It's allegedly the birthplace of the world's best-known soft drink, but these days, it's looking a little run-down. Lined with houses that are for sale, the streets of Aielo de Malferit in the province of Valencia are deserted. With the younger generation escaping chronic unemployment and moving to major cities such as Valencia, Barcelona and Madrid, only the elderly still live here.
Gray-haired and bespectacled, 74-year-old Juan Micó wears a white lab coat as he pours a brown liquid into a thin glass tube. Shards of pale sunlight filter through the grimy windows of his factory, and a smell of damp wood pervades the air. "The grated kola nut and herbs blended with alcohol mature in a clay jug for a month," he explains. "What happens then is a secret."
A very well-kept one. Supposedly, the recipe for his liquor -- now called Nuez de Kola Coca -- is the basis for Coca Cola. Micó gives the glass tube another shake, as if to check the liquid's consistency. It sloshes around gently. Then he asks his visitors if they want to try it. It's extremely sweet -- sugar beet molasses are bland in comparison. "It's better to mix it with water rather than to drink it pure," he advises. "Women like it with milk."
The first version of Nuez de Kola Coca was invented more than 120 years ago by the founders of Micó's factory. Even today, people come from far and wide to sample it -- sometimes, entire coachloads of visitors.
The history of Aielo's Fábrica de Licores dates back to 1880. The factory was founded by Bautista Aparici, Ricardo Sanz and Enrique Ortiz. The three entrepreneurs began manufacturing quality products -- including liquors with such imaginative names as Perfecto Amor (Perfect Love), Lágrimas de Contribuyente (Tears of the Taxpayer) and Placer de Damas (Ladies' Pleasure).
Aparici, who was in charge of sales, was soon traveling from the Spanish province to trade fairs in Rome, Paris, London and Chicago. In 1885 he went to Philadelphia with a new beverage in his luggage. Called Kola Coca, it was made from the caffeine-rich fruit of African kola nut trees and the leaves of Peruvian coca plants, and promptly scooped an innovation prize. Before he left, Aparici gave some American sales representatives a few samples. Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps it wasn't -- but just one year later, US pharmacist John Pemberton made history when he invented Coca-Cola.
Back in Aielo, Micó is standing in his office, looking at his framed collection of medals and honors. Kola Coca won the company awards in Milan in 1881, in Chicago in 1883, in Philadelphia in 1885, in London in 1889 and in Paris in 1900.
"A total of 20 gold medals and 10 honorary diplomas," Micó says with pride. He points to the collection as evidence. He believes wholeheartedly that the basis of Coca-Cola was invented in Aielo de Malferit. "It was easy to copy a beverage in those days," he says. "Patents were only registered if a product proved successful." His predecessors only patented the Nuez de Kola Coca formula in Spain in 1903. But by then, Coca-Cola was already well on its way to iconic status in the US.
Half a century later, the two companies finally crossed paths. When Coca-Cola decided it was time to move into the Spanish market, there was no way of avoiding the small factory in Aielo de Malferit. In 1953, Coca Cola executives visited provincial Spain and acquired the rights to the name from Joaquin Juan Sanchis, who was then the owner of the factory.
It was allowed to go on producing Kola Coca, but only an alcoholic version. Nuez de Kola Coca has been a liquor ever since. The deal is believed to have been worth 30,000 pesetas, but no one knows for sure, since records have been destroyed. It was definitely a lot of money, says Micó.
The Final Chapter
But it was only a fraction of what it could have been. In 2011, Coca-Cola celebrated its 125th anniversary as one of the world's best-known brands. "If we had only a tiny percentage of its shares, we would be millionaires," remarks Micó.
As things stand, his business now consists of little more than an old factory with a peeling facade, a worn stone floor and a few dozen wooden barrels. The business changed hands many times before Micó bought it in 1971. He had worked there for eight years, starting out as an employee and advancing through the ranks to become sales manager. In those days, the company numbered nearly 40 employees. Today, only four are left.
"The business has become difficult," he says, now that overseas companies have cornered the market. Most traditional businesses have closed down, he explains, and these days his company is just a wholesaler.
Micó also works as a farmer so he can make ends meet. Recently, his company also took over sales for a major Spanish brewery. "The liquor factory is basically just a hobby these days," he says. "We want to keep the tradition alive, so it doesn't get lost forever, but we can no longer invest in it."
While Coca-Cola continues to rake in the profits, Kola Coca's days are numbered. Micó hopes to head the company for another five or six years. Then his son José Juan will take over.
"After that, this chapter in history will probably come to an end once and for all," says Micó.