Friday, May 10, 2019

Meet Beverly: The Italian Connection

If you've been to Epcot in the past 20 years, you've almost certainly come across it at the Coca-Cola free soda exhibit... a clear, odorless, intensely bitter soda being dispensed under the amusingly bland name "Beverly". So infamously unwelcome is this product it's become a common prank to trick somebody into drinking it, or take the "Beverly Challenge" and watch the imbiber squirm:

Look online and you'll find plenty of colorful adjectives to describe it: the worst taste in the world, like old socks, like puke.

But there's more to the stuff than that! And with the Coke exhibit likely ready to be torn down in the next couple of years, let's take a quick tour of what Beverly actually is, learn some history about it, and perhaps gain some perspective on what is actually a fairly interesting little beverage that's been making hapless American tourists gag for 20 years.

Italy, Meet Beverly

Beverly is an aperitif drink, which is a tradition essentially unknown in the United States but beloved in northern Italy.

You almost certainly have come across forms of the aperitif recently in the United States, with the bitter Italian subcategory of drinks lately being very vougeish among drinkers. The most infamous is currently the Negroni. As author Mark Kingwell memorably noted, the Negroni is not a drink for fence-sitters - it's strong, bitter, and thick, and those who love it love it precisely because it's overkill.

If you're allergic to bitter flavors and all you've had in the way of experience is Beverly and perhaps a sip of Negroni you're going to be tempted to write the whole thing off right now... but wait. There is an aperitif for every palette.

Perhaps more fundamental to the concept of the aperitif is the ubiquitous Italian vermouth, a mild red wine spiced up with various botanicals. Poured into a tall glass over ice, it's as basic and Italian as an aperitif gets, and a gentle start to an evening of leisure.

But the thing is, I can't really convey what an aperitif is in toto by pointing out examples, because simply an aperitif isn't a single product so much as it is a whole range of practices - a whole way of thinking about things that went down in flames in the United States with the death of the cocktail hour. And while elaborate drinking rituals have returned in city centers over the past two decades, as Americans we still don't have an instituted culture of stopping the work day with a lightly alcoholic, sparkling drink as a prelude to dinner.

That's really what can't be conveyed here, in this country where we have trouble keeping work out of the rest of life and cannot stand any dickering around over matters such as stopping to enjoy a casual drink and snack at the cusp of the evening. But it's a very civilized way to start the evening, if you're so inclined to give it a try - and the options available to you are numerous.

There are as many apertif beverages as there are towns in Italy, and they cover the entire range from sweet and welcoming to minty and medicinal. The most common options are Aperol, Cynar, Ramazzotti, Campari, Montenegro, and Averna, but there are hundreds. The other thing to understand is the most common way of taking these beverages is to top them up with sparkling water or prosecco, which utter transforms them. Bitter Campari, which taken straight from the bottle will remind many Americans of cough syrup, lightens up into a surprisingly sweet, round drink redolent of blood oranges when lengthened with seltzer. It is therefore appropriate to think of these bottled mixers as being comparable to the concentrated syrup that Coca-Cola is made from - tough to drink on its own, but add carbonated water and the flavors open up dramatically. Pre-diluted bottles of the most popular options, such as Campari, are sold throughout Italy for easy imbibing.

Which brings us back to Coca-Cola.

Coke introduced Beverly in Italy in 1970 in an effort to hedge their way into the popular regional drinking traditions. Advertised as "Cold as Helsinki - Sparkling as Rio - Dry as El Paso", advertisements of the day show a non-alcoholic, deep red (!) beverage alongside newspapers and revelers. And if you were a gigantic corporation trying to establish a toehold in an international market that had remained stubbornly loyal to traditional local beverages, what would you do to sway drinkers to try your new product? You'd probably model it as closely as possible on the most popular aperitif on the market, wouldn't you?

The flavor profile Coke chose to emulate was Montenegro, among the lightest and sweetest of the amari on the market. Montenegro is among the most approachable options on the market, herbal and sweet straight out of the bottle rather than harsh or minty as many are - the Montenegro American website suggests such options as a "Monte Mule", "Monte Manhattan" or "Montenegroni" for home mixographers. But to an American Epcot fan, all it takes is one sip and you'll immediately know - this tastes like Beverly. Actually - this tastes better than Beverly.

Around 2007, I began to become interested in getting ahold of the real bottled Beverly, but could find nobody who could import it for me. According to the World of Coke website, Beverly was discontinued in 2009.... if it was widely available at all by then. Traditional amari won... at least in Italy.

World, Meet Beverly

Coke and Disney have always had a traditional partnership, but it wasn't until the 80s when the company laid down sponsorship money for The American Adventure at EPCOT Center that Coke really solidified their hold on Disney - a position they have yet to cede. Ahead of the opening of Animal Kingdom, Coke negotiated a new deal with Disney for a series of drink stands across the resort, which resulted in some of the tackiest features of Walt Disney World's absolutely most garish period. Animal Kingdom got off easy, with the beautifully realized Dwolla drink bar in Asia. Of the rest, the least egregious was the expansion of the Refreshment Outpost in World Showcase's "Africa" section into the Refreshment COOLpost. Disney-MGM Studios got this terrible freestanding oversized 6-pack of Coke:

Instead of the Hot Set, this was the COOL set, and the lid of the giant bottle would pop open and spray passersby with water. I still can't believe this survived for two decades.

Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland stand, the COOL Ship, at least somewhat fits in with the rest of the area, although why we are still subjected to stacked shipping boxes of cola is the definition of suspect theming. Perhaps the stacked futuristic shipping boxes of Coke were a necessary counterbalance to the stacked futuristic shipping boxes of Fed-Ex which once littered the open floor space in the Space Mountain queue?

This is the official photo, look how proud they are.

But poor Future World got the worst of it, starting with the Test Track COOL Wash, where blinking lights inform us "Frozen When Flashing!". Mist and fans spray water out in all directions, car wash bristles reveal the shape of cola bottles when spinning, and a Test Track car in the center of it all has the last remaining crash test dummy. Here it is in 2007 with its original Test Track colors:

Mr. Iger, tear down this car wash!

But somehow none of that was quite as bad as a giant igloo in the middle of Epcot, emblazoned with the pink text "Ice Station Cool".

Opening in July 1998, Ice Station Cool at least was the most elaborate of these experiences, offering a short tunnel where the temperature was kept near freezing thanks to a pair of air curtains and a show machine regularly produced snow drifts. This emptied into a shop themed after an arctic exploration base stocked with Coke t-shirts. The drinks were dispensed by these strange contraptions aimed a gigantic globe on the rear wall of the shop.

The most memorable aspect of Ice Station Cool was the frozen caveman glimpsed halfway through the cold tunnel, of course captured in ice at the moment of his demise clutching a bottle of Coke. Personally, as a frequent visitor to Epcot in 2004 and 2005, the most memorable aspect was the raised rubber treads on the floor, which were perpetually sticky with spilled soda. By that time the air curtains had been turned down and the snow machine would simply dribble some cold water on your head. But perhaps, in the end, truly the most noteworthy thing about Ice Station Cool his that it unleashed Beverly on an unsuspecting population.

In 2005, Ice Station Cool was closed and reworked into Club Cool, the form that it exists in today. This basic installation was copied and brought back to the World of Coke attraction in Atlanta, where it is known as the "Taste It!" exhibit. The original flavors were Krest Ginger Ale, Fanta Kolita, Beverly, Vegeta Beta, Kinley Lemon, Lift Apple, Smart Watermelon, and Mezzo Mix.

As you have probably realized by now, I have remained a fan of Beverly since I began to become accustomed to bitter flavors in my 20s, and more than once repeated shots of Beverly have saved me from dehydration after a full lap around World Showcase on a summer day. I've been the subject of intended pranks to "tricking" me into drinking it, which I have always done and reported my enjoyment. To me, the bitter taste of Beverly is as much a part of Epcot as Spaceship Earth.

What I'm not convinced of, however, is that what Coke is distributing there is actually a fair representation of Beverly.

In the research dives for this article I've only ever come across very old Italian advertising for Beverly, which to me suggests that even before Coke officially pulled the plug on the stuff in 2009 it was effectively off the market anyway. What Beverly tasted like in Italy in the 70s we'll never know, but I'm not convinced that the Epcot version is an accurate version. For one, it's not red, which we know for sure the product was on launch. Additionally, it's much, much bitter-er than Montenegro, which it's transparently modeled on. Third, it's being distributed for free in a theme park by the division of the company that never produced it. I think Coke is offering a fairly crude approximation of Beverly, that the real product in the 70s was likely much better balanced, and of course the pure volume of the stuff being mixed with carbonated tap water and dispensed into tiny paper cups all but ensures that the flavor will never be quite right.

But the fact is that even if the flavor was dead accurate, the context would always, always be wrong. Epcot tourists have certain in-built expectations when they see Coca-Cola, and something dry and bitter is not one of them. Additionally, placed right in a row of sweet flavors, the bitter, medicinal taste will always hit harder than if it were sampled, say, before the rest. Presented across a bar, in a tiny glass, and offered as something reminiscent of a Dry Martini, Beverly would have an opportunity to find an appreciative audience. But Coke knew very well what they were doing here, and they set up these tourists to gag and groan and spit and do all of the things they've been doing since July 1998.

Except some of us. Some of us who really like it.

We have no idea if the Coke exhibit is going to be relocated once Communicore gets torn down in a few years, and with Beverly off the market, what's a fan of bitter soda to do?

Home Bar, Meet Beverly

Once I came across Montenegro and immediately recognized it as the basis for the taste of Beverly, I began excitedly experimenting. Perhaps it would be easy enough to simply dilute the stuff with seltzer and I could enjoy Beverly at home?

It wasn't that easy. Over my years of making Negronis at home, I've learned that amari react in strange and unusual ways to being tinkered with. As a syrupy mixer, they have a background taste that some of their least kind critics compare to cough syrup. Diluted, the sweetness becomes properly checked and the fruit flavors emerge. Stirred with other spirits, the bitterness comes forward and the syrupy quality remains. Shaken up with ice, the syrupy quality vanishes and a pleasant, surprising dryness emerges - one can easy make a Negroni into a dry, summery drink by shaking it up with and orange wedge, whereas the stirred version is a strong, brooding drink.

In this case, the Montenegro simply turned into orange soda once it was diluted with seltzer, far too sweet to hit those familiar Epcot Beverly notes. I would have to get creative.

In this case my blueprint was a spin on the Negroni called the Lucien Gaudin, which balances the aggressive Campari with triple sec, resulting in a surprisingly sophisticated cocktail. Again the gentle nature of Montenegro required careful handling and rebalancing.

The result is a beverage that tastes reminiscent of Beverly but with the edges sanded off. It's orangey-sweet and not too strong, which required a new name...

Velvet Beverly 
1 tsp St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 oz Dry Vermouth
3/4 oz Montenegro Amaro
1 oz Dry Gin
Stir until very cold and strain into a cocktail couple. Garnish with a fancy lemon peel.

The Elderflower Liqueur can be substituted for Triple Sec, Maraschino or indeed any other cordial you enjoy. Go easy on the teaspoon - most of the sweet in the drink comes from the Montenegro, which should be kept in check.

Even those of you who prefer to keep things on the sweet side will perhaps next time stop by Club Cool and think of Beverly in a different way. When your palette becomes fatigued by the sugar, try a sip or two to cleanse your taste buds. Or pour yourself a cup while you're leaving and sip it as you stroll into World Showcase, as a refreshing and fortifying end to your sugar high.

It's a fascinating product, a failed attempt to emulate a fortified cordial invented in 1885 half a world away, then re-created to shock and surprise theme park tourists in Orlando. Even 20 years later it's a stranger to this land - dislocated, out of time - but sometimes it's the strange things I treasure the most. Ciao!

We have more entries on Walt Disney World drinks, real and invented:
Jungle Navigation Co. Punch | The Seven Seas Drink | Howling Dog Bend