsi, which you can find in many Hispanic grocery stores around Chicago.

Pepsi Natural
Pepsi Natural

I intentionally didn’t compare the taste to Pepsi Natural, because as I noted in my review, Natural has a completely different flavor profile and really shouldn’t be grouped together with the flagship drink flavors.

Pepsi Throwback
Yes… it has SUGAR!

Let’s start by comparing the ingredients in all 4 entries:

HFCS Pepsi
Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, sugar, phosphoric acid, caffeine, citric acid, natural flavor

Pepsi Throwback
Carbonated water, sugar, caramel color, phosphoric acid, caffeine, natural flavor

Kosher Pepsi
Carbonated water, sugar, caramel color, phosphoric acid, caffeine, citric acid, natural flavors

Mexican Pepsi
Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sucrose, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, caffeine

One thing I have noticed over the years is how the bubbles of each of these drinks are different when poured into a glass. HFCS-sweetened drinks tend to have large, irregularly-shaped bubbles, while sugar-sweetened beverages have nice, tight bubbles. Take a look:

HFCS PepsiHFCS Pepsi: Large Bubbles
Pepsi Throwback
Pepsi Throwback: Small Bubbles
Kosher for Passover Caffeine Free PepsiKosher for Passover Pepsi: Small Bubbles
Pepsi Natural - Bubbles
Pepsi Natural: Small Bubbles

I tracked down a 20 oz. plastic bottle of Pepsi Throwback for this review. Per Pepsi, the drink is available in both this size and 12-pack cans. Those of you desiring a glass bottle are of out luck.

The bottle design is exactly as noted in the official press release images from February. For the 20 oz. bottle, the same plastic design that’s used for HFCS Pepsi is used, featuring the vertical ‘swirl’ pattern. The 1940′s Pepsi-Cola script logo is used to identify the product, seemingly “cut out” of the rest of the blue background by a baby blue shadow. The dark blue background color is the same blue used in the Pepsi logo redesign and I can confirm it looks just like the blue on the HFCS Pepsi bottle.

Pepsi Throwback commercial
(Source: YouTube)

The logo is rotated vertically, so you have to turn your head to the left to read it. Below this logo is the word “Throwback”, spelled in lowercase letters using the same font as is used in the Pepsi logo redesign. In smaller type, the phrase “made with natural sugar” can be found, emphasis on “natural sugar”, also in lowercase. The can design follows this same style… dark blue/baby blue, Pepsi-Cola script, sideways lettering, lowercase modern font from the logo redesign.

Frankly, I have to take Pepsi to task on this label design. It stinks!

When sitting next to HFCS Pepsi in a cooler at a 7-Eleven (which is where I found my bottle), you’d be hard-pressed to pick out Pepsi Throwback as different from the regular offering. The use of the same blue background color, the very hard-to-read logo, and small font used for the phrase “Throwback” just seem weak. It’s as if this design was pieced together from clip art from many different departments, with committees arguing how this should look. The overall presentation is not extraordinary or innovative, especially when seeing what might have been.

Pepsi Throwback
Prototype Pepsi Throwback Design
(Source: Pepsi Bottling Group)

The look does not help set this product apart in the marketplace. I wonder if the Arnell Group folks were involved in this design. They were the ones behind the new Pepsi logo, along with the radical redesign of Tropicana orange juice packaging, which PepsiCo later backtracked on after customer backlash. Needless to say, I’m not too impressed.

Upon opening the bottle of Pepsi Throwback, you actually aren’t greeted with much of a scent. This is in contrast to HFCS Pepsi, which produces a far more acidic and bubbly experience when opened. Throwback was more neutral in this regard, which was a bit surprising. I expected more of a smell, especially since Pepsi Natural with its use of cane/beet sugar had a nice profile for the nose. Contrastly, Kosher Pepsi had more of a caramel syrup smell, on par with what is found with Mexican Pepsi.

Let’s move on to the flavor itself, which is probably why you are reading this review in the first place. (Seriously, I imagine you sitting there going “geez, this guy is babbling on and on about nothing… just tell me what it tastes like, you idiot!”) Let’s not forget Pepsi’s official marketing pitch for this drink:

“This spring, Pepsi and Mountain Dew are inviting consumers on a nostalgic trip back in time by offering special retro versions of these popular beverages.”

“The Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback packaging feature a retro look and are sweetened with natural sugar, just as they were back in the ’60s and ’70s, to give consumers a taste of the past”

The selling point of Pepsi Throwback is that key phrase, “natural sugar.” Just what is that? When I asked Pepsi about this, they noted that the Throwbacks are “sweetened with natural sugar, a blend of cane sugar and beet sugar.”

