Surge: The Gem Soda of 1997

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How an attempt to win back lost market share became an underground phenomenon

In the mid 1990’s, Coca-Cola was losing money. Their long time rival, Pepsi, had made massive gains in the 1980s with a string of high profile celebrity endorsements. Coupled with a huge misstep (New Coke,) the makers of Coke knew that they needed a new hit.

Pepsi had also seen growth in the “alternative” or “edgy” space, by rebranding their caffeinated, lemon-lime style soda – Mountain Dew- as the perfect beverage for the budding skateboard/extreme sports/grunge catch-all culture on the rise in the late 1980s. Coke needed an answer. They began to develop a citrus, lemon-lime style soda called “Urge” and piloted it in 1996, with much acclaim in Norway. Thus, Surge was born and released in the US early in 1997.

The most 1997 thing I could say is we should check out “Bringing Down the Horse” by the Wallflowers, while plowing through a 12-pack of Surge on our way to have Friends interrupted by the Clinton Impeachment hearings.

The X-Games, Bucket Hats, “Warning” period Green Day. These are the things you need to think about to understand why Surge was huge. But, for as quickly as it grew to prominence, it also faded away. Perhaps it flew too close to the sun. Jumped the shark, maybe?

By 2003, the summer was over. The “Mountain Dew Killer” was gone. 

Had our tastes changed so dramatically in the last 6 years? Was it the urban legend that someone had drank too much of it, overdosed on caffeine, which killed them? Was this Yellow-5 related and potentially killing our sperm count? Coke says it is due to lagging sales. At this point, I don’t know if I believe them. 

Surge was on its way to the big soda shop in the sky, to rejoin its’ ranks with Crystal Pepsi and DNL (L-Up? The upside down 7 up? Who even knows what it was called). 

But something unexpected happen due to a small online bookstore called Amazon. They started releasing a special reissue of SURGE in 2014 as a special holiday promotion. Now it lives on in Burger Kings and niche Bar-Cade locations, which is where I ran into this ghost from my past last week.

My wife was sipping some craft-amber-micro-something and I had just finished a cream soda when something on the menu caught my eye. Calling me, beckoning me back to a pre-9/11 time when things seemed so much easier. 

So, I ordered one. 

Did it kill my sperm count? Did I drink too many and the caffeine will likely kill me? Only time will tell. But if you can name every track off of Matchbox 20’s “Yourself, or Someone Like You” then I recommend picking up a SURGE and dusting off your old CD binder.