You may have seen in the news today, that Tesco has decided to stop selling Ribena in its shops. If you’re American, you’re probably asking yourself: “what the hell is a Tesco?” and “What the hell is Ribena?”
The first one is easy to answer: Tesco is a British supermarket chain.
The Ribena question is more difficult to explain to an American audience. Ribena is a kind of a sugary, squash-type drink…. wait, you probably don’t know what squash is…it’s made from blackcurrants, which is a fruit you’ve never heard of, or tasted… um… it’s got an aftertaste a bit like Lucozade. No, that’s not any better if you don’t know what Lucozade is. Hmmm. How can I explain British drinks, their flavour, and their cultural significance to an audience without a common frame of reference?
I know! I’ll describe Ribena, and other British-only drinks by categorising them as if they were members of The 1990s Britpop group The Spice Girls:
Baby spice: drinks you might give to your children:
Ribena is made from blackcurrants, a fruit that tastes a bit like cranberries that had been watered exclusively with cough syrup. Ribena has a weird metallic aftertaste and is a popular feature in school lunchboxes, put there by mums who say things like: “Never did me no ‘arm.” Tesco’s decision to ban Ribena from its shops for health reasons puts an entire nation of mothers on the defensive, as the supermarket chain is essentially calling them all child abusers.
Squash is a generic term for any kind of inexpensive sugary concentrated fruit juice. At kid’s birthday parties, squash is mixed with water and served in pitchers to unsuspecting children who then grow up being disappointed with how bland real fruit is by comparison.
Lemonade in the UK is always carbonated, and has very little lemony flavour. In fact it tastes much like 7-up or Sprite. It’s used frequently as an ingredient in cocktails here. So of course, it’s frequently given to children, to give them a taste for it.
Horlicks is an old-fashioned malty powder that is mixed in with water (or sometimes milk) and then drank warm, often at bedtime. I gave some to my 7 year old daughter last night, and she said to me: “Father, what have I done to merit your displeasure?”
Sporty Spice: Every day drinks and sport drinks:
Lucozade is basically shitty Gatorade. I once saw in an online forum that an American dared to call it a “rip-off” of Gatorade. UK posters were quick to point out that in fact Lucozade had in fact been invented first. This is clearly a point of national pride for the British, for which they must be recognised. Being first though, doesn’t always mean being best. For example, the British also were the first people to have developed civilian concentration camps, an innovation of the Boer War.
Yakult is a strange little sour yoghurt drink that is sold in cute little plastic bottles and is meant to aid in digestion. Bought mostly by old men- it has a taste that Mongolian raiders might enjoy as an aperitif, before their assault on a nearby farming village.
Ginger spice: Middle class and “safe” beverages
Ginger Beer is like ginger ale, but stronger, much stronger. It exists in America, but it’s much more popular over here.
Lime and Soda is lime squash plus sparkling water. It’s often ordered in pubs by designated drivers and teetotallers.
Shandy can either be a pre-made non-alcoholic beer style drink, or it can be a beverage you get in a pub that is beer mixed with a soft drink. Either way, it’s a good thing to choose if you think that drinks in general have far too much flavour and you like things in life that are watered down.
Scary spice: Truly weird drinks with an acquired taste
Irn Bru is a carbonated beverage that tastes like sparkling water mixed with engine oil. Apparently, it’s the most popular drink in Scotland, where it even outsells Coca Cola. I drank my first Irn Bru in preparation for this blog, and soon after I noticed my nose hair was looking thicker. Coincidence?
I also drank my first Supermalt, again as research for this blog. It was like liquid Marmite. Please profit from my sacrifice dear reader, and avoid Supermalt as if it were Superplague.
Tizer: Tastes like super-carbonated liquid juicy fruit gum with a weird bitter aftertaste. Also popular in Scotland. What the hell is going on in Scotland?
Posh Spice, Posh drinks
Cordials are squash drinks for adults. They are exactly the same as squash, but if you call them “cordials” you get to sell them to grown-ups at a 400% mark-up.
Pimms is the British version of Sangria. It’s a kind of mildly alcoholic iced-tea tasting liquer that is served with lemonade (British lemonade as above) and fruit, mint and cucumbers. It’s only served in summer, and if it’s done right it’s delicious.
