Root Beer: An Exclusively American Soft Drink

HiresAs a young boy growing up in a very modest home in North Texas suburbia, much of what is taken for granted in today’s society was for me an extravagance. That especially included bottled soda, which was a treat reserved for special occasions such as watching a baseball game at LaGrave Field with my father, or the monthly family outing for burgers. And for me, a bottle of ice cold Hires Root Beer was as much the highlight of the evening as the event itself.

Even today, there is something about a frothy mug (or bottle) of a flavorful root beer that I find extremely relaxing and perhaps a bit more refreshing than other soft drinks.

220px-Birch_beer_stillExactly when root beer was invented is not really clear. Most food historians agree that it actually started in Europe with small beer, a homebrewed beverage made from various roots, barks, berries, and herbs that proved much healthier than the drinking water of the time. And because it was also drank by women and children, the alcoholic content was almost non-existent. Thus the name, small beer.

Upon their arrival to North America, colonists soon began searching for ingredients to use in once again brewing their own beer. Since at first they did not have the barley, corn, and other grains for the process, they used whatever was available. They also discovered that Native Americans boiled the roots of sarsaparilla and sassafras plants to flavor a tea like beverage. Upon trying it, they were pleased with the taste and its similarity to spruce and birch. They soon adopted the practice to produce small beer, often using molasses as a sweetener and fermenting agent.

By the nineteenth century, pharmacists throughout the country were experimenting with herbal concoctions in an effort to find a pleasant tasting “cure-all” beverage. Then in 1876 one such pharmacist, Charles Hires, discovered an herbal tea recipe while on his honeymoon. When he returned, he began selling this new “root tea” at his drugstore. Hires, an active member of the temperance movement, eventually changed the name of his beverage to root beer, partially in order for his non-alcoholic drink to appeal to Pennsylvania’s heavy beer drinking miners.

HiresExtractLater that year, Hires presented his root beer to the public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition by giving away free mugs of the drink. He also demonstrated how to make five gallons of root beer from a single packet of his root beer powder. Four years later, Hires had perfected and began selling root beer concentrate to local brewers around the country. Hires Root Beer was so popular that within the first year Charles had sold more than 115,000 glasses of the stuff. In 1893, just eighteen months after he began selling his root beer at the pharmacy, Hires began producing and distributing bottled root beer. He continued to lead his company until 1925 when his sons took over the business.

imgresOne of Hires’ earliest competitors was Barq’s, which debuted in 1898. At first Barq’s was not marketed as root beer in order to avoid a legal battle with Hires, who was attempting to claim a trademark of the term. Barq’s Root Beer, marketed simply as Barq’s, was very different from Hires and other root beers of the time. It was sarsaparilla based, contained less sugar, had a higher carbonation, and less of a foamy head than other brands. Today, Barq’s is one of the nation’s leading root beers.

First A&W Root Beer StandAnother of today’s popular root beers is A&W. In 1919, Roy Allen set up a root beer stand at a parade honoring returning World War I veterans. It was such a hit that he partnered with Frank Wright to open a permanent root beer stand in Lodi, California using the initials of their last names as the brand name. They soon opened a second stand in Sacramento. Roy bought out his partner in 1924 and pursued a franchising program for his stands becoming the first restaurant chain to do so. By 1933, there were more than 170 franchised A&W restaurants and by 1950, another 450 had opened. In addition to franchising, A&W was responsible for a couple of other restaurant firsts–the “drive-in concept” and “tray-boys” for curbside service.

IBCThe prohibition of 1919 brought about another of today’s popular root beers, IBC Root Beer. Named after the company that developed it, Independent Breweries Company of St. Louis, it too was developed as an alternative to alcoholic beverages. Shortly after introducing IBC Root Beer, the brewery was forced to close and the IBC trademark was purchased by the Kranzberg family who produced and distributed IBC Root Beer at their Northwestern Bottling Company for almost twenty years before selling the brand to National Bottling Company in the late 1930s. After a succession of various owners, this renowned root beer is owned today by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which continues to bottle it in its traditional brown glass bottle.

Today there are well over one hundred brands of bottled root beers on the market, plus many more if one includes diet versions, private store labels (such as Chek, Big K, etc.), and those available only at soda fountains. And because many of the brands are distributed only locally or at best regionally, it’s all but impossible to create a valid list of America’s best tasting root beers. That being said, you are likely to find IBC, Hires, Barq’s, A&W, Dad’s, and Mug brands on almost every top ten root beer list you encounter, although not necessarily in that order.

maar_top_root_beers_vOne other interesting fact about root beer is that, except for a couple of Canadian brands and one Australian brand, you’ll not find root beer anywhere else in the world. It is an exclusively American soft drink. In fact, I’m told that the only taste other countries find more disgusting than root beer, is a root beer float. It seems they simply can’t understand why anyone would want to pour a medicinal flavored beverage such as root beer over perfectly good ice cream. Oh well, I guess there’s just no explaining some people’s tastes. Hey, anyone ready for another root beer?

Buy Em: To purchase over ninety root beer brands, go to

Try Em: DIY Old Fashioned Root Beer, Slow Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork, Root Beer Float Pie


Grapette: America’s Once Favorite Grape Soda Makes a Comeback

Whether you call it pop, soda, soda pop, or coke (a generic term), the soft drink industry in this country is huge–more than 50,000-gallons-per-American-per-year huge!

By the late nineteenth century, bottled soda had come of age in America with over five hundred bottling plants producing some 260 million bottles of soda a year. In 1888, Dr Pepper, invented three years earlier in Waco, Texas, became the first cola sold in bottles, followed five years later by Coca-Cola.