If you are scratching your head on that, let me explain. There are basically two types of sugar that can be used. Cane sugar — which is sourced from sugarcane that is grown above the ground — and beet sugar — which is pulled from beets grown underground. Some prefer one type or the other, but from a marketing perspective, you’ll often see cane sugar as being sold as the “higher quality” sweetener (see Jones Soda and Boylan, to name a few). I’m not a food scientist, so your mileage may vary. Just know that Pepsi Throwback uses a blend of these, though I’m not sure what percentage of each is used in the mix.

Pepsi Throwback
The new Pepsi “Globe” has a smaller presence

On that same note, Pepsi confirmed that Throwback is NOT Kosher. Their official statement is that “neither product will be Kosher. The Throwback formulations are not the same as the formulas used for the Kosher beverages.” Having tasted both side-by-side, I can confirm that yes, they do taste different from each other.

And just what is that taste? (Yeah, I know, you are anxious!) Well, I’d like you to envision drinking a HFCS Pepsi. Now remove the syrupy residue that enters your mouth during the middle part of your tasting experience, as well as the aftertaste. Replace it with a full-bodied “Pepsi flavor”, not just at the end of the drink, but during the entire experience. While HFCS Pepsi starts out a bit watery, with a bit of chemical flavor, Pepsi Throwback is cleaner, producing a consistent cola taste from first sip, while it passes over your tongue, and eventually the aftertaste as it goes down your throat.

Comparing Pepsi Throwback to the other versions in our pool, frankly, I was surprised. I really thought Kosher Pepsi and Pepsi Throwback would taste very similar, but they were quite different. Of the two, Pepsi Throwback was more muted, with a dryer, dare I say Coke-like taste in that it was less sweet than Kosher Pepsi. When the two were tasted side-by-side, I felt that Pepsi Throwback was the baseline flavor, while Kosher Pepsi added some additional flavor on top of that baseline, basically coming off as sweeter of the two. Interestingly, they both have roughly 3.3 mg/oz of sugars, but I wonder if the difference is in what makes up those sugars. Mexican Pepsi is also in the same ballpark with level of sugar, but often has less carbonation due to loss during transportation and a slightly different formulation, so it’s hard to compare at times. It should also be noted that the ingredients for Pepsi Throwback note “Natural Flavor”, while both Mexican Pepsi and Kosher Pepsi showcase the plural “Natural Flavors”. Interpret that how you will. In any case, they all taste different.

When stacked up against HFCS Pepsi, frankly you just want to spit out that stuff and run away. You won’t really believe that you put up with such swill for so long. And frankly, I think that’s the best way to appreciate Pepsi Throwback. Get some friends together, buy a bottle of Throwback and a bottle of the HFCS stuff. Compare them. Make your own determinations. But I bet 9 times out of 10, you’ll find folks preferring Pepsi Throwback. That kind of comparison is the only sales pitch you really need!

Pepsi Throwback
Seriously, what’s with the poor design?

So, yeah, I give a big “thumbs up” to Pepsi Throwback. It succeeds in flavor where the packaging and brand fail it. Unfortunately, when sitting on a shelf in a store, “flavor” doesn’t really help sell, so let’s hope word spreads about what I like to call the “Throwback Difference”. You only have a little time to savor this stuff. Per Pepsi, “Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback will be available nationwide for about 8 weeks beginning April 20,” which gives you a date range of April 20-June 15 to stock up. Go stimulate the economy!

And just what if this drink sells well? Mark Ficher of the Dayton Daily News posed the following question to Pepsi: “What if consumer response is overwhelmingly positive? Might Pepsi change its mind about the limited-time offer?” Their response? “We’ll have to see.”

For the record, Pepsi Throwback contains 3.2 mg/oz. of caffeine, which is the same as HFCS Pepsi, Pepsi Natural, and Kosher Pepsi. (By comparison, Coca-Cola Classic has 2.9 mg/oz., while Mountain Dew contains 4.5 mg/oz.) Drinking an entire 20 oz. bottle will cost you 260 calories, 10 more than HFCS Pepsi. Is it worth it? I think the flavor speaks for itself.

Overall, Pepsi Throwback is a great beverage for those seeking to taste Pepsi the way it was meant to be — and don’t have access to niche versions like Kosher Pepsi and Mexican Pepsi. The flavor is surprisingly full, yet subtle, muting the overboard acidness and chemical taste, resulting in a clean interpretation of the classic Pepsi taste. This is one drink you’ll want to throwback… again, and again, and again!