How Cola Gave Molokai Clean Water

Community Contributed by Chik Hirayama

Did you know that there was once a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kaunakakai, and that carbonated beverages used to only came in glass bottles? The change from glass to aluminum and plastic started in the 1970s, because those materials are cheaper and do not break as easily.

Until Coca-Cola started to use cans, every island in Hawaii except Lanai had a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Molokai Electric Company (MECO) was the bottler here at the old power plant across from Atlas. The bottling plant also bottled other common flavored drinks aside from Coca-Cola.

I was hired by Coca-Cola of Atlanta to be the quality control chemist and syrup manufacturing supervisor of its Hawaiian division in 1948, the first local hire. I worked with Coke for two years.

We manufactured the Coca-Cola syrup from all the ingredients in a 2,500 gallon glass-lined tank. The secret flavoring ingredient was received from Atlanta in two-gallon stainless steel cans. The flavoring ingredient is supposedly a secret to this day, although lemon and cinnamon extracts are clearly discernable. The other ingredients included were phosphoric acid, sugar, coca leaf, cola nut extracts and pure caffeine. The ingredients were mixed with clean, filtered water and quality control tests were conducted on each batch. I should mention that my whole production staff consisted of two hard-working deaf mutes, from whom there was very little verbal complaint.
The municipal Kaunakakai water was surface water from the mountain. It was the softest natural water because it was essentially rain water. Because it was surface water, the water from the tap after a heavy rain was always colored reddish brown. Coca-Cola is normally supersaturated with carbon dioxide at a minimum pressure of around 3.5 atmospheres. If the water is muddy, it is difficult to carbonate the beverage to the desired pressure.

Therefore, we installed a water purification system by treating the water in a large tank with chlorine and aluminum sulfate, with subsequent filtering of solids via a sand filter and excess chlorine with carbon filter. This was probably the first bulk water purification system on Molokai. The production water was sparkling clear and the beverage quality was significantly improved. Similar water purification systems were installed at the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Hilo and Wailuku.

In 1949 the general manager was George Haygood, superintendent was Henry Yamashita and the foreman was Satoru Kawano. The latter two have descendants still active on Molokai. Young Mits Watanabe was also a worker at the bottling plant. At that time, the population on this island probably was no more than 2,500.

The Molokai bottling plant had its own brand of bottle with MOLOKAI inscribed on the bottom. Those Molokai bottles are a collector’s item today and have antique value. Some are still lying around the island.

While employed as a Coke quality control chemist, it was incumbent on me to drink a few bottles of Coke every day. Since leaving the company, I hardly drink the stuff.


3 Responses to “How Cola Gave Molokai Clean Water”

  1. bikerted says:

    Yes, I remember that. There was also a bottling plant where Ponch Alcon’s insurance office is. I remember as a young boy going over there and getting free soda fresh off the rack. It’s amazing how Molokai has gone backwards ever since.

  2. Usagi says:

    I don’t know how you could say we are going backwards. I remember back then that you couldn’t go down to Kaluakoi, Kawakiu, Hale o Lono and many places that are now public unless you were a Molokai ranch employee. Workers aren’t breathing in the Heptachlor from the pine fields and the government is not spraying DDT all over the place. Yeah some stuff would have been nice to have around but a lot of things are better now a days then back then.

  3. molokailiving says:

    I kinda agree that some things are better, BUT, I’m starting to think that maybe some of those places were better off NOT being “accessible” by all. We, all of us, learn from our mistakes…DDT, Heptachlor, Agent Orange, etc…we all know the consequences now. Molokai now is not the Molokai then…I think growing up then was different and fun. I miss the plantation way of life…not necessarily working in the fields but the close ties & bonds we had as a community. Aloha!

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