Over the next four decades, vast improvements and dramatic innovations were made in packaging and bottling including the introduction of the canned soft drink. Also, this period saw the introduction of many new brands and exciting flavors, many of which are still with us today–Pepsi, Dad’s Root Beer, 7Up, Canada Dry, Orange Crush, RC, and Big Red to name just a few.

In 1925, Benjamin Tyndle Fooks, a Camden, Arkansas service station owner, borrowed four-thousand dollars and purchased a small soft drink bottling plant on the town’s main street. The early years of his new company were ones of experimentation, especially in flavor development. Although sometimes a struggle, the business was successful and two years later Fooks (pronounced like “folks”) bought a second bottling plant in Arkadelphia, about sixty miles from Camden. In early 1928, a third plant was purchased in nearby Hope, Arkansas.

Unfortunately, the stock market crash in the fall of 1929, and the depression that followed, brought on tough times, and Fooks found it necessary to do much of the work himself in order to keep his plants open–mixing and bottling soft drinks, driving delivery trucks, even making peanut patties and coconut brittle to supplement sales. As business conditions worsened, Tyndle was forced to sell the Arkadelphia building, close the one in Hope, and began selling “Fooks Flavors” from his car to other bottling plants throughout Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas. After each trip, he would return to Camden and produced the flavors he had sold.

Over the next few years, Fooks became known throughout the United States for his high-quality flavor concentrates, and by 1936, he had established the B. T. Fooks Manufacturing Company to market his line of flavors.

Through the sales of his “Fooks Flavors,” it became evident that grape flavored drinks were by far the most popular. It also became clear that in spite of its popularity, there were very few grape sodas on the market. This knowledge prompted Fooks to begin searching for a formula that would produce a soft drink flavor that tasted of fresh grape juice. After two years of intense and constant experimentation, and several grape flavors later, the taste that was to become Grapette was finally developed.

At the same time Fooks was developing his “just right” grape flavor, he also began searching for a name for his soft drink. In 1939, Fooks learned that Rube Goldstein, an existing flavor concentrate customer in Chicago, had trademarked the names “Grapette,” “Lemonette,” and “Orangette,” but never used them. So in March of 1940, Tyndle purchased all three trademarks for five-hundred dollars, and Grapette was born.

The soft drink , with its “Thirsty or Not,” slogan was an immediate success. First and foremost, consumers loved the unique, refreshing grape taste. Another reason for its popularity was the innovative clear, six-ounce bottle that allowed the purple grape color to be seen through the glass. And because Grapette’s bottle was smaller and thinner, it chilled faster than other soft drinks and more bottles would fit into refrigerators and coolers.

Bottlers also liked Grapette’s bottle because it used less glass to produce and therefore was less expensive to purchase. The smaller size allowed thirty bottles to fit into a smaller case–actually three inches shorter than the competitor’s case of twenty-four. The case also weighed ten pounds less when full, so bottlers were able to use lighter delivery trucks than other brands–all important savings.

In 1942, prior to the second World War, wealthy oil man R. Paul May acquired the international rights to Grapette in order to develop a Latin America market for the new grape soda providing the fast growing company a presence outside the United States. May sold his first franchise in Guatemala City in 1945, quickly followed by other Latin American cities.

After the war, the company’s name was changed from B. T. Fooks Manufacturing to The Grapette Company, and with the change, sales continued to spiral upward. In 1946, the company added Lemonette to its product line, and the next year, Orangette. Both of these successful new flavors were “true-flavor” soft drinks containing large amounts of real fruit juice. By 1948, The Grapette Company had added two additional product lines, The Botl-O and Sunburst, each having fourteen flavors.

Also in 1948, the company introduced another industry first–its famous “Animal” syrups. These eight-ounce kitten shaped glass containers were filled with fruit flavors that could be mixed with water to produce a gallon of economical non-carbonated drink for just thirty-three cents. As an added bonus, the screw-on lids of these whimsical bottles were slotted so when empty the cap’s cardboard liner could be removed and the container used as a child’s bank. While demand for Grapette’s animal syrups proved to be extremely successful, the manual labor involved in filling, labeling, and sealing the irregular shaped bottles proved too slow and costly, so the search for a replacement was began. By 1953, the elephant bottle/bank was introduced enabling production to increase to more than 10,000 cases a day.

Just ten short years after its introduction, Grapette had risen to become the most popular grape flavored beverage in the nation and the seventh largest soft drink company in the industry. In its peak years, Grapette was produced by more than 600 bottlers in thirty-eight states.

In 1972, Fooks sold The Grapette Company to Rheingold Corporation, marketers of beer as well as some regional soft drinks. Three years later, Pepsico began a hostile takeover of Rheingold and, in order to complete the transaction, sold Grapette to the Monarch Beverage Company who promptly shelved the product in favor of their own NuGrape brand.

Fortunately, in 1962 Paul May had officially formed Grapette International as a separate entity from The Grapette Company and was not part of its sale to Rheingold. Still very popular in South America as well as Caribbean and Pacific Rim countries, Grapette International continued to successfully market its products. On the domestic front, they also began producing various private label soft drinks made from the company’s original flavor formulas.

In the late 1980s, Sam Walton, founder of Walmart stores, told Brooks Rice, May’s son-in-law and then chairman of Grapette International, “I want Grapette in my stores.” And while at that time he was unable to provide Walton with the Grapette brand name, he made a pledge that one day he would fulfill the request.

Finally, in early 2000, after numerous attempts to purchase back the U.S. rights to the lost trademarks, Grapette International was successful. In 2005, Grapette and Orangette once again became available exclusively at Walmart stores across the nation making it possible for consumers to once again enjoy the authentic flavor of America’s once favorite grape soda–Thirsty or Not!

Buy Em: Walmart stores nationwide

Make Em: The Purple Cow Ice Cream Float, The Purple Cow Smoothie, Grapette Soda BBQ Sauce