A Passion Reignited
Whether a frosty mug at a Stewart's drive-in or the brain-clearing rush of herbal effervescence from a freshly opened bottle of Hires at home, I grew up with a yen for root beer. Fortunately, this habit proved nonaddictive. As I moved on, the drink faded into a pleasant memory, occasionally relived but hardly a compulsion.
Neither did this early craving influence my decision to chronicle the life of Charles Elmer Hires, who turned a humble homemade root beer into an iconic national brand. Hires was an intrepid entrepreneur and an authentic American success story. His life and times would have fascinated me as much had he instead concocted a new ginger ale, pet food or soap powder.
Nonetheless, researching Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation reawakened my latent root beer thirst. I ordered an eight-pack of modern-day Hires from Amazon (of all places) and began to sample other brands. Root beer seemed to be less prevalent today and certainly less promoted in the popular media. Was the spicy, woodsy flavor enjoyed by millions during Charles Hires’ heyday fading from the public’s palate? My findings suggest otherwise.
I discovered a thriving root beer subculture, a legion of fiercely loyal aficionados who shared my taste and interest in the brew. An array of websites, Facebook pages and blogs are devoted to discussing, dissecting and exalting root beer. Some sites, it is true, are mounted by commercial bottlers eager to pitch their wares. But others are clearly labors of love maintained by dedicated root beer buffs. Among these: Root Beer Review (“Root beer reviews by root beer lovers.”); The Root-Beer Blog (“Root Beer is a goodness, government is not and freedom and liberty are worth having and so is a good Root Beer!”), the Stark Raving (Root Beer) Blog! and the Association of Root Beer Enthusiasts.
Eric’s Gourmet Root Beer Site, perhaps the most comprehensive, presents histories of the vintage brands, industry news, reviews of new craft root beers and reader comments.
After perusing the painstaking instructions offered root beer homebrewers on other websites, I decided to join their ranks. I purchased a three-ounce bottle of Zatarain’s Root Beer Extract, a product quite similar to Hires’ original, and followed his 1880 instructions closely. To my surprise, my first attempt yielded a dozen bottles of root beer that were both delicious and nicely carbonated.
I also found that the craft beer movement, instrumental in improving the quality of real beer in America, had spawned dozens of craft root beers. Brands include Virgil’s, Maine, Boylan, Fitz’s, Dominion, Saranac and Sprecher. The online Root Beer Store offers details on these brews and many others. They are available at venues ranging from soda pop stores to Trader Joe’s and even some old-style taprooms.
This proliferation of craft brewers would not have displeased Charles Hires, provided they used natural ingredients and did not infringe on his trademark. However, another modern trend – alcoholic root beer – would surely have evoked his ire. One such brew, aptly dubbed Not Your Father’s Root Beer, boasts an alcohol content over 5 percent. While all fermented root beers contain a trace of alcohol, temperance advocate Hires was forced to battle a WCTU boycott that falsely contended the level in his drink was alarmingly high.
Meanwhile, “Big Soda” continues to woo root beer fanciers with traditional offerings – Barqs, Dads, Mug, Hanks and Frosty. Dr. Pepper Snapple alone produces four root beer brands – A&W, IBC, Stewarts and Hires. Regrettably, Hires ranks lowest in the company’s promotional pecking order.
In conclusion, I am pleased to report that the drink Charles Hires perfected and so successfully promoted over a century ago is at no risk of becoming a relic. While failing to attain the popularity of Coke or Pepsi, its unique flavor still delights and inspires a discerning minority. Indeed, root beer’s longevity reminds me of jazz music, another of my long-time passions. Neither root beer nor jazz has quite managed to achieve mainstream respectability in the modern era. Yet both tenaciously continue to endure, evolve and reward those receptive to their charms.
Bill Double is a freelance writer who enjoys wandering history’s less traveled byways and celebrating its under-appreciated actors. His most recent book Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation is published by Temple University Press. “A Passion Reignited” was originally posted on North Philly Notes,a blog of TUP.