Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hires

The Pocket-Pooj is a patent-pending original.

(The Root Beer Store, September 2015)

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you already know some of the history, significance, and unfortunate decline of Hires Root Beer.  Much better-written and more detailed accounts are available here and here, but long story (relatively) short, Pennsylvania pharmacist Charles Hires first brought root beer to the forefront of the American consciousness when he introduced his version of the beverage to fair-goers at the 1876 Philadelphia US Centennial Exposition.  While the origins of the beverage are still up for debate – legend says that Hires discovered a “root tea” years prior, during his honeymoon, while other sources suggest that he created it at the behest of pre-Prohibition temperance movement leaders – its seemingly meteoric rise in popularity can be fairly attributed to Hires himself.  Hires first marketed solid concentrate and powdered versions of root beer – claiming that it could purify the blood and bring color to the cheeks, among other health benefits – before shifting production to kegs and liquid concentrates for soda fountains as well as at-home mixing in your very own Hires Automatic Munimaker (additional source).

By 1890, Hires and his company, appropriately named the Charles E. Hires Company, had started small-bottling operations for commercial sale, and sales of these bottles and home-mix extracts would continue for close to another 100 years.  Sadly, Hires Root Beer’s slow death stretched through the latter half of that century of production.  Hires handed over his company to his sons in 1925, and the company would continue to flourish under the family’s watch until 1960, when it was purchased by Consolidated Foods.  Just two years later, Consolidated Foods sold the company again to Crush International, which was purchased in its entirety by Proctor & Gamble in 1980 and sold again to Cadbury Schweppes in 1989 (source).  By the time Cadbury Schweppes divested its soft drinks branch into the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group in 2008, Hires’ parent company had already decided to slowly phase Hires out of production in order to promote its own A&W line (source).

Lest you feel bad for Charles Hires himself, fret not, since he actually did quite well for himself after leaving the company he started.  He would later become one of the world’s experts on vanilla, writing a book on the subject from knowledge he gleaned in the wholesale vanilla bean business (source).  I’m inclined to believe that this expertise resulted in Hires, however peripherally, continuing to influence the product that he made into a household staple.

Personally, I recall seeing Hires Root Beer around here and there as a kid, and even remember drinking a fair amount of it during summer music camp in elementary school.  With production now scarce, distribution limited to a handful of states of which California is not one, I don’t think I had seen any Hires Root Beer in any form at all for at least a couple decades.  I was thus very pleasantly surprised to find a canned version in Washington during a recent foray into the Pacific Northwest (more on that to come).

Decanted into a glass, Hires has a satisfyingly thick head of foam that stays on top of the pour for a while, then sticks around the edges for the remainder of its time in said glass. Surprisingly, there isn’t much of a scent to speak of.  Also surprisingly, it has a relatively rich and smooth texture for a HFCS-sweetened soda.  The flavor is a good balance of sweetness and herbal, somewhere between A&W and Barqs, with a menthol finish (possibly some wintergreen then) that lasts for a long time in the aftertaste.  While there’s nothing that stands out in particular, there’s a good mix of everything that I would typically refer to as a “generic” root beer flavor.  Ordinarily that “generic” label would relegate a root beer to the realm of mediocrity, but considering that (1) Hires quite probably executes the “generic” root beer flavor better than everyone else, and (2) Hires is quite probably the flavor that every other “generic” root beer flavor aims to emulate to begin with, I tend to view that “generic” label very favorably in this case.  My only gripe is that it doesn’t use real sugar, but I’m OK with that for the most part because it still tastes really good.

Am I perhaps giving the current Hires label the benefit of the doubt because of what the original label has meant to the history of root beer?  Yeah, probably.  But the fact of the matter is that I would easily drink this again whenever the opportunity presents itself, and might even consider having it shipped here so that the opportunity presents itself more often.  So by that rationale, Hires Root Beer warrants a 4.5.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I too like this root beer. You can special order this stuff through Ralhps grocery by calling their gourmet food number, although it can be expensive. I do that every once in a while, because I crave the flavor of this stuff. I too agree that the taste is very generic-original tasting; however, it is done very very well. I would love to try this stuff in a glass bottle with cane sugar though. I gave this one a 4. It has a nice strong flavor without tasting weird.

Win said...

Thanks for the tip about Ralph's -- I'll check to see if they can do that in CA. Otherwise, I suppose there's always giving Amazon a try...? The case that they had on the shelf at The Root Beer Store was your standard/supermarket/12-pack/cardboard case, so it would seem that it's at least sold like that somewhere. The person at the store didn't know where the case was purchased from, and I didn't actually ask her if I could buy a whole case anyways, since I would have had to ship it to CA. Given that I had already bought a whole case of other things, I couldn't really justify the cost of shipping even more stuff back home :P

I'd also be curious to see if it comes in glass; I only remember seeing it in a can, even when I was a kid (I can't even remember if I'd ever seen it in 2-liter plastic bottles).