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Day 22: São Luís

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A billboard advertises the favourite local soft drink, Guaraná Jesus. The bull shows it's been canned specially for the Bumba Meu Boi festivities.
Michael Palin - BrazilIt goes without saying that Jesus is popular in Brazil, but up here in the state of Maranhão Jesus Christ has competition in the popularity stakes from Jesus Norberto Gomes. Jesus Gomes was a pharmacist who, in 1921, discovered a new formula for a popular soft drink made from guaraná, an Amazonian fruit twice as rich in caffeine as coffee itself. The drink was cannily marketed as Guaraná Jesus, and the name can be seen to this day on bottles and billboards right across the state. For some reason it didn't sell well anywhere else in Brazil, and there are stories of Jesus-deprived Maranhãoans having to request family and friends to smuggle supplies south to Rio and São Paulo. This curious situation worked well for the brand at home and Guaraná Jesus came to define Maranhão, where it became the state drink. It was consumed in such amounts that it caught the eye of Brazil's number one fizzy drinks producer. In 2001 Coca-Cola bought the company.

The heavens open this afternoon as we visit the state-of-the-art bottling plant on the outskirts of São Luís where the name of Jesus, a now iconic italic graphic, shares one side of the company sign with Coca-Cola. A special Guaraná Jesus can has been designed for Bumba Meu Boi. Local pride and the drink are intertwined. But despite assurances, and despite production facts – in two-litre bottles alone, the plant produces 200,000 units of Guaraná Jesus every day – I get the feeling
that the local product is seen as very much the junior partner here. The walls by reception are covered in classic Coca-Cola ads, and the crates and delivery trucks are all in Coca-Cola red rather than Guaraná Jesus pink.

We're welcomed and shown around by a smart and publicity-conscious technocrat who is at great pains to point out that Guaraná Jesus is still a very important part of the Coca-Cola family; indeed, recently they have added a touch of Maranhãoan azulejo tiling to the label design, following a local competition.

He's coy on the subject of the blend itself, and I'm allowed the merest of glimpses into the laboratory to which the concentrate is delivered from Coca-Cola central to have sugar, water and syrup added. There is less restraint about showing us the production line, which is mightily impressive. I'm fascinated to see that the plastic bottles are made from twelve-centimetre-long templates, delivered here from Manaus. Whizzed into a machine at great heat and velocity, these finger-shaped cylinders reappear seconds later as litre bottles. As an Englishman I'm a little sad to see that the precision-engineered equipment that sends the Jesus on its roller-coaster ride from mixing vat to delivery stack is all made in Germany, Italy or France. Volume, cleanliness, efficiency and a strange beauty too.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 22: São Luís
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 102

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  • Miscellaneous
  • Day 3 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 34 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 22 
  • Pole to Pole