Dandelion and Burdock is another nostalgic drink from Britain’s past that has made a comeback. It’s meant to be made with the natural juice by-product of fermented flowers, but it’s mostly just sugar and artificial flavours nowadays, and marketed as an upscale alternative to lemonade.
Go on down to your local working class pub and ask the barkeep for an elderflower pressé. Make sure to emphasise the é sound at the end of the word Pressé. Invariably served in fashionably unusual bottles, elderflower pressés are the sine qua non* of posh British soft drinks.
*Did I use “sine qua non” correctly? I think I did- I was afraid to look it up, because the last bit of research I did for this stupid blog had me drinking beverages that tasted like industrial waste and obsessively monitoring my nostrils for signs of overgrowth.
If you’re British and you’ve read the above, you may find yourself wondering what your American cousins imbibe if they don’t partake of Irn Bru and Ribena. Well of course you know all about Coca Cola, but how about Root Beer? It tastes a bit like Irn Bru meets Supermalt- well not really. More like ginger beer mixed with lemonade… that’s not it either. Ugh, as above I’ll try to explain by using pop-culture characters- this time using the cast from the classic 1980s high school drama “The Breakfast Club”:
Molly Ringwald: Sweet and popular:
Root beer is awesome. It’s the taste of America. Earthy, sweet and complex. It tastes like freedom. You can put a big scoop of vanilla ice cream in with it, and then the root beer tastes better, and even the ice cream tastes better. How perfect is that?
Iced tea is made from tea that has been iced. Let me repeat that for my British readers. We take tea. Then we put ice on it. Ice, by the way, is water that has been chilled into a solid state. In America we put it on drinks. Yes, even on tea. You should try it.
Emilio Estevez: Jock drinks
Gatorade exists in the UK, but it’s not easy to find. In the USA, it’s so ubiquitous that the 2006 film Idiocracy posited a future where it came out of all the taps and was used to ‘water’ all the crops. That’s a future I want to be part of. This blog would be incredibly popular.
Mountain Dew is green and carbonated. It’s horrifically unnatural. It’s the crystal meth of American soft drinks. But thanks to a hugely successful advertising campaign, it’s somehow become associated with extreme sports. It’s sporadically available in the UK- but without that sport connection, all you’ve been left with is green crystal meth soda. Yum.
Ally Sheedy: Different, and kind of unpopular
Mello Yello: I have only vague memories of having tried Mello Yello when I was a kid. I haven’t seen it on a supermarket shelf in many years. But apparently it still exists and is still marketed, especially in America’s southern states. I think it’s kind of Mountain Dew-like, but I can’t recall. It’s like that weird smelly kid from school that you forgot existed, and you never think about, but you vaguely remember when someone brings up all the losers you went to school with.
Mr Pibb/Pibb Xtra: Mr Pibb was always seen as a second-class root beer substitute. I don’t really remember what it tastes like, but apparently it’s a bit more “cherry” flavoured than root beer. Recently the Coca Cola company attempted to “Poochie the dog” this old drink by rebranding it “Pibb Xtra.” Like that’s fooling anyone.
Judd Nelson: A little different, with a little bit of attitude.
Dr Pepper is starting to show up on British shores, it’s a bit like Root Beer. I’ve placed this under Judd Nelson, because Dr Pepper is a bit of an unusual drink, not nearly as popular as root beer, but with a band of strongly dedicated followers. To be honest, all of the American drinks on this list could be “Judd Nelsons” because they all market themselves as having “attitude” and being “a little bit different.” But like Mr Nelson, they’re in fact not really authentic or punk at all. They’re all just Coca Cola- same old crap. Dr Pepper too. Big phonies. Go ahead, give me detention. I’ve got all the Saturdays in the world.
Anthony Michael Hall: Nerdy kid drinks
Yoohoo is a chocolate milk drink without any milk in it. It’s the kind of thing only pre-teens drink. Last time I had one, I think Jimmy Carter was president. I remember it being good- but then again, I remember loving Twinkies and Sno-balls (google them).
