Inside The Black (Cherry) Market Of Vintage Kool-Aid Packet Collectors

This collector community is a microcosm of broader dynamics of fan culture. Really.

When you're in the mood for Kool-Aid, you can walk into a grocery store and chose from about 20 different flavor packets all priced at about a quarter a piece. However, if you're in the market for some quintessentially classic, high-grade, "Oh Yeah!"-era Kool-Aid, you'll have to enter the fruit-flavored underbelly of one the most intriguing subsets in the world of pop culture food enthusiasts: the black market of vintage Kool-Aid packet collectors.

While there's no real quantifiable way to know just how big this particular community is, the best place to pulse-check their vitality is eBay. A quick search for "Kool-Aid packet" seemed to signal the market is alive and well, returning over 250 active listings, some of which were going for triple-digit asking prices: $400 for a still- sealed case of Pink Swimmingo, $225 for a single packet of Yabba-Dabba-Doo Berry, and $195 for a single packet of one of Kool-Aid's most beloved flavor mascots, Purplesaurus Rex, just to name a few. A search for recently completed eBay auctions showed a display of 1960s Grape packets being sold for $250 and a single packet of Rock-A-Dile Red closing out at $125. The good stuff don't come cheap, my friends.

If you're scratching your head as to why people might pay hundreds of dollars for packets of unsweetened drink powder that still only cost about a quarter in the grocery store, continue on, because the vintage Kool-Aid packet collector community is a microcosm of broader dynamics of fan culture. Really.

"If you can get past the idea that we're collecting expired food, Kool-Aid is an ideal thing to collect," states Matt from Dinosaur Dracula, one of the most-visited and longest-running nostalgia sites around. (He prefers not to give his last name.) Matt has been writing about old food, movies, toys, and other pop-culture ephemera since 2000 and he routinely touts Kool-Aid as one of his most favorite subjects to write about and to collect.

While he is primarily a Kool-Aid collector, Matt occasionally rips into a vintage packet with the earnest devotion of a skilled sommelier to conduct taste tests for his readers. He writes of a 1987 packet of Surfin' Berry Punch: "I wasn't wild about the powder color, which to me felt too dim and purply for a beverage that was supposed to look like liquid firetrucks. Fortunately, it changed color as soon as it hit water, like a less braggy Great Bluedini. This was basically second grade sangria."

His description of a 1989 packet of Mountain Berry Punch: "The Kool-Aid smelled, looked, and tasted like unsettled strawberry Jell-O. It didn't have too much tartness or acidity. I'm guessing it was meant to be Kool-Aid's 'dark and sophisticated' flavor, because nothing moves posh foodies like an image of the Kool-Aid Man scaling mountains to fetch cartoon strawberries."

Right off the bat, you'll find within the community a debate over whether or not you can—or should—drink decades-old Kool-Aid. As Matt sees it, "The drinking thing is overstated. It happens, but rarely. You can and you can't. Or maybe I should say, you shouldn't, but I have."

While it's probably true that not many vintage Kool-Aid packet collectors are paying exorbitant prices with the sole intention of drinking their way through their collection, Matt does acknowledge that, "If you were ever going to eat old junk food, I suppose Kool-Aid is one of the safer bets."

"My interest in Kool-Aid is on the extreme side," Matt says. "But what I've found through covering it is that Kool-Aid seems to make everyone happy. Whether it reminds them of some long-ago family picnic or using the stuff to badly dye their hair in high school, it weirdly connects to so many personal memories. It's kind of a mutant version of Proust's madeleines."

If the portkey connection between a wall-busting anthropomorphic drink pitcher and one of the premiere French novelists of the 20th century seems potentially tenuous, it's helpful to contextualize Kool-Aid's quietly persistent presence that spans almost a century.

Kool-Aid was first conceived in the late 1920s by entrepreneurial inventor Edwin Perkins as primarily a means to save money. At the time, one of the top sellers in his catalog of household goods was Fruit-Smack, a fruit-flavored liquid concentrate housed in four-ounce glass bottles. In an effort to reduce shipping cost and eliminate breakage losses, Perkins developed a powdered version that could be sold in small envelopes.

