A Word (or 1,500) about Coca-Cola Freestyles

The best place in the entire world to get a Coca-Cola is at The Varsity in downtown Atlanta. This is common knowledge. They sell a bajillion gallons of the stuff a day, I would think that they know what they’re doing by now. Since Coca-Cola HQ is right across the street from The Varsity, I would not be surprised if they just have a direct pipeline to the source.

Also serving up delicious Cokes? Smash Burger, Jimmy John’s, Jason’s Deli, McDonald’s, Regal Cinemas, Chick-Fil-A, and every soda fountain at your local sporting arena.

You know who has terrible Cokes? Firehouse Subs, Five Guys, Moe’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and AMC Theaters

Hey, you know what all these locations have in common? THEY USE COKE FREESTYLES.

Coke Freestyle

Listen. I was a fan of the Freestyle when it was first released – heck, I’m still a fan of the concept. What a cool idea! You can pick any flavor you want of any Coke product because it has them all! Invent your own! Create your very own soda suicide (you know, where you go to the gas station soda fountains and fill your cup with a squirt of every single thing in the line) all from the same nozzle! Interested in trying every single flavor in one sitting? Want a flavor that’s so unusual or rare that you’re not even sure they make it anymore? Go right ahead! Miss Cherry Vanilla Coke with a splash of lime and orange, your order is up!

Brilliant. Genius. Only one problem: The Cokes that come out of these things are AWFUL.

Like, really, truly terrible. And not in a “I only know this because I drink more Coke than water and can identify which fast-food place a Coke came from based solely on taste” kind of way, but in a “normal person who occasionally drinks soda” kind of way.

 In a “I may as well order a Pepsi” kind of way.
Coke vs Pepsi
I just Googled “Coke Pepsi” and this popped up from a Forbes article in 2012. I love it. One question: Since when is Pepsi red? Do you think they splattered some cranberry juice or something in there to make it look like Pepsi “blood”? Interesting choice. So ominous.

I’ll admit, the Freestyles aren’t a COMPLETE disaster. The Sprite is fine, if a little too crisp for my liking, but whatever. At least it’s halfway drinkable. But only if you don’t add any flavors to it, because then you’re right back in Yucksville. Some of the Fantas are okay. And it’s nice to have ginger ale or all the flavored Dasanis if you’re looking for something different. One of my friends pointed out that the Freestyles are very convenient if you’re diabetic, as all of the rare sugar-friendly options are instantly available to you.

But if you’re looking for the classic, refreshing taste of a fountain Coca-Cola, brace yourself: You’re getting a bland, over-carbonated brown beverage that leaves a strong chemical aftertaste instead. (If you just read that and thought to yourself “isn’t that just what Coca-Cola is in the first place?”, leave right now. HOW DARE YOU. Coca-Cola is the nectar of the gods.) It could be Coke. It could also be Pepsi. Or it could be your local grocery store’s brand of generic Cola flavor.

It’s not all that great, is what I’m saying.

Generic Cola
Pictured: The wide variety of flavors available in a Coke Freestyle

Freestyle Cokes taste different than typical fountain Cokes because of the way they’re made in the machine. Both “fountains” mix the syrup for each individual flavor with carbonated soda water, but the Freestyle syrup is loaded in a highly-condensed syrup-filled cartridge (think printer cartridges, but with Coke or Sprite syrup is in each cartridge.) Then if you add a flavor (cherry, vanilla, lime, etc.) to your main soda choice, all sodas pull from the same flavoring cartridge. So the traditional fountain Cherry Coke is actual Cherry Coke, pre-assembled and taste-tested by Coca-Cola, whereas a Freestyle Cherry Coke is Coke plus the same cherry flavoring that’s being added to anything else in the machine.

So if you instantly notice a difference when you get a drink at Freestyles, that’s likely what you’re noticing. If you order a Cherry Coke or Vanilla Coke or Diet Coke with Lime on Freestyles, you’re not getting the real, time-tested, sold-in-stores drinks you’ve tasted your whole life. You’re basically getting Coke from the QT soda fountain with the generic cherry flavoring you manually add.

Except, you know… The Coke at QT soda fountains is actually good.

