Why I Stockpiled For The Tab Apocalypse

I knew it was coming. There just weren't enough of us left — the Tab drinkers. When Coca-Cola discontinued Tab in October 2020, it ended a love affair that, for its oldest consumers, spanned six decades. It was a blow to those of us who stood by Tab our whole lives, since before Diet Coke was even invented, enduring jokes about how it tastes like 9-volt batteries.

But I loved the bitterness, which was especially pronounced in the days when it was made with saccharine. I liked bitter-tasting things as a child when I happily split grapefruits with my dieting mother and traded jellybeans with my siblings at Easter so I could have all the black ones. I had tasted the saccharine tablets my great-grandparents used to sweeten their coffee, and I savored their metallic sweetness.

My relationship with Tab began in the early 1970s when my mother stocked our fridge with 33-oz. glass bottles of Tab that she declared off-limits. (Two-liter plastic bottles didn't exist yet. Like a lot of Americans, I wasn't even sure what a liter was until after 1978.) The fact that it was forbidden made Tab seem like a mysterious, must-have elixir to me, and while my siblings drank pitchers of Choo-Choo Cherry-flavored Funny Face drink mix, I would sneak sips of the saccharine-y soft drink from its yellow starburst-flecked bottle.

Tab's mystique increased when I saw the ceiling-high stack of glass Tab bottles in a friend's garage. "My mom's a Tab addict," she explained. I asked my mother what that meant, and she explained that it meant someone "has to have something." I wondered what would happen to them if they didn't get it. With Tab now gone, I suppose I will find out — though not quite yet.

Dreams of joining the beautiful people

As a gawky pre-teen, I found Tab alluring. Coca-Cola and Pepsi were kid stuff, especially in an era when Coke commercials had every kid in America parroting "Thanks, Mean Joe." Tab, though, was unequivocally for grownups. Women in Tab ads worked out in leotards and braided headbands. Tab men wore dressing gowns and quaffed Tab from a crystal brandy glass. I imagined a future life somewhere between the two, my butler serving my Tab on a silver tray right after my Jazzercize class. The women I knew who drank Tab in real life were blue-collar housewives, chain-smoking Virginia Slims, and sunbathing while reading Cosmopolitan (in the naked Burt Reynolds and excerpts from "The Thorn Birds" era). They were far from the world that Tab advertised, but for a moon-eyed kid, it was still an adult world, sort of a "Real Housewives of East Tennessee," with everyone dressed in halter tops and bell bottoms and drinking Tab.

Even Tab's packaging spoke to me. The 1970s jingle exclaimed, "Tab, what a beautiful drink," and it really was. The canned version was a masterpiece of pop art, with a pretty pink background more beguiling than the later, more lurid, magenta shade. The letter 'A' was artistic, coiled in on itself, a hypnotic spiral evoking the meandros pattern of an Ancient Greek vase. The soda cans used to look completely different (crude pull tabs were razor sharp back then) — a reminder that beauty can be dangerous. After cutting my fingers once, I opened every Tab very slowly, like an intricately-wrapped gift. Tab was, according to the rest of the jingle, "for beautiful people," and this Tab was for me.

Identity crisis

In the 1980s, Tab was as confused as I was. We were both struggling to find our identity. For me, that meant experimenting with fashion and trying to settle on a college major. For Tab, it meant ditching saccharine for the newly-invented Nutra-Sweet, streamlining their logo, and hyping a caffeine-free version. (The identity crisis extended into the '90s with Tab Clear.) It felt like Tab was trying everything to see what would stick, sort of like me. It continued to speak to me like no other soft drink. "Tab's got sass!" proclaimed the print ads in the '80s, featuring young models in popped collars, Trilby hats, and "United Colors of Benetton" hues. That's me, I'd think. I've got sass! I was too much of an outsider to be a part of the Pepsi Generation and too much of an English literature nerd to appreciate Mountain Dew's verbifying of the word "dew."

The Tab I knew was slowly starting to disappear, and I was becoming a sort of Tab archaeologist. By now, it was missing from restaurant menus, replaced by the traitorous usurper Diet Coke. A college dorm cafeteria had the last fountain Tab I ever saw or tasted, complete with waxed paper cups bearing the old logo. I trekked the extra distance to eat there nearly every single day while that last tank of syrup held out. I found what was probably the last-ever stash of glass-bottle Tabs at an Arizona gas station and downed two of them inside before leaving with armloads. During the Cola Wars of the '80s, RC Cola positioned itself as the Bernie Sanders of the debate with a campaign that urged folks to think for themselves because "There's more to your world than Coke and Pepsi." Yes, obviously. There's Tab.

Signs of the coming apocalypse

By the '90s, people treated my affection for Tab as a novelty. "They still make that?" people asked, and I indignantly set them straight. By the 2000s, encountering another Tab drinker was becoming so rare that I felt part of a secret society. My own consumption slowed down in middle age, as I no longer consume sodas like a fiend, but after a lifetime of drinking Tab, it was a part of my identity. It also became essential to my celebrations. I took a 50th birthday selfie drinking a celebratory whiskey and Tab, and every summer, I looked forward to buying a case of it to drink as a mixer. I also brought Tab to holiday parties and gatherings so I could toast with it. (My "beautiful people" days may be over, but I still have Tab sass.)

As Tab drinkers became more scarce, so did Tab. I knew this didn't bode well. I couldn't help noticing it was getting harder and harder to find at the store, and it was clearly being phased out. Soon the two-liter bottles and six-packs of cans disappeared for good, and 12-packs were the sole way to buy Tab — if you could find it. Distribution ceased in my area in 2018, and I knew the end was near. I started buying Tab via Amazon like a prepper buys cans of Spam. When the pandemic began, I made sure I had a few extra cases (I also bought a Tab-themed face mask). I participated in a quarantine meme where people used nearby items to recreate a photo of a fur-coated influencer drinking wine. I wore a fur hoodie and held a can of Tab. Everything seemed like it would be okay.

Living in the Tab dystopia

When Coca-Cola discontinued Tab for good, I found out later than most fans. Because I had stockpiled seven cases, I hadn't been looking for it at the store. My stash has now increased in street value, but I would never dream of selling it. Instead, I treat each can like liquid gold. As much as I want to preserve my Tab forever, I know it has a shelf life. Some of the cans are already starting to go flat. I wonder about what to do with them when they still retain Tab flavor but have no bubbles. Tab granita? The day is getting closer when I will have to face life without a Tab. Is this the way the world ends for me? From whence will come my sass? I have measured my life in Fridge Packs.

On social media, fans tried to bring back Tab, launching a petition to convince Coca-Cola, but I'm too much of a skeptic to get on board. Instead, I cruise internet auctions for Tab ephemera to slake my thirst for all things Tab. I get excited when I see Tab in old movies. Matthew Broderick drinks Tab in "War Games," for the record, and Dolly Parton serves one to Dabney Coleman when he's tied up in "Nine to Five." In the movie "Silver Streak," a passenger in the dining car has two ice cube-filled glass goblets and a beautiful glass bottle of Tab. To me, it gleams like the finest crystal. To drink glass-bottled Tab on a train would be nirvana. It's a sequence that seems out of a dream but from a very real yet elusive past.

I haven't counted how many Tabs I have left, and I don't want to know. I'm a relic now, a Tab girl in a Coke Zero world.