His "Kool-Ade" debuted in 1927 (the name was officially tweaked to "Kool-Aid" about seven years later), with a variety of flavor envelopes promising to generate 10 drinks for only 10 cents. Kool-Aid's cultural entrenchment started almost immediately. Shortly after its creation, the Great Depression hit and Perkins cut the price of his product in half. Yet even at just five cents an envelope, Kool-Aid was generating over $1.5 million in annual net sales by the mid-1930s.

To help ensure its success on a national scale, Perkins sold Kool-Aid to General Foods in 1953. This move deepened Kool-Aid's reach through its first television commercials and its first mascot, Pitcher Man, a disembodied jug of Kool-Aid with a face drawn into the condensation. For a few years in the 1960s, Bugs Bunny took over as spokesman for the new "pre-sweetened" variation, appearing on flavor packets and alongside Elmer Fudd in a series of television spots.

By the mid-1970s, Bugs was gone and Pitcher Man had morphed into the six-foot tall, live-action, walking, talking, wall-busting Kool-Aid Man. By the 1980s, Kool-Aid Man's gregariously destructive presence and his iconic "Oh Yeah!" outbursts were omnipresent, thanks to a flood of memorable commercial campaigns, a comic book series through Marvel Comics and Archie Comics, and not one but two video games for Atari and Intellivision. Into the new millennium, Kool-Aid Man finally got his own balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and became a running gag across multiple episodes of Family Guy. Even as recently as last December, Kool-Aid Man was featured prominently throughout the music video for Lil Jon's holiday track "All I Really Want for Christmas," which was viewed over 2 million times in its first week alone.

As Kool-Aid Man was feverishly building his own pop cultural kingdom with bricks from decades of demolished walls, the company never forgot the most important key to its domination: the original powdered Kool-Aid packet. Even as its product line grew to include single-serve bottles and cans, Capri Sun-like Jammers pouches, Alka Seltzer-esque Fun Fizz tablets, ice cream bars, bubble gum, freezer pops, and other variations on the Kool-Aid theme, their most intense flavor innovation and creative design work remained laser-focused on their powder-in-a-packet golden goose.

Which brings us back to our collectors.

Kool-Aid has never been shy about trying unconventional flavors for short-run production or creating obscure exclusives for promotional tie-ins, all the while refreshing the packaging artwork of longtime standards. This approach has not only sustained their business model, but it has also spawned a vibrant community of collectors obsessing over the plethora of visually intriguing packets.

According to Matt, this goldilocks mixture of multiple iterations of well-known classics and hard-to-find rarities is a huge part of the draw: "There are enough packets to where you'll never be quite finished collecting, yet not so many that you'd ever feel overwhelmed by the volume."

"You can try to be a completist collector," he says, "but the beauty of collecting Kool-Aid packets is that you're never really done. I'm still finding out about new flavors and package variations all the time."

In Kool-Aid's earlier years, the flavor assortment was pretty standard fare and their naming conventions were understandably matter-of-fact. Depending on where you look for research, Kool-Aid's 1927 launch contained six (or maybe seven) flavors: Cherry, Orange, Grape, Lemon, Raspberry, and either Root Beer or Strawberry (or maybe both, again depending on your source). Over the years, a variety of other fruit flavors like Apple, Tangerine, Pink Lemonade, Tropical Punch, and the laughably posh-named Golden Nectar were rotated in and out of the production schedule. Just when it seemed like the company had tapped all of the single fruit options—and overused the generic "berry" qualifier in as many different ways as possible—multi-fruit mixes like Solar Strawberry Starfruit, Kickin' Kiwi-Lime, Oh Yeah Orange-Pineapple, and Roarin' Raspberry Cranberry joined the fold. Kool-Aid even tried its hand at a Cola flavor at one point.