Surge Soda Fountain
Speaking of good…

Also, and this seems to be a pretty common issue people have noted online (I’M NOT THE ONLY PERSON WHO DISLIKES COKE FREESTYLES), the fountain nozzle on Freestyles always tastes like the last drink it dispersed. So unless you let it run for a few seconds before putting your cup under it, your personally-designed Cherry Peach Fanta will taste like the Vanilla Diet Mr. Pibb the guy before you just got.

The most hilarious part of the whole Freestyle thing is how time-consuming it is to actually use the dang thing. If you walk up to a soda fountain, it’ll take you what, 2-3 seconds? Max? to see all the options, decide which drink you’re going for, then reach out and smash the button. And if you want a Coke and the guy next in line wants a Diet Coke, he can go ahead and jump in next to you and you can both use the soda fountain at the same time.

If you walk up to a Freestyle, you’re going to stand there for a while, making up your mind. What are all these different screens? How do I just get to normal Coke? Wait, I can get Seagram’s Ginger Ale? Cool, I kinda wanted – wait, I can flavor it? Oh wow, I wonder what grape ginger ale would taste like… Ew, no, that’s bound to be gross, I just want regular Coke. Wait, how do I get back to the home screen? Do I just touch these buttons? No, I didn’t want grape Coke, I wanted normal Coke. Do I push the button underneath the fountain for ice or is there a place on the screen for that? How do I get back home, I give up. I just want water. Wait, flavored water? I think I’m going to… And so on.

And the line of people waiting for the drink grows behind you, since only one person can get a drink at a time.

(In Coke’s defense, they have apparently developed an app you can download on your smartphone that lets you create your flavor ahead of time and provides you a QR code that you scan on the Freestyle so it automatically recognizes your flavor. Which is… Cool, I suppose… But an unrealistic thing to expect everyone to do.)

Not to mention that touch screen technology, while seemingly commonplace nowadays, can still take a while for a lot of people to figure out how to navigate. Good luck getting a Coke without any assistance from a millennial, Grandpa.

But my favorite feature of the Freestyles, by far, is the fact that if one of the flavors runs out of syrup, then the entire machine is shut down – and EVERY FLAVOR IS UNAVAILABLE – while the cartridge is being replaced. A few weeks ago I witnessed a sandwich shop come to a grinding halt because one of the flavors had run out and the entire machine was completely out of commission. I was bored, so I counted. Eleven people stood there, empty cups in hand, waiting for literally any employee to come out from behind the counter in the middle of the very busy lunch rush to install a fresh flavor cartridge for a drink that – again, I watched – only two people out of the eleven actually ended up getting once it was back up and running. That’s nine people waiting in line that didn’t have to be.

Coca Cola Lineup Of Bottles With Dates
2017: A giant smartphone that dispenses disappointment

And don’t get me started on Freestyles at the movie theater. Hey, you know when you’re most likely to be in a rush? When you’re running out in the middle of a movie to refill your drink since you ordered the XXL popcorn with extra salt. I understand that some theaters must have rows of Freestyles (like the one pictured at the top of this post,) but I have yet to see that in person – most theaters I’ve seen only have one or two. Sorry, dude, but you’re about to miss the next ten minutes of exploding cars and Vin Diesel flexing because a line of thirteen-year old girls who were just dropped off by their moms have another hour to kill before Hunger Games: Vampire Edition, and they’re about to taste-test every single Coca-Cola product with strawberry flavoring. LOL!

But I’m aware that my complaints, and the complaints of others, are falling on deaf ears. Coca-Cola LOVES these machines, and why wouldn’t they? They monitor all the drinks everyone gets from the Freestyles and mine the data. And then they figure out the most popularly-selected flavor and bam! The moment they put it on the market as an individual product, instant seller! It’s a guaranteed money-making product since they already have stats that support how many people love it.

I’ve had, and you probably have too, the first of the “Freestyle-inspired” drinks: Cherry Sprite. Which, I’ll be honest, I was on board with. It seemed like the most obvious next drink for Coke to market – I’ve added grenadine to Sprite before. It’s literally a Shirley Temple, just clear and bottled.

Only problem: It tastes EXACTLY like it does coming out of the Freestyle machines. Which is to say, not very good.

Cherry Sprite
Once again, America suffers at LeBron’s success.