Welch’s grape soda is a strong purple-coloured drink allegedly made from red grapes. Again, only drank by kids, it’s the closest thing America has to Ribena. That’s not a compliment.
Hawaiian Punch is an overly-sweet fruit punch for children. I remember it having a weird after-taste, but I couldn’t get my hands on any to try to refresh my memory for this blog.
Kool-Aid is the final drink on our list. It’s a fruit punch drink, generally made out of a sugary powder, similar to Hawaiian Punch. Kool-Aid as a drink, and as a concept, is joyous and tragic at the same time. Joyous, because of the amazing ad campaign that made it famous, involving a huge talking pitcher that would crash through walls in order to quench children’s thirst. The tragic aspect of course comes from its association with a 1978 cult massacre. The “reverend” Jim Jones convinced hundreds of his followers to drink a cyanide-laced fruit punch drink that was allegedly made from Kool-Aid. Ever since, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” has become a metaphor used to describe anyone who accepts things/concepts/sugary drinks without questioning. You’ll read in countless online forums, Americans accusing other Americans of “drinking the Kool-Aid” whenever there’s a disagreement.
If only they could just get along, and learn to find that they all have much more in common than they realised… That despite being nerdy, or jock-ish or popular, or weird, or coming from different cliques, that all Americans have important values that they share, and aren’t as different as they first appear to be. I only wish there was some metaphor that I could think of, some story I could tell, that would show that we all can get along, that, like our beverages, we’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.
Oh yeahhhh !
ADDENDUM: I apparently overlooked quite a few “strange” British drinks. Here’s an updated list. Thanks AB:
Vimto (a bit like Ribena but kind of cheap tasting)
Um-bongo (allegedly drunk in the Congo)
Tango (just like fanta but with legendary adverts)
Bitter lemon (maybe too well known?)
Appletise (popular in the 80s and 90s)
– though according to wiki it is South African
Barley water – popular around Wimbledon
Lilt – totally tropical taste
Sunny Delight – big scandal in 90s as allegedly turned kids orange (though might be American originally?)
R Whites lemonade – just a normal lemonade but had an iconic advert ‘I’m a secret lemonade drinker’
Calypso drinks – Strangely flat and came in wierd square plastic cup with red straw too flimsy to break seal. Prob illegal now.
Panda pop – what people to poor to afford Coke drink *Editor’s note, in the USA, the drink for people too poor to afford Coke is RC Cola.
Stone’s ginger wine – originally popularised as a cure for cholera
11 thoughts on “Ribena, whybena? A guide to strange British (and American) beverages”
Root Beer…soda mixed with Germolene
You missed Vimto!
And I was told when in Florida, Gatorade was made from pond water in Gatorland…tastes like it too 🙂
Apparently I also forgot Bovril- which I had understood to be a weird meat spread and hadn’t realised people make into a drink. Oh Britain….
Delicious…and I was surprised you actually mentioned Marmite 🙂
You added the lemonade at the end even though it was already near the top of the list.. Nice list though although I don’t agree on some tastes..
You’re unfunny and irritating, stopped reading halfway through your feeble attempt at humour regarding Ribena. Go back to school and grow a brain.
Also of note: ‘Fresh orange and lemonade’. The drink my husband, a Brit, orders especially when he is the designated driver. Basically orange juice (is it actually fresh?) with sparkling water because, as you so rightly observed, British lemonade tastes of nothing really
The Spanish invented the concentration camp in 1895. Just sayin’.
IRN BRU & TIZER, just a couple of Scottish beverages, not quite as popular as another Scottish beverage, just known as SCOTCH, not to be confused with whiskey from other parts of the world. Scottish confectionary would require a large chapter on it’s own….Principle ingredient – SUGAR
A bevereage doesn’t make nose hair look bigger that’s just strange, irn bru is nice and doesn’t change aspects on people’s faces
Dr Pepper has been here in the UK for a long time, I remember it from 20 years ago at least. Horrible stuff it is.
You shouldn’t be so hard on Supermalt. Try it ice cold. Swigging rather that sipping is better and don’t keep it in your mouth too long… I’m not really selling it am I?
I was told that people working in the Kool Aid factories got sores on their skin from exposure if the powder substance. I do not drink Kool Aid anymore