Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Topo Chico

The New York Times has finally discovered what Texans have known for years: Topo Chico is the best sparkling water in the world.
This super bubbly agua mineral, in retro green-tinted glass bottles, has developed a fervent following here in Texas. Devotees stock entire refrigerators with the stuff and tattoo themselves with the brand’s logo, an Aztec princess who legend has it was healed by drinking the water, which emanates from an inactive volcano in Monterrey.

Bottles of Topo Chico are tabletop everywhere in Texas this time of year, including tatty taquerias in the Rio Grande Valley and reservations-only restaurants in Houston.

The water is often the finishing fizz in cocktails at the hippest bars in Austin and the sidecar to espresso drinks at indie coffee shops in Dallas. Don’t even ask for San Pellegrino or Perrier; they’re likely not served.

At supermarkets and bodegas, it’s hard to find a shopping cart that doesn’t contain a 12-pack of Topo Chico. According to the market research firm IRI, Topo Chico has captured 62 percent of imported sparkling water sales at grocery stores in Texas, and 74 percent at convenience stores.

Sales in the United States were around $58 million for the year ending in June, up 83 percent from 2012, no doubt helped by health-conscious consumers who are avoiding sugary and artificially sweetened carbonated soft drinks.

Social media posts indicate that Topo Chico is difficult to find outside Texas. Its American distributor, Interex, in Fort Worth, said it is available, albeit to a lesser extent, in 29 other states.
Okay, so I could probably do with the overwrought "Topo Chico is a hipster drink!" vibe of this article. I've never seen anybody with a Topo Chico tattoo, and, no, shopping carts lacking a 12-pack of Topo Chico are not "rare," at least where I shop. And for the record, the only type of Topo Chico that comes in "retro green-tinted glass bottles" is the lime-flavored variety; the original stuff comes in clear bottles. This journalistic overreach aside, I'm not surprised that Topo Chico claims the majority of imported sparkling water sales in Texas (take that, Gerolsteiner!): its popularity is unquestionable. But what exactly is Topo Chico?
To be sure, travelers and even locals in Mexico are warned against drinking the water, but Topo Chico has been bottled and consumed there since 1895.

Before that, travelers from the United States flocked to Monterrey to drink and bathe in what newspapers of the era called “thermal springs” at the base of Cerro del Topo Chico (“little mole hill”). The water was said to have great medicinal value in the treatment of tuberculosis, liver disorders and rheumatism.

Nowadays the water continues to be bottled at the source after a purification process that the bottler, Compañía Embotelladora Topo Chico, said does not alter the water’s natural mineral composition, which includes sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium and manganese.

Carbonation is added, but just enough to restore any fizziness lost during purification, in keeping with  F.D.A. rules for products sold as sparkling water.

The bottler makes no health claims other than that the water “quenches thirst” and “aids in digestive processes.” But some Texans insist it’s the best hangover cure.
I don't know if Topo Chico makes my hangovers any better, but its fizziness certainly feels great on a parched morning-after throat.
Beyond any curative powers, many fans of Topo Chico will tell you that it just tastes good. Justin Yu, the chef and owner of Oxheart in Houston, said it’s better than the sparkling water he grew accustomed to drinking while doing internships in Europe.

“There’s nothing better than a cold Topo Chico after a long, hard service,” said Mr. Yu, who was named 2016 Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. “I think it has a cleaner taste, it’s definitely the fizziest and I really enjoy the slight salinity.”

The cookbook author and “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons got hooked on Topo Chico while filming in Austin five years ago. “I would get in deep discussions with friends there about why it’s such an obsession — was it the size of the bubbles, the salinity, the slight citrusy note?” she said. “I consumed it as much as possible when I was in Texas, and then I came home to New York and was a little distraught because I couldn’t get it anymore.”
I think I began drinking Topo Chico 15 or so years ago, when I was looking for a mineral water that would approximate the taste and effervescence of Ecuador's Güitig (which I drank out of necessity when I lived there; Ecuadorian tap water wasn't allowed anywhere near my mouth). The breakfast taco place near my work was one of the few places in Denton that carried Topo Chico, and I became a fan. Obviously over time a lot of other people here in Texas have, as well; Topo Chico used to be carried almost exclusively by Mexican restaurants and grocery stores in Hispanic neighborhoods, but it is now sold by the pallet at Costco.

But what's the big deal about Topo Chico? you might ask. Aren't all fizzy waters the same? In a word, no. There are perceptible differences between brands - the taste created by the mineral content, the amount of carbonation in the water - and I believe Topo Chico simply tastes (and feels) the best. Los Angeles Magazine agrees; last May they sampled eleven brands of sparkling water and decided that Topo Chico came out on top:
This is officially the fizz water that all other fizz waters should aspire to. Topo Chico won big for what was aptly described by Audie as a “slicing bubble” (we really ran out of adjectives to describe bubbles) and scored a full 11 points over Gerolsteiner. The cute, retro glass bottle packaging also won our hearts. Well done, Topo Chico—you might be the new Mexican Coke.
Now that the New York Times has discovered what the "cool Texans" are drinking, will Topo Chico become so popular that demand overwhelms the amount of water that the plant in Monterrey is able to produce, and the drink becomes increasingly expensive and hard to find? That's certainly a possibility, and the Chronicle's Craig Hlavaty fears the Topo Chico shortages to come. Fortunately, Topo Chico's distribution range in the States is limited - at least for now - and it appears that the nation has already adopted La Croix as the popular, in-demand sparkling water. I'm not worried that there's going to be a run on bottles of Topo Chico anytime soon.

Besides... Even if Topo Chico does become the national rage, I'm not going to become the sparkling water version of the guy who liked a particular band until they became popular and stop drinking it. It's just too good of a drink to pass up.

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