Here’s something you probably don’t think much about: what did you used to like to drink as a kid? It’s a strange question, but follow along.
There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who drink generic beverages (e.g. Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Starbucks) and those who seek out the unusual. The latter is in the (obvious) minority, but there’s something about the idea of unique flavors, an affinity for life on the margins, that holds an unquenchable yearn for discovery that “taste-ophiles” can’t resist. Sadly nomadic consumers can rarely satisfy the financial needs of niche brands enough to sustain them. So a lot of cool drinks have come and gone throughout the years that have left a void of variety and even worse, deliciousness. This has become a recent point of contention upon discovering the truth behind the “disappearance” of one of the greatest sodas ever made: Hires Root Beer.
Food and beverage articles are no stranger to Retrobacktive. But in the past they have mostly lent to whimsy and nostalgia. But the case of Hires Root Beer is a tragic tale of deception, intrigue, and “murder.” Take this hyperbole with a grain of salt, but in lesser terms what Dr Pepper Snapple Group has done to Hires Root Beer is a shame. First, because it is (or at least was) arguably the best tasting soft drink on Earth. Second, it is unarguably the longest continuously made soft drink in the United States… but not for long.
Years ago you got cans of sodas from vending machines. You could only get cans. Why? Because bottles were made of glass and would break when released into the pickup bin. They still have vending machines today; they’re soulless and ugly and practically deliver your plastic bottle of liquid sugar in a bow. It’s exorbitant, but hey, things change. Old vending machines carried an air of mystery; their inner workings a secret that magically delivered refreshment at the push of a button. They usually displayed a big banner highlighting either Coca-Cola or Pepsi, and there was always one big button on the machine typically offering one of the two flagship sodas.
Well, here’s some news: never been a fan of cola. What the hell is it? Coca plants? What’s with the caramel aftertaste? Why is it so dry? Coke or Pepsi? Neither. And in fact now as an adult I pretty much hate soda in general and rarely drink it. But there’s something about that brown Hires button on the side of a vending machine that brings back memories of sipping a cold, fizzy beverage on a hot summer day.
Now the whole point of Retrobacktive is to examine those artifacts of the 80s that have gone the way of the Dodo. But this seems particularly cruel. Technically speaking you can still get Hires Root Beer in select parts of the United States. Very, very select parts. Why? Because Dr Pepper Snapple Group is attempting to kill Hires Root Beer via slow, painful attrition. Here’s what happened:
Charles Elmer Hires created the formula for his eponymous soft drink in 1876. Hires was a pharmacist who initially grew his product’s reputation by touting its “medicinal” properties, which was not uncommon for future soft drink makers to do for their “tonics.” Despite his day job, Hires was something of a marketing guru and even found ways to broaden his beverages appeal during the temperance movement, when anything with the word “beer” in it was frowned upon.
Hires died in 1937, but the company he founded remained family operated until 1960 when it was purchased by Consolidated Foods. Here is where the trouble begins. From this point on Hires Root Beer found itself the prodigal orphan, bounced around from one home to another. Consolidated Foods sold Hires Root Beer to Crush within two years; Crush was bought out by Proctor & Gamble in 1980; they then sold the brand to Cadbury Schweppes in 1989. When Cadbury Schweppes divested its soft drinks division in 2008 it renamed itself Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Hires Root Beer’s fate was sealed.
The problem is Dr Pepper Snapple already has a famous root beer brand, A&W. Similar to the VHS/Betamax format war, two entities exist that cannot occupy the same space. Dr Pepper Snapple sided early with A&W, but instead of halting production of Hires completely they have slowly “encouraged” bottle suppliers to handle only A&W. So if you happen to live in a part of the country that still has retailers with Hires on the shelves, snatch up those 12-packs (that’s the only way you can buy Hires now), because one by one Dr Pepper Snapple Group is going to infiltrate every bottler to phase out Hires.
Antiquity is an ugly world. Heritage less so, but still rings with a echo of dangerous sentiment, particularly in a culture bred in violence and oligarchy. But we are talking about soda here; it’s relatively harmless.* Detach yourself from the evaluation of traditions and you may still find the little pleasures in life that are worth preserving. A phone call from a friend when you are sad. Fireworks illuminating the night sky in July. A cold can of root beer on a hot day. Countless dalliances that may seem trivial are under seige from social media or groups of overly-sensitive activists. It’s a shame Dr Pepper Snapple Group can’t realize this and consider that perhaps preserving America’s oldest soft drink would be the sort of small gesture that might give the rest of an ever-changing world some healthy pause.
Not to mention it’s the best tasting root beer ever. Sadly now the exiled Atlas of the soft drink world.
* I am aware of the United States’ current epidemic of obesity, and that “harmless” is a relative term. Again, perspective: no one ought to be under the impression that soda and juice are anything more than liquid sugar. If you suck down 20 Cokes a day, on top of candy and french fries and cheese – cheese, cheese, and more cheese; this country is unhealthily obsessed with cheese – you do not have a “disease.” You are just a moron. Please drink responsibly.