Why Austin Is Turning Its Back on Topo Chico
In the wake of an acquisition by Coca-Cola, does Texas' favorite cult seltzer deserve the flak?
Photo via Flickr user Paul Sableman
The most violent act ever committed against Topo Chico happened in its own backyard, against a concrete mural in one of the hundreds of boozy, sundazed patio bars that dot Austin, Texas' east side. The scene of the crime, specifically, was The Grackle—a dive where you can order local crafts and tater tots, then bike off into the red-hot horizon with your personal cadre of lovable burnouts, bassists, and idiots. (You know, the Austin fantasy you were sold on, if you value a certain amount of unmooredness.) Tim Murphy, the owner of The Grackle, threw a full bottle of Topo against the side of his bar and watched it break apart and bleed seltzer before popping the seal of a Jarritos Mineral Water. The video was posted to his Instagram, where Murphy formally announced that Topo, along with any other Coca-Cola products, will no longer be served in his establishment. "Thanks for giving Topo Chico the new Austin treatment," he seethed. "Making something great unaffordable."
For the uninitiated, Topo Chico is a coarse mineral water sourced and bottled in Monterrey, Mexico that emerged as the definitive beverage for a certain archetype of Texan scenedom—a sort of Pabst Blue Ribbon-like codifier that was handed out at house parties and Austin City Limits sets, and the preferred nonalcoholic beverage of the sort of Southern boys and Southern girls who have multiple thigh tattoos. At least, that was the case until this past October, when Coca-Cola acquired the company and pissed off a whole nation of Topo drinkers. Texans are naturally territorial, and Austinites in particular will never let go of their locals-only faithfulness. Perhaps the soda titan thought it would be able to shake off its corporate stigma, but diplomacy erodes quickly in the Lone Star state. You can never underestimate how quickly Texans will disown those who do not have Texas' best interests in mind.
Murphy won't tell me exactly how much Coke raised the price of wholesale Topo, (though one rumor has that tariff ballparked at around $7 per 24-count case,) but he says he took the news as an "insult." "Coca-Cola is not the first [company] to double its costs to consumers but as a local business owner who’s still trying to provide reasonably priced drinks to his regulars and newcomers alike, it was a price increase that made their product something that I could no longer sell at a reasonable price," he says. (Coca-Cola did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the acquisition.)
"Topo Chico emerged as an iconic Texas brand for much of the same reason anything branded Texas does: because we claimed it."
Additionally, the Coca-Cola corporation has dispatched a steady stream of ambassadors to try to convince Murphy to reconsider his Topo-smashing ways. Each of them has been politely but firmly shown the door. Clearly, the spirit of The Grackle's outrage—the nuts and bolts of a massive company futzing around with a beloved product—is earnest. By replacing its supplies with a brand like Jarritos, Murphy effectively stymied the demands for Topo with a drink that is still independent, and still adoptively Texan in its own way. There are precious few moments of optimism in 2018, and perhaps a corporation wresting away Texans’ cultural authority over a sparkling water could be the genesis of a collective mental breakdown.
Of course, as Washington, DC-based journalist, Topo drinker, and ancestral Texan Kelsey McKinney points out, Topo Chico has bottled Coke at its plants for the Mexican market since at least the 1920s, which gives the change in ownership a sense of plurality that boycotters might not want to admit. "Like most acquisitions like this, this is great for the company of Topo Chico. They will make lots of money, many people will drink their water, and their brand recognition will go through the roof," she says. "Selfishly, I'm happy this is happening because it means they will probably start shipping Topo to where I live and I can stop trekking all the way to the one weird gas station that carries it."
I am guilty of that complicity, too. While I am not natively Texan, I lived in Austin for my college years, and a future where I can drink Topo anywhere in the country is a future I can believe in. But from my time living in Texas, I understand how Lone Star fealty works, and how much of it is predicated on a fundamental mistrust of Yankees and Californians, particularly the ones that carpetbag Southern culture. Topo Chico has only really been a Texas tradition since the 90s, and in no way does it carry the aortic load of H-E-B, or Whataburger, or Blue Bell ice cream, or any of the other consumer iconography that adds up into the state's national heritage. But as McKinney explains, that doesn't really matter.
"Topo Chico emerged as an iconic Texas brand for much of the same reason anything branded Texas does: because we claimed it," she says. "If you think about the act of 'branding' anything, you are literally lighting an iron symbol and forcing it onto and item saying 'mine.' Texans love to do this because the state pride is so strong. Anything Texans have that other people don't have is branded as Texan and tried to keep separate."
Yes, at the end of the day we are talking about water. Sure, it's sourced from Nuevo León, and it's equipped with an appealingly homespun logo, and it comes in a glass bottle. But it's still definitely water. ("Honestly, if it came in a can or a plastic bottle, I don't think people would give much of a shit about it," says Dan Solomon, a Texas Monthly contributor.)
Perhaps there is something a little bit outrageous about breaking Topos against the wall and declaring martial law on an entire catalog of the parent company's soft drinks, but it is outrageous in a way that is familiar and warm to a semi-honorary Lone Star citizen like me, who learned to love the state and all the ridiculous hills it chooses to die on. Good luck to The Grackle in fighting off the vampires, and good luck to the Coca-Cola corporation in its extremely unenviable task of working its way back into the good graces of a population of Texans who have learned to treat every invader with a withering sense of skepticism.
Please, don't go after Big Red next. I'm warning you.