During its '80s-'90s heyday, Kool-Aid added a run of character-themed flavor packets–Incrediberry, Sharkleberry Fin, Purplesaures Rex, Pink Swimmingo, Rock-A-Dile Red, and Great Bluedini–that have remained such fan favorites that the company brought back five of the six (sorry, Incrediberry) for regular production in 2014. As in any collector community, updated classics were met with mixed reactions.

"Packets of the 'side mascot' flavors were incredibly popular until Kool-Aid re-released them a few years ago," states Matt. "See how this isn't unlike most other collectibles? The company does a reissue, and the whole market goes upside-down."

It's not just the nostalgia or artwork that demarcate some of the more sought-after packets, as some of the smallest-production runs have been devoted to playful gimmicks and promotional tie-ins. If you want your Kool-Aid spiked with a smattering of knock-off Pop Rocks, Cracker Cherry was there for you in the summer of 1991. If you want some color-changing shenanigans, both original and reissue versions of Great Bluedini change from a green powder to a blue liquid. If you celebrated Halloween in Canada in 1996, then you may have found the doubly exclusive (both holiday and regional) flavors of Scary Black Cherry and Eerie Orange dropped in your trick-or-treat bucket. If you're looking for a Fred Flinstone-emblazoned packet of Yabba-Dabba-Doo Berry or Bedrock Orange, they were only available inside specially-marked boxes of Fruity Pebbles cereal in 1988. If you were a part of the "Biscuit 'N Gravy Birthday Bunch" at participating Bob Evans restaurants in the mid-'90s, you may have been gifted an exclusive packet of Cherry with Nickelodeon's Stick Stickly on it or a Lemonade with Bob Evans furry mascots Biscuit 'N Gravy on it. (I can only hope that Kool-Aid tried at least once or twice to concoct some version of biscuit-and-gravy-flavored drink).

However, even with years and years of these wild exclusives and limited variants, there seems to be no agreed-upon consensus on what certifies as the white buffalos of vintage Kool-Aid packet collecting.

"With Kool-Aid, there's a big difference between rare and desirable," explains Matt. "I have incredibly rare packets that even hardcore collectors might not be interested in, because they're just variations on more common packets. Then again, I could name a packet that I might pay $100 for, but I might be the only person in the whole world who would."

There are no real price guides or valuation resources for Kool-Aid packets to regulate commerce like there are in other collector communities for items like baseball cards or vinyl records.

"The Kool-Aid market is hilarious. I couldn't define it as either a buyers' market or a sellers' market," Matt says. "If you have something rare, you might be the only one who does, but you'd be playing to an audience of only a few people who'd actually want it and that assumes they'd even know you had it for sale. There are no set values, and no rhyme or reason to the prices."

As it is with the Kool-Aid flavors themselves, appraisal value is determined by personal taste.

"Looking at my collection, the one packet that stands tall to me personally is my Hallowe'en Cool Eerie Orange. I'd imagine the actual flavor is just regular orange Kool-Aid, but the exclusive packet art shows Kool-Aid Man in some kind of witch-pirate combo costume. You could offer me $200 for it and I still wouldn't budge, and believe me, I could use the $200."

Alongside the personal nostalgia, thrill of the hunt excitement, communal goodwill, and unadulterated enjoyment of pop culture collecting lies another interesting element that helps peel back the curtain a bit on the vintage Kool-Aid packet collecting community.

"In a weird way, it's also very safe," Matt surmises. "Nobody's Kool-Aid collection is taking over their house. Most Kool-Aid collectors can fit everything they've acquired into a shoebox. You may overspend from time to time, but certainly not regularly. I might go a year or more without investing in it at all."

After collecting vintage Kool-Aid packets for over 15 years, Matt sums up his experience in terms that aren't shaded with obsession like you'd find with many collectors.

"Collecting Kool-Aid isn't as weird as it sounds. I see people go bananas for things like Funko Pops or whatever, and that's great, but for so many reasons, I wouldn't trade hobbies with them. I can turn to it when I need an escape, but it really never demands time, money, or energy that I absolutely shouldn't